gatto (featuring Lazy Day Lentils)
I was thinking about lentils.
And the creak my right knee made as the winding road inclined. And if it was worth wrestling my dirty laundry into the tiny Italian washing machine two days before going home. Gunshots from Umbrian quail hunters rang out regularly in the distance. I was not afraid of them. I was thinking about potatoes. And about depression and how hard it is to explain to people who’ve never had it. And the performance anxiety of traveling with family. Someone lit a fire farther up toward the tiny village of Silvignano, a 40-minute walk from my parent’s house in Campello sul Clitunno, though I couldn’t tell if the smell was coming from a fireplace inside or an outside grill burning wood for dinner. I was thinking about the luscious depth of smell that you can taste in the back of your throat when leaves burn. And how it hadn’t been cold enough yet in New York or in Italy to showcase the colors of fall. I was thinking about yellow and crimson leaves as big as a basketball player’s hand clogging street drains back home in Portland. And turning 52. I was thinking about when Amelia jumps up on the couch and rests her head on my knee. And about buying concealer for the bags under my eyes. And the gig I had before this trip when I’d been so disappointed with myself that I wanted to stop cooking forever. And stop writing. And stop everything. I was window shopping the thoughts in my head– just looking, thanks, I’m not ready to make a commitment.
Breathing not panting, watching not searching, trying to remember who I am…is when it appeared.
Like a small black inkspot in the trees at first. Then as I approached, like a little tuft of something on a branch 10 feet high. A nest? Closer. An owl? Closer. A tiny napping kitten!
I yanked my phone out of my back pocket and snapped his picture. His eyes opened to a peeking sliver and I said hi, but not bongiorno. His eyes closed again, disinterested. I stood there rocking back and forth, nodding and grinning, impressed with myself that I’d found him in the midst of all those branches, leaves, and thoughts. He was sleeping so I turned up the road to continue my walk.
A mustachioed man with short grey hair and a paunchy belly walked up a driveway a few yards away. He nodded in Italian. I nodded in English. When I looked back a few steps later he was talking to the kitten, too.
I was thinking about pork chops. And my brother. I was thinking about how boring sobriety is sometimes. Two dogs in a pen that looked like a chicken coop curled their wet, toothy mouths into ferocious drippy howls. I was not afraid. I was thinking about leeks.
Then I was at the top of the hill I’d set out to climb, endorphins doing whatever it is endorphins do to lighten my mood. The tips of my ears were cold, my pits damp. Dinner would be soon.
I had almost forgotten about the kitten on my way back down and then wondered if I would be able to find him again. Was he just past this house? No, I think it was this one… there he is!
“Hey little guy, how’s it going?” His eyes opened wide now. But he was shaking. The kitten indifference of our first meeting had become kitten in peril. This feline had not gone up onto this branch by choice. He had clearly been tree’d by some scary Italian beast and didn’t know how to get down.
“Sweetness, are you ok?”. He quivered and mewed.
The paved road was on higher ground than the trees were so I unsteadily descended into the brush. He was teetering on a branch much too high for me to reach and I inspected neighboring trees to see if there were any I could climb. There weren’t. Their trunks were sheer. Also, I’m 52. I didn’t climb trees when I was 7, fat chance of it happening now.
But he meowed and stretched his little paw out. I kept talking.
“I get that this is really scary, but we’re gonna figure it out. Come toward my voice.” Which he actually did. He had a blue plastic flea collar that looped onto a twiggy branch as he inched forward.
“Oh god, no!” I yelled as I foresaw him hanging himself on this twig. Luckily, it snapped in half as he pulled back, but my commitment to his survival had tripled in those scary seconds.
He teetered on the slim limb of this tree and tested out other paths. All of the branches were thin and the trunk had no divots or knots for him to hold onto if he decided to climb down. He was auditioning every limb for the dismount, his little shaky paws carefully testing different routes but nothing proving safe enough.
“Ok, hold on. Let me see if I can find something big enough to use as a bridge.”
I crept around the tree, searching the brush for a branch large enough. I found something that I thought might work and hoisted it up between a few branches. He tried it out but stepped back. And then tried again. Nope. It was too thin and unsteady no matter how firmly I held it. I exhaled loudly.
I had been there for almost half an hour by then. I thought about texting my parents for help, but I didn’t want to take my eyes off of him.
That’s when I remembered. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtWbpyjJqrU
“Ok,” I said, “I understand this is terrifying, but a while back Francis showed me this video about cats falling and there’s a physics thing where cats can fall from great heights and still be ok. I know it’s scary, but I think you won’t hurt yourself if you fall. I know you’re a kitten and this is the first time you’ve experienced this. I think it happens a lot to cats and you’ll learn that in your long life still to come. You’ll be ok. I’m here, I’ll help you if anything happens. I’ll catch you if you need me to.”
I didn’t know if I should catch him. He was tiny and right above me, so I could definitely manage, but I didn’t want him to freak out and scratch me.
He was shaking and staring into my eyes.
“I promise you’ll be ok.” My voice sounded deeper with certainty.” Just try to walk and if you fall you’ll still be ok. I promise I won’t leave you. I promise you.”
He crept along the flimsy branch and lost his balance, flipping upside down and holding on with the claws of four paws. Oh, the sound that came out of him- a fear screech, unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
“You’re gonna be ok! I saw it in a video!” I yelled at him. He lost contact with one leg and dangled from the long claws of three paws.
Another shriek “YEEAAAAAAAAEEEEEYYYYYYYYYKKKKKKK!” and then he fell.
Right on my feet.
I scooped him up and cradled his tiny stripey body in the nook of my elbow. Both of us still in shock, I kissed his head and his ears.
“It’s ok. You’re ok. You did it!” I was almost in tears.
His eyes were bigger than two Euro coins, blinking as though he couldn’t believe he was alive. I climbed back onto the road with him in my arms and walked toward the house closest to us.
“Why couldn’t I have found you earlier in our trip?” I whispered into his ear. “I’m leaving tomorrow, but you made it, you’re gonna be ok!”
There was a man far off in the garage of the house and I yelled to him.
“Hello, um… Bongiorno?” I was shaking with adrenaline and terrified that the language barrier would make this situation impossible to explain. “Can you help! I don’t speak Italian. It’s a cat, um… gatto? Can you help me?”
The cat, by the way, was not hurt at all. He snuggled deeper into my elbow pit and I kissed his head again. I may or may not have been telling the kitten repeatedly how much I loved him.
The garage man was the mustachioed man from before.
“Bongiorno!” he was smiling,
“I DON’T SPEAK ITALIAN,” Yes, I was probably shouting and over-annunciating because I’m one of those people who shouts when there’s a language barrier. “This kitten was stuck up a tree and it fell out and it’s clearly someone’s cat. It’s got a collar on. Is it yours? Is this your kitten?”
What I wanted him to say was, no dear, it’s your kitten now, even though we were leaving for Rome the next morning to come back to the states the day after that.
And then suddenly Mr. Mustachio spoke English so flawlessly that I thought I might be dreaming. “Hello! I saw that cat earlier. I took its picture. It must be someone’s in Silvingano.”
“Yes, should I just take him up there? And put him on a side street or something?” He nodded. “Ok. That’s what I’ll do. Thank you so much.”
And then my little kitten squirmed his way out of my arms and ran into the grassy patch near the house of Mustachio.
“He’ll be fine, don’t worry,” said the man, grinning and nodding. “He’ll be fine. Grazie mille!”
I gulped the Italian air, feeling bereft but content.
“Thank you, sir. Grazie, grazie mille!”
As I turned up the driveway toward the road a big grey cat marched toward me. Her eyelids were lowered a bit as if she were a pissed-off mother looking for her kid. The petulant child in me recognized the angry-mom expression immediately. There was a swagger of intolerance too, unmistakably frustrated parent. Into the grass she went and meows abounded, high pitch and low. Meow and mew. They were reunited.
I was full. And peaceful. I found a purpose.
I was thinking about lentils.
I hope you’re not put off by my decision to focus on something other than the food we ate while on vacation for two weeks in Italy. The food was outstanding, of course, but I relegate my tacky vacation food photos to social media—which is where they belong.
I will say this: one of the best things we ate in Italy was the lentils at a restaurant (that I’ve written about before) called La botteguccia del Campo 64 in Colfiorito, https://awonderlandofwords.com/earthquakes-part-ii-there-will-be-food-featuring-dark-chocolate-biscotti/
Honestly, I can’t stand lentils. They’re usually squishy and mixed in with something that would be delicious if lentils weren’t involved. But the lentils at this restaurant were outstanding. They weren’t fussed over. They felt infused with flavor rather than decorated with it. They use Umbrian lentils, which grow both tender and plump as they simmer on the stove. We’re not quite as lucky here in the states, so it’s important to use the highest quality lentils you can find.
My goal here was to make something outstanding with very few steps. There’s almost no cooking involved in this recipe. I know there are a lot of herbs in it, but as we amass ingredients for big holiday gatherings many of these ingredients will be in your kitchen.
These are rainy day lentils, to make you feel comforted like the cuddle from a little Italian kitten. This is not the big show off lentil side dish for Thanksgiving. I’ll post something before turkey day for that purpose.
These are just for you.
Lazy Day Lentils
- 1 cup brown lentils, picked through and rinsed
- 3 cups water
- 5 whole garlic cloves
- ½ yellow or purple onion, diced
- 1 dried ancho chili pepper (optional but yummy)
- 5 whole fresh sage leaves
- 1 sprig thyme
- 2 large sprigs parsley
- 4 Fresh oregano leaves
- Bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 ½ teaspoon salt
- Pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon balsamic
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- In a saucepan, add the lentils, water, garlic cloves, onion, pepper, sage, thyme, parsley, oregano, bay leaf, baking soda, and olive oil. DO NOT ADD SALT YET because it will make your lentils mushy quickly.
- Bring the lentil mixture to a boil and the cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Stir in salt and taste for doneness. I prefer al dente lentils, but that’s just me. You can simmer another few minutes if yours aren’t done enough.
- Squish the soft garlic cloves against the side of the saucepan and stir. Fish the stalks of thyme and parsley out of the pan as well as the bay leaf. The leaves of all of the herbs will have infused the cooking water and become very soft so don’t worry about trying to fish them out.
- Season with pepper, drizzle with balsamic, sprinkle with parsley and enjoy in your jammies.