Friday, July 28, 2017

Murder in Matera

Inspiration comes from many sources. The inspiration for tonight’s dinner came from a book I finished this morning, 'Murder in Matera' by Helene Stapinski. It’s not fiction, but it does contain the elements of a mystery: the book is a story about a murder in rural Basilicata in the late 1800s. The author grew up with family stories about Vita, her great-great grandmother, who had supposedly killed someone in a provincial southern Italian town and then had run away to the US.

We’re a country of immigrants and we all grew up with family stories, many of them filled with sadness and hardship, of why our great-grandparents emigrated to a new country. Few of us have ancestors who left their homelands because they were wealthy or ensconced in comfort. On the contrary. Our ancestors ran from military service; left home and family because no matter how much they worked, the wealth flowed to landowners who exploited the poor to squeeze out the last bit of money and life; or simply lost their homes to war.

Most of us don’t go back to our ancestral homes to find out what really happened. Stapinski was haunted by the stories her mother and grandmother had passed down to her. And like all families, her mother’s tales also included the exploits of a number of unsavory characters. Stapinski worried that these wayward relatives and the ‘original sin’ of her great-great grandmother had tainted Stapinki’s children. Would they too commit crimes because they had ‘criminal’ genes?

Stapinski’s first trip to her great-great grandmother’s home town in Basilicata resolved none of her questions. She could find no one who remembered stories similar to her own and had no success when she tried to locate official records. She returned home only with frustration and questions.

Ten years later she returned to Italy, and this time was prepared to tackle local archives and records. She enlisted the help of several people who understood the history of Basilicata and were able to help her research old records. She found more records than she had ever believed possible and was able to piece together Vita’s story, her early years growing up in a poor family, her marriage in Basilicata, and her eventual emigration to Jersey City, New Jersey. A story emerges of a strong, determined woman, a woman who persisted, despite the disease, poverty, and hopelessness of her homeland.

Pasta con fagiolini
I finished the book this morning, but I was not ready to pull myself away from Basilicata. The book, which also included descriptions of a meal or two, left me remembering the flavors that are so much a part of the southern Italian landscape. 

Toward the end of the book, Stapinski mentioned a local recipe for pasta con fagiolini (pasta with beans). I googled it and found a perfect summer recipe: green beans sautéed with onions and simmered in tomatoes, then tossed with whole-grain spaghetti. So, that’s what I made tonight.

Papaya salad
Green beans were abundant in the market this morning, as were San Marzano tomatoes. I also found a chunk of pecorino, a tangy sheep’s cheese. I tossed in a bit of fennel pollen, too—which I don’t think is inappropriate because wild fennel grows abundantly throughout southern Italy. I topped the pasta with grated pecorino. I added a papaya-cucumber salad to round out the meal, an addition that Vita would have found impossibly exotic, and most likely would not have approved. But despite such 'embroideries' on my part, as I ate, I still felt immersed in Basilicata’s history, in Vita’s life, and in 'Murder in Matera' for a bit longer.