If my first culinary introduction was through my mother and growing up in what many consider the food capital of Italy, the second one came via my friend R., who hasn’t been in my life for over 20 years. This is turning out to be a time of homecomings and I wonder if people, reaching middle age, start looking back and think of what could have been different. I am not immune and how else to explain unexpected skeletons jumping out of closets sealed shut a long time ago?
Acquaintances can come and go but, in my life, friendships stay forever, despite time, distance, marriages and all the other stuff that happens to adults. I am utterly incapable of letting go of those I love or have loved. Friends sometimes marvel at how I stubbornly keep in touch with most of my ex boyfriends. What can I say? Just because the love has gone, it doesn’t mean that the qualities that attracted me in the first place are not there anymore. And why give up something good?
R and I met in college – she was taller than any of us girls, blonde, beautiful, exuberant and a tad eccentric. As with all my best friends, we became close quickly. R was a model of independence: her family lived in Ferrara while she had her very own apartment in Bologna, in the university neighbourhood, atop four flights of stairs. It was minuscule and bohemian and it fast became my favourite hangout and many a night were spent in there until the wee hours, with bundles of friends who seemed to rotate. But R and I were constant. I loved sitting at the square table while she concocted lunch with ingredients that were unfamiliar to me: tofu, seaweed, sesame seed. Dishes out of magazines or straight from her grandmother’s kitchen. I admired her creativity, in all things from painting to writing stories to inventing food and herself.
Then college finished, life began and I chose to move to London. But that is not why our friendship took a detour. I remember a phone call in the middle of August from R’s boyfriend – I was in the office, at my desk, rain outside while summer was raging in Italy. R was not well and those words were the beginning of a long, uphill journey for R, one that no one would have expected, least of all herself.
Whenever I travelled home, I would seek her out, looking forward to the four flights of stairs,to the pot of tea she would make and the stories we would exchange. But somehow things changed – I felt like I became a reminder of the time her world started to alter, the embrace a little more distant, the pot of tea slower in coming. So I stopped calling. Or that is what I remember, my selfish one side of this story.
R was the second of three friendships that left my life. The first ran from me and with just cause – I had slept with her boyfriend, a lifelong lesson I never repeated. The third happened recently and it is much more complicated, less black and white than betrayal. Still, every time, the pain is just as searing and, in the case of R, and of the mad adventures we shared, a part of her has always been with me. Always wondering whether I would bump into her, walking around Bologna but I never did.
Until a few days ago, when R e-mailed me a recipe. Just like that – a pumpkin recipe from her hometown, Ferrara, famous for the use of pumpkin in its traditional food. She asked me whether I ever use pumpkin in my cooking. How do you start after 20 years?
Food might be a good place.