Whenever I’m trying to remember something important—a due date, a birthday, the name of a friend’s new baby (oops!)—I’m always amazed by the random information my brain has quietly absorbed instead, without my knowledge. Most, to my chagrin, is completely useless: ’90s song lyrics, all the presidents in order, the name of the cat from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. But also, without knowing how or when it happened, I unexpectedly learned to cook.
Between all the poetry, philosophy, and cultural theories, Friedrich Nietzsche’s brain wouldn’t seem to have much space for cooking skills either. Food in general often gave him more trouble than pleasure. Suffering from digestion problems, he hopped around Europe, from the French Riviera to the Italian coast, hoping the climate would restore his health. He avoided restaurants, where, he complained, “one is made accustomed to ‘overfeeding’; that is why I no longer like to eat in them.”
Yet, over the years, Nietzsche absorbed a love of cooking by learning the same way I did: through those around him. In Genoa, his landlady taught him to fry artichokes and whisk eggs for torta di carciofi, the local specialty. In Sorrento, in a villa surrounded by lemon trees, his housemaid showed him her secret to a perfect risotto, lovingly ladling out the stock as she stirred. Studying the techniques of his Italian housekeepers, Nietzsche was eager to become a teacher himself. He wrote to his mother: “I shall teach you later how to cook risotto—I know now.”
Nietzsche would later revise his opinion of restaurants, becoming a regular at several neighborhood trattorias, but he always reserved special praise for those dishes he learned himself; game recognize game. In a letter from Turin, he detailed his regular order: “minestra or risotto, a good portion of meat, vegetable and bread—all good … I eat here with the serenest disposition of soul and stomach.”
For most of us, cooking doesn’t happen intentionally; we don’t crack open a book to “Chapter 1: Let’s Talk About Knife Skills.” Instead, the path to the kitchen unwinds slowly, over a lifetime: “helping” sift the flour for a batch of cookie dough, learning to cut an onion without catching your fingers, trying to perfect the swirl on top of a meringue pie. It’s hard to remember each step we took. Instead it’s the guides we remember—be it a mother, grandmother, father or kindly landlady—for leading us along the way.
Nietzsche had a minor problem with consistency; his take on restaurants wasn’t the only thing that changed over time. Even as he was praising the risotto in Italy, he was writing a takedown in The Gay Science, published in 1882. “A diet consisting primarily of rice leads to the use of opium and narcotics,” he wrote, “just as a diet consisting primarily of potatoes leads to the use of liquor.” How does this make sense? I can only accept my boyfriend’s explanation: “Risotto isn’t rice. It’s just delicious.” Fitting, since he’s the one who taught me to make it.
This risotto recreates what Nietzsche might have learned to make in the Villa Rubinacci, after his regular walk through the lemon groves. I hope it doesn’t induce opium use—but a glass of wine alongside it wouldn’t be a bad thing.
(Adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria)
5 cups vegetable broth
1 mint sprig
1 lemon, juiced and zested
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
Pinch of sea salt
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
15 asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1. In large saucepan, bring broth to a low simmer. Stem the mint. Combine mint with lemon zest and finely chop together. Set aside.
2. In large heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter with the oil. Add shallots and salt, then cook until shallots are soft and translucent, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add rice and stir to coat all grains with the butter and oil.
3. When rice becomes shiny, turn heat to medium-low and start adding the simmering stock a ladle at a time. Stir often, adding more stock when there is only a thin veil covering the rice. Add asparagus with the last ladle of stock. Remove pan from heat.
4. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the herb mixture, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1/2 cup parmesan. Mix, cover and let stand 2 minutes. Add extra salt to taste. Transfer to warm shallow bowls and serve immediately with extra cheese.