I carry a backpack around everywhere I go. When I open the backpack, the heavy smell of Parmesan cheese escapes, rises up into my nose through all those respiratory passages and then lingers there. Salty and stern and perhaps a bit sweaty.
It’s not that I don’t like Parmesan, I loathe it. My deepest self refuses Parmesan, and so far I have gone along with it. I’ve gotten some confused glances, because everybody else apparently worships it, but my life without Parmesan has been good.
A couple of days ago I had two friends over for a cooking session. David brought the recipe and the ingredients, freshly imported from Italy, where he has recently stayed. So he opens his backpack (a real one this time) and the heavy smell of Parmesan escapes, rising up into my nose and lingering there.
“Oh.”- “Everything alright?” David asks. “Yes. No. I don’t eat Parmesan. Can we not use it, please?” And again one of these confused glances. “Sorry, can’t do. Half the Pesto consists of it.” In my mind I already picture the two men sitting in front of their steaming plates full of freshly prepared Pasta while I take a bite of my sandwich.
David simply thrusts the pine nuts into my hand and orders me to pound it using mortar and pestle. Christoph takes care of the garlic and the basil and David himself grates the cheese.
My hands are busy, but before I can let my mind wander into bad Parmesan places, David starts to talk about Italy. “Now, this recipe was given to me by this elderly lady. It’s a bit like Pesto Genovese, but not quite. The shepherds used to take it to the mountains, where they sometimes stayed for two weeks, all by themselves!” His voice takes me south, into the mountains. The landscape’s beautiful and the sky is clear, the air filled with the bleating of my sheep.
“Because there’s so much oil used, the Pesto takes forever to expire. So they either prepare the pasta freshly and then add the Pesto or simply eat Pasta already mixed with the Pesto.” The rural simplicity and down-to-earthness fascinates me and creeps from far-away-Italy into my loft here in Hamburg.
David, Christoph and I chop, grate, grind, shred, roast and boil. And we laugh and have a tiny vacation in Italy on a Wednesday night in this rainy city.
And then the moment of truth arrives. The two men sit in front of their steaming plates of pasta. But there’s no sandwich for me. There’s a third steaming plate, with gleaming spaghetti mixed with green-oily-Parmesan-pesto. The two start munching with delight, clearly enjoying every bite. I dive my fork into the spaghetti, carefully turning it and winding the spaghetti around the fork teeth. I try to avoid the Parmesan, but there’s no way of escaping it. Come on, don’t make such a fuss, Nadja! Just eat it already. And I take a bite. Mh. It’s alright. I suppose. Definitely not the best thing I have ever eaten, but not the worst either.
After the meal and a couple of glasses of wine, Christoph and David are on their way out. “Alright, my love. Should I leave you some Parmesan?” This is the first time somebody brings up the Parmesan, though it was on my mind constantly. “Nah, not today.” I smile while they vanish down the stairs.
I open my backpack, the smell of Parmesan escapes, salty, stern, but not sweaty. It smells like sheep bleating and a clear sky and a beautiful landscape. When I take out the chunk of cheese it feels like Italy in Hamburg on a rainy Wednesday night and laughter.
My backpack’s definitely not empty. There’s diving in open waters in there, tucked in next to spiders and being on big ships, but the Parmesan’s out. Not in my fridge. But free as a bird and that’s what I feel like, after such a small thing. I’ve carried this around for all my life, and bringing myself to eat Parmesan helped me get to a new level of myself. Might sound a bit cheesy, but get over it!