I’m not good at talking to strangers. I don’t have the natural ability to turn to someone and turn on the charm; my main strategy for small talk is simply asking lots of questions. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of “favorites”: What’s your favorite restaurant around here? What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend? Your kids are adorable; which one’s your favorite? (That last one might need some workshopping.)
Naturally, I have a lot of questions stored up about food favorites: what dish you’d pick for your last supper or what ingredient you’d choose if you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life. It’s tempting to twist the answers into a metaphor for the people themselves, to assume that the person who picks a hamburger for a last meal is categorically different from the person who wants oysters and caviar. That’s why I was so struck by this Q&A with Umberto Eco from 2011.
Q: What’s your favorite comfort food? A: Pizza.
What did it mean? I wondered. Was Eco, despite his professorial vibe, actually a down-to-earth guy who liked to kick back with a beer and a greasy slice on Friday night? Was it a political choice, a pre-meditated hat-tip to the tastes of the common man? Or was it just because he was Italian?
Based on the available records, Eco did eat a lot of pizza. He was spotted eating slices in a cab in New Haven. He ordered a calzone before an interview with The Paris Review. He did caution against serving pizza on international flights, because of our natural propensity as humans to get sauce stains on our clothes, but “given a choice between eating a pizza a few doors down the street and taking a taxi to go discover a new trattoria … I choose the pizza,” he wrote.
But was pizza Eco’s “favorite” food … or is it just the easiest to come by? If we’re going by frequency of consumption, my favorite food would be yogurt, but if anyone said that to me, I would assume he was essentially bland and slightly sour. For Eco, pizza wasn’t a revelation. It was a convenience. The food worth taking a taxi for was bagna cauda.
Eco was born in Piedmont, in northern Italy, where bagna cauda is not a dish, but the basis for an entire day’s worth of eating. At the Ecos’, “the meal began at noon and ended at five in the afternoon and everything, except the coffee, was based on garlic.” The star of the event is the dip, made from an anchovy and garlic paste, which is eaten with everything from vegetables to chunks of bread. Eco would bring friends back to Piedmont just to participate. “A ritual like that bagna cauda that brought back magical moments of my childhood,” he wrote.
Why do we label things “favorites”? Often out of familiarity, or the need to have a pat talking point at a party or in a rapid-fire Q&A. But often the foods that are closest to our heart can’t be contained in a few words. “I went looking for food not simply to satisfy my palate, but to experience a certain kind of culture; not only to savor a taste, but to experience enlightenment, or a flash of recollection,” Eco wrote. He used food to reveal bottomless internal worlds in his fiction too. “You have to let the reader eat,” he wrote, “in order to make him understand how the characters think.”
In 2009, I was staying on the outskirts of a tiny town on the border of Poland and Germany. The closest bar was a 30-minute walk away through a field of dry grass, where they served beer mixed with Coke and called it a “diesel.” I had been traveling for two months and was reaching peak homesickness (a feeling that’s only amplified by ordering a beer and getting a diesel instead).
When I got back to my hostel, a package was waiting for me postmarked from New York, which seemed to take everyone by surprise given the remoteness, the dry-grass field, etc. Inside was a bag of Smooth & Melty Nonpareils (my typical pick from the bulk candy store near my old apartment), and an index card with a quote from Umberto Eco:
I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
It was exactly the reminder of home I needed: a declaration of love, and my (now) favorite candy, one that still makes me think of travel, Umberto Eco, and that feeling you have in the first months of falling in love.