A Tale of Two Sagras, Part One: The Sagra del Baccala
I must first make a confession. I don't necessarily love Baccala (salt cod) as a foodstuff, and its various permutations as they are found throughout the world rarely leave me enraptured in any substantial way. Instead, I have a much clearer memory of piles upon piles of salt cod pieces stacked upon each other in the myriad bodegas that have featured throughout the course of my life in New York. I remember living in Montreal near a cluster of Portuguese shops where giant unwieldy licks of preserved cod would dangle precariously above voluminous sacks of short grain rice and make the impossibly narrow aisles of the grocery store even more so. I remember the great bellies of cod splayed out across tabletops in various epiceries around Marseille and not in the beautiful old port section where you all still figure that young men named Marius await their next departure whilst debonairly drawing smoke from a never-ending Gauloise. No no, this was in a particularly dodgy little narrow lane in Noailles, and while the name escapes me now the smell lingers on in that lizard bit of brain none of us ever seems to shake.
So look, I don't love baccala. To be honest, I don't know many people who do love it. It is I suppose the point of baccala and all of its contemporary equivalents: preserved in salt and transported over long distances to places where it would be either that or nothing, baccala is that great reminder that things can always get worse and when they do get worse you'd better know how to shave away the inch of salt preserving your food and you'd better be skilled at cooking it in some way that makes it approach the palatable because if not you may well find yourself on the wrong side of history. Baccala is a throwback to a time when refrigeration was a luxury that few could afford and even less could rely upon. We have talked about la cucina povera here at ViaMedina and all of the ingenuity that it fostered. Baccala however is another thing: survival food. Bear Grylls, take note.
Now I don't want to suggest that salt cod is as bad as some of the things that Bear has eaten throughout the course of his career, but I did have a difficult time finding people to come with me to the Sagra del Baccala this year, as most were unwilling to wander through the thick night air that happened to be operating about 10 degrees hotter than usual with about 700% humidity. That air on its own is difficult to take, but when it is further saturated with the oily spectre of many hundreds of fried fish fillets it is only the most intrepid who press on (Bear, you know what I mean).
But I digress. Because if we have learned anything about Sagre in general through this project, we have learned that the joy of the Sagra is not in the actual foodstuff itself (though this can often be quite nice, let's not forget our cherry quest) but also in seeing the town celebrating itself and renewing its sense of community. I will admit that the Sagra del Baccala in Tuscania is particularly evocative for me, as it was our first one; Mark and I rode into town from the farm with our good friend Vincent Jolivet in his impossible-yet-real Peugot convertible which has survived to date more than any other single organism of which I can think. We sat together at those long narrow tables and drank bottle after bottle of wine, passing indiscernible yet surely diverse preparations of baccala between us, and the novelty of the moment was its greatest charm. I would not go so far as to call a cod fritter my Madeleine, but it did stir something in me to see the signs go back up and the decorative fishing nets festooning the Piazza dei Volontari di Sangue.
The majority of the Sagra coincided with our second trip to England this summer so I was only able to catch the very tail end of it, and even that I did alone. I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but I sometimes find that as I begin to walk I lose the ability to do all other things so that even speech becomes a strange and alien thing for my body to think of doing. As a child in New York one can wander aimlessly through crowds and have one's vocal chords utterly paralyzed, stiffening like hands on a cold and windy day that require one to constantly make a fist, and even then it does not feel like those hands belong to you and you alone. It's a strange feeling but I have often found that when speech goes other senses compensate for it and that suddenly things I might not have noticed, or things I might pass by every day will sudden take on a phosphorescent glow, and they will correspond directly with my own heart, speaking to it where words have failed. I will say that it is in these moments that I have felt the greatest and most profound pangs of joy, communion, and beauty and they have come at the very most unexpected moments.
This was perhaps one of those very unexpected moments.
That familar amber light of streetlamps, the one that I have known since my own childhood thousands of miles away and so many other thousands of steps subsequent, cast a jaundiced glow over everyone and everything and I realized that rather than resenting that glow I embraced it, because it felt so inherently familiar to me. A sultry summer night full of noises and smells that hang and get trapped in the air, and all of it captured under those garish yellow bursts. It's the sort of thing that you'll only get if you've grown up in a city I guess; the way that those streetlamps hung over every corner and would inevitably cascade its light across your bedroom as you tried and failed to shut it out through every imaginable device. Yet it was intrusive, relentless. That light, it filled the streets of Tuscania on that Sunday summer night but I didn't mind it, not at all.
Instead, I felt a succession of deepening feelings which culminated in one grand and almost too large sense of something which I can only describe as pride. I was proud of Tuscania for the many people who sat outside together on the streets that were lined with vendors and carnival games, and I was proud of how much they all seemed to be enjoying each others company. I was proud of the long tables that lined the piazza and the effort that had been made to make baccala something that people would remember fondly. I was proud of the smiles, the children playing, the laughter and the hands being held by couples who had decades or mere seconds between them. A smile rose from within me because I was proud of my town.
That's right folks, and I want you to imagine that. Imagine that it would have been on a Sunday night in the hottest bit of August, walking alone through a fish festival by myself and watching other people around me, most of whom I probably know, imagine that it would have been this night that would have suddenly brought these very odd and admittedly elusive sentiments to the fore of my somewhat sleep deprived mind. Imagine that, because it is quite a thing.
I sat in the small park in the center of town and watched as couples waltzed to the band in their makeshift shell and I was struck by how wonderful it all seemed. People danced in unison to moves that they must have known since their very first kiss and they danced with a kind of collective grace that touched a part of me I hardly knew existed.
In my life, I have seen and done a great many things, my friends. I have witnessed great events and happenings- hell, I was at Lollapalooza when it was good! I saw the Beastie Boys at a little club in the East Village, I served blueberry pancakes to Jim Carroll! I have done things, like really I have done things. That said it would seem strange that such a moment of profound joy and fulfillment would come at the hands of the Orchesta Roberto Band in the middle of the Sagra del Baccala, but I cannot pretend that it didn't. Indeed, a great sense of belonging washed over me that no measure of pancakes to Jim Carroll had ever done. I felt happy, I even think I was, happy.