by Debby Waldman
For my sister’s 60th birthday this year, my husband and I invited her to join us on a two week trip to Italy and France. In turn, Amy offered to treat me to an early birthday gift, a cooking class in Sardinia.
She organized the class through a travel blogger, Claudia Tavani, who put her in touch with someone who arranged a cooking class based on Amy’s requirements: gluten free (at the time Amy was unaware that in Italy, she would be able to tolerate gluten), English-speaking, and with written recipes.
It did not occur to me until too late to tell Amy I preferred a pork-free cooking class. I figured I’d just deal with whatever pork appeared. Meanwhile, I focused on the positives: the class came with free aprons!
Early signs of pork: sausage and radicchio
At a little after 10 am on Tuesday, Amy and I showed up at the apartment of our cooking teacher, Maria, who lives on the fifth floor of a building in a residential part of Cagliari, in south Sardinia. She and her mother, Daniela, who is 83, greeted us at the door. Both of them were dressed more for an elegant dinner party than a cooking class, which should have been our first clue that this was not going to be exactly what Amy had ordered.
The next clue was Maria’s broken English, which was, at least, better than our Italian, but not exactly conducive to directing a cooking class. Daniela’s English was actually worse than our Italian: she spoke none. Google translate came in very handy.
Maria and Daniela provided no written recipes—like every Italian cook I’ve ever met, they subscribe to the “a handful of this, a pinch of that” school of cooking. So do Amy and I, but we’ve never promised anyone a cooking class with recipes.
On the other hand, like every Italian cook I’ve ever met, Maria and Daniela knew what they were doing, and the food we helped them prepare was exquisite (even if it was loaded with pork and also included a dish with one of my least-favorite foods, hard-boiled eggs).
Maria and Daniela were extremely charming and their apartments were lovely. We started the cooking class in Maria’s apartment: she’d already prepared bechamel sauce for a lasagne. Our job was to help with the rest of the filling, so we chopped onions, peeled the garlic, and pan fried sausage with radicchio. Maria assembled the lasagne, and then we went downstairs to Daniela’s apartment for the rest of the activities.
I figured since we had made one dish upstairs, we’d probably make one downstairs, but in fact we prepared two dishes (eggplant parmesan with fresh-made tomato sauce, and a dish with pan-fried hard-boiled eggs and sauteed mushrooms). Also, Daniela broiled meat-and-veg kabobs that she had assembled before we showed up. This meant we had to spend quite a bit of time in Daniela’s apartment, which did not strike me as a problem. Or at least it did not do so immediately.
Daniela and Maria are very attractive, petite women, rather like Amy. I am built more like a Russian potato farmer’s wife circa 1860, and I could tell they were aware of that. Daniela shot me a few sidelong glances, her eyes traveling up and down my not-a-size-two body. At one point she put her arm around me. At the time I thought it was a friendly gesture.
After she put the kebabs in the oven, she disappeared down a hallway. When she returned, she was carrying a pair of khaki-colored pants, which she thrust at me.
For a moment I was tickled. Pants were way better than an apron.
Then Maria looked at her mother, shook her head, and said, “Too small.”
My heart sank, rather the same way it had when I was ten and a visiting cousin, whom I rarely saw, invited me to sit on her lap and promptly nicknamed me “Butterball.”
I suggested that Amy try on the pants.
“Too big for her,” Maria said.
My heart sank further. This nice little old lady had these pants that had clearly been sitting around for ages, waiting for just the right fat person to show up and fit them, and I was too fat.
Back down the hall went Daniela. This time when she reappeared, she had an identical pair of pants, just slightly bigger.
Wow, I thought to myself. That’s so cool! She did have them in my size!
It did not occur to me to wonder how this was possible.
I tried on the pants in a room in the back of Daniela’s apartment. They fit, though they were not flattering. Still, I did not want to be rude and turn down what I thought was a kind offer.
Maria was pinning up the pants so I’d know how to hem them upon returning home, when Daniela showed up with three more pairs of pants for me, each one different. There was also a fancy sleeveless knit top, which Amy pronounced “perfect for you!” Daniela also had a bundle of pants for Amy.
Hmmm, I thought to myself. I don’t think I can fit this many pants in my suitcase. And I know that Amy does not have room, either. How do we politely say no?
Around then is when Amy mentioned that Daniela and her mother used to own a women’s clothing store. That’s when I realized that the pants were not intended as a gift. Our cooking teachers were trying to offload on us, their unsuspecting students, the inventory they hadn’t been able to get rid of before closing their store two years earlier (because the taxes were too high).
I looked at the price tag of the khaki-colored pants. They were 160 Euros, which seemed awfully steep. Maybe there would be a discount?
“How much are they?” I asked Daniela.
She studied the tag and pointed to the number.
“160?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling warmly.
“I’m not sure I can afford that,” I said. “I think I’ll just wait. What I really need is a sweater.”
Some words were exchanged between mother and daughter. Soon Daniela emerged with a lovely black cashmere cardigan that I neither needed or wanted. “I’m not sure,” I said.
Back down the hall she went, returning with an identical sweater, in grey. It looked just as bad on me.
“How about if we come back upstairs after lunch,” Maria said, offering a graceful way out for all four of us.
We trooped back down to Maria’s apartment, me praying the whole time that she and her daughter would forget about the clothing sale during lunch. Which they did.
Unfortunately we had to go back up there anyway: turns out I left my shoes in the room where I tried on the pants.
Also, we never did get those free aprons. Maybe they were only free if you bought the pants.