Rocco has many friends, one of which is Marcus, a dog on the brink of fame. Justine van der Leun found Marcus while living in Umbria, a beautiful, rustic region in central Italy. Her memoir Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love was released yesterday by Rodale. Today, we are very excited to share with you a piece that Justine wrote exclusively for Good. Food. Stories. about her experiences with family, love and pork.
A pork chop followed by cured pork topped in pork sauce paired with a side of pork.
This is Umbrian cuisine, simplified. This is the diet that nearly imploded my fresh Italian romance. This is the diet that drove me temporarily mad. This is also the diet that changed how I think about food forever.
I moved to a 200-person Umbrian village the way only a 25-year-old woman in love with a foreign gardener can: Immediately, unironically, entirely. I had met Emanuele on vacation. Three weeks later, I pledged to return for good. I just had to sublet my apartment in Brooklyn, pack all of my worldly possessions, and score a one-way ticket to my new life. No biggie.
It didn’t occur to me that one of the most disconcerting and unfamiliar aspects of the move would be my brand new diet. My brand new, inescapable, pork-filled diet.
Of all the strangeness that I faced as an expat—language barriers, social constraints—it was the culinary culture shock that threw me for the biggest loop. This was the Slow Food Movement before it had a name. This was hardcore local eating. This was a place where I, a New Yorker accustomed to global cuisine, could not get a taco.
“What is a taco?” the Italians asked. “What is Thai food? Sushi?” When I explained it to them, they turned green.
“Che schifo!” they shrieked. How gross!
From the beginning, I ate with Emanuele’s family, a group of people I immediately adored. I ate as landlocked rural people have always eaten: Home-raised meat, potatoes from the cellar, wine from the vineyard, and minimal greens in the winter. Emanuele’s mother, Serenella served me clean, well-prepared, homemade food every night. I was in the cocoon of a new family, exploring a brutal and beautiful countryside. It should have been blissful.
And yet, after a month of Serenella’s food, I would have begged, robbed, and mauled for a smoothie. Or an imported Chilean orange. Or a falafel pita. Even at the local restaurants, one menu prevailed: 20 types of pizza (salsiccia, salame); pork chops; prosciutto; a porchetta sandwich. There were exceptions: A luscious arugula slice; a creamy black truffle pie; a crisp antipasto dish; sautéed, garlicky greens. But in the end, the flavors were monotonous. To a local, they tasted like home. To a guest, they tasted like the rustic countryside. But a month into my stay, they were making me claustrophobic. I was accustomed to variety. Like someone who’s watched too much reality TV, I couldn’t focus on a classic novel.
One day, sitting on the concrete floor of the mansion where Emanuele worked as a groundskeeper, I wrote an email to a friend back home. I wrote in a word document on Emanuele’s computer because it was impossible to stay hooked up to an internet connection for long enough to finish an entire email.
In my letter, I bemoaned my new life: I focused on the relentlessness of the cuisine. I was used to Caribbean chicken stews and three-spice fish tacos, to banh mi with crunchy pickled cucumbers, to green tofu curry, southern-fried chicken. From my apartment in Brooklyn, I could dial 100 numbers and get thousands of dishes delivered to my door. What I would give for a cheeseburger or some lo mein—anything to break up the wretched monotony of il maiale. The dreaded pig.
Before I sent my email, I saved it on Emanuele’s computer. Then I left town for a week, on a work trip. While I was away, Emanuele called to say he had found the email. In which I insulted his mother’s cooking and praised my urban culture above his.
“You know the perfect place to leave a letter like that?” my coworker asked.
“On his desktop.”
I buried my head in my hands.
Later, after tearful apologies, I received an email from Emanuele.
In NY you can find open the shops every hours but you can’t have the total silence that you have here. You can eat every most different food from the world, but this food is cocked for money and no with love. And here you ate every day love, no only food.
Minus the unfortunate use of “cocked,” the email was spot on. Emanuele’s family raised a pig on soupy, salty table scraps and stale bread. Emanuele’s father visited the pig every day, feeding it, mucking out its stall, talking to it in a hushed voice. Emanuele’s brother killed this pig by hand, slitting its throat, mopping up its blood, washing it clean, shaving it down.
Emanuele’s mother butchered this pig on a tarpaulin laid out on her wooden table, and placed its liver between sage leaves to roast over an open flame. His father cured the shanks for months in the back cellar. His mother pan-fried the chops in a heavy iron pan filled with hot, bubbling olive oil the family made from their own olives, picked by hand on the land they’d owned for generations.
And then she served it to me. She put it on my plate, in front of my seat, where I sat every night. I ate the pork chop, which tasted like their land, with wine from their tiny vineyard. I sopped up the oil with bread that they had delivered daily from the bakery down the road. And then I reclined in front of their loud, bright television, on their soft couch. These people had almost nothing—no more than their land and each other. And they gave me everything they could.
Meanwhile, I was cranky because I couldn’t get an egg roll delivery at 4:00 am?
Around this time, I reevaluated my approach to Umbrian food.
I accompanied Emanuele and his brother on a mushroom hunt. I accompanied Serenella on an asparagus-finding mission. I learned how to cook tomato sauce (sort of). I accepted offers of fresh, homemade tagliatelle from Emanuele’s grandmother. I helped pick the olives. I carried baskets of eggs from the chicken coop while praying that a chicken would not touch me. I was now involved with my food, not just from the moment it hit my plate, but from the moment it was plucked from the earth or the tree or the nest.
With time and patience, I felt my palate change. I no longer craved so many different flavors. I lost weight, probably due to the complete lack of processed food in my diet. I forged a deeper connection to what I ate: For the first time ever, I could taste when food was pure and when it contained additives. I could taste when it had been on a factory line and when it had been prepared by hand.
One revelatory year later, I returned to America without Emanuele but with a new sensibility. Now, whether the devoted chef was at her home or in a restaurant kitchen, I could taste her commitment or lack thereof. I could ask the right questions about a dish; I could see when a menu had been compiled with care. When someone slopped food thoughtlessly on my plate, I felt a new and unfamiliar sense of deep sadness. The only food I ever truly enjoyed eating, whether it was Umbrian or Indian or American, was food cooked with love. Or, more accurately, “food cocked for love.” I wanted to eat, as Emanuele had directed, love: “Every day love.”
The other thing I enjoyed? Pork. I’d built up something of a tolerance for the stuff.