November 07, 2018I smell the garlic the minute I get out of my car. It's sort of dark and rainy, but like a sensory magnet, that sharp, familiar scent pulls me safely through the dim garage and into the lively kitchen of Virginia and Giancarlo.
It's Bagna Cauda night — (literal translation "hot bath") and I can't wait to take a hearty dip.
Giancarlo, who originates from the Piedmont region in Italy, brought the tradition to my family several years ago, and ever since we've lamented that it only happens once a year.
The classic regional dish is something the Piedmontese serve on All Souls Day around the beginning November. This year, the tradition is resurrected in honor of my parents on this Holy Day.
Garlic is at the heart of this simple meal, lots and lots of it. One whole head for each person being served. It's soaked overnight in milk — Giancarlo says that takes some of the bitterness out of it—then chopped into tiny pieces, and sauteed and slow cooked in a mixture of olive oil, minced anchovies and heavy cream. It's like a thick, smooth, golden colored soup, spooned up by a variety of vegetables. Roasted peppers, potatoes, cabbage, green onions, radicchio, and just about anything else you can think of. And of course, there's the bread. Crusty on the outside and airy on the inside, perfect for soaking up whatever is left in the bowl.
The tradition is so big in Italy the Piedmontese have created and circulated some memes about it. Giancarlo shows us some of the best ones, messaged to him from friends in his old hometown. The meme involving Donald Trump is hilarious, and I think it's one thing I'm in agreement with. There's another one involving Megyn Kelly interviewing Vladimir Putin about Bagna Cauda. The "interview" is conducted in Italian, and Putin says the regional dish is not his favorite...he prefers anchovies in green sauce (another Piedmontese specialty). We're laughing at the lengths the Italians go to for Bagna Cauda day, but we're not surprised
one bit. The delicacy is truly a taste of heaven
As we proceed with the dinner, the wine flows along with the laughter. We take our time, lingering over the little clay pots in front of us that bubble with the garlicky goodness.
At each seat at the table, Giancarlo and Virginia offer us an English translation that makes the annual celebration even more poignant and special as far as I'm concerned. It's called an 'Ode to Bagna Cauda,' and was written by Giovanni Goria, former Italian Prime Minister and president of the Culinary Institute of Italy.
She explains it as follows:
It is for all those who love and understand. It is the symbol of the cuisine and character of the people of Piedmont.
It is the honor and remembrance of our ancestors that farmed the land and made wine.
It is a ritual celebrated in unison to honor brotherhood and friendship. It is a delicious delight of our traditional flavors.
It is not rough and heavy, on the contrary it is natural and healthy. Garlic will not hurt you, it is beneficial. It isn't the smell of garlic that puts off an intelligent and open person, but only their ignorance and prejudice.
In short, the garlic breath will pass after a beautiful walk in the woods.
After four hours around the dinner table, suffice it to say the "beautiful walk in the woods" required to eliminate the garlic breath seems it'll require more of a marathon hike through the forest.
Sunday morning, Dawn and Virginia are off to the Italian American Club in Livonia, for a special All Souls Day mass that includes remembrance of our mom.
Family, food, fond memories, fun. What blessings! What gifts!
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Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.