Mountains of polenta and a sea of grappa: Los Angeles circa 1994

Late last year, when I was asked to contribute to a collection of essays dedicated to and inspired by my UCLA dissertation advisor, mentor, and friend, poet, scholar, gourmet, and gourmand, Luigi Ballerini (above), I decided to chronicle the Italian food scene in Los Angeles circa 1994. The Italian regional cuisine phenomenon had yet to explode in the U.S. but the City of the Angels was already awash in a sea of grappa: with Bloomian anxiety of influence, Angelino restaurateurs had embraced two of Italy’s most humble (however beloved) food stuffs — polenta and grappa — and anointed them as queen mother and queen (respectively) of Italian cuisine.

At the time, Luigi and I were working on a wonderful translation of his poetry that would become Cadence of a Neighboring Tribe. And Luigi was just beginning to shift his focus to gastronomy. Among many other articles, translations, and essays, our collaboration led to an English-language annotated edition of The Art of Cooking by fifteenth-century Italian celebrity chef Maestro Martino (UC Press 2005) — one of my most proud moments as a scholar and translator.

    Three of the most powerful and enduring memories of my years working closely with Luigi Ballerini involve food (and/or the lack thereof).

    The one is an image in his mind’s eye, a scene he often spoke of: Milan, 1945, the then five-year-old Ballerini watches a defiant Nazi soldier atop an armored car, part of a phalanx in retreat from the Lombard capital, leaving it an “open city”; the muscle-bound German bares his chest in the winter cold, as if impervious to pain even in the moment of ultimate defeat. The Nazis left behind a broken city and people, who had already known hunger for quite some time and would not know prosperity and plenty for many years to come. At five years old, Luigi knew hunger all too well.

Click here to download a PDF of the essay.

“La tovaglia che sazia: Luigi Ballerini the gastronome and his ‘tablecloth of plenty,'” by Jeremy Parzen, in Balleriniana, edited by Giuseppe Cavatorta and Elena Coda, Ravenna, Danilo Montanari Editore, 2010.

O, Luigi, you can be the king and you most certainly are in my cook book. But may we wear your crown?

Thanks for reading!

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