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A Hot Bath
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A Hot Bath

The Unfamiliar Familiarity of Bagna Cauda

It all started with a hot bath.

The first time I consciously remember having one, I was sitting at the crisp, blonde bar that runs the length of the dining room inside Chef Missy Robbins’ Williamsburg cattedrale di pasta, Lilia. At first, my dining companion and I struggled to make selections from the many antipasti offerings. Although I’m a sucker for vegetables, I had to bargain with my brain; it was only a few precious moments before the sheep’s milk agnolotti with saffron and honey I’d been drooling over for months (thank you, Instagram) was on the table, and it was hard to imagine eating anything else. But, of course, there’s more to life (and Lilia) than little pillows of pasta, so pretty soon our corner of the countertop was filling up. A negroni here. A glass of rosé there. An artichoke splayed on an earthenware dish, snowed in with fluffy shavings of parmigiano and curls of mint, crackling with toasted breadcrumbs. Then came another plate—battered shrimp, popping with oil, served with parsley aioli. Pleasures abound in every bite, devouring my attention and winning my pre-pasta devotion.

It was with an artichoke leaf still dangling from my lips that I turned to find our server setting down something less expected. It looked like a tea-light diffuser I was once gifted at Christmas time, but the reservoir was filled not with apple-scented aromatherapy oil. Instead, it was a miniature chafing dish, with a liquid more closely resembling a vinaigrette.

“The vegetable bagna cauda,” he informed, dropping the accompanying crock of mixed vegetables—cauliflower, radicchio, radishes and snap peas. I’d almost forgotten we’d ordered the thing, but it quickly became the focal point of my first course. It was uncomplicated, but full of oomph—anchovy and garlic diffused through a mixture that transformed humble roots and leaves into flavor grenades. Even though I’d never heard of bagna cauda, it had the unique effect of being familiar. I’d been eating its component parts my whole life; I had a latent flavor memory for them.

Not two weeks later, I was sitting at Scott Conant’s Manhattan pan-Italian stunner, Fusco, reading the menu. The tajarin was looking good. It sounded like a twist on linguini con vongole, with clams and bonito flakes, and tossed with—there it was again—bagna cauda. The following week, I traveled to Los Angeles and found at his shiny new trattoria, Felix, Chef Evan Funke was dressing chicory and honey dates with the stuff in orchestra with pine nuts, capers and pecorino, imparting a sweet-savory pizazz the likes of which no salad of mine had ever seen.

And then suddenly, it was everywhere I looked. Soaking radishes. Punching up sauces. On pizza. Over eggs. On the side, in the mix, and over the top. It seemed to be the most versatile new condiment on the food scene. Of course, it’s not new. Not even remotely. There are references to bagna cauda going back centuries, and there are similar versions in other cultures. In fact, it probably wasn’t even truly new to me—in my lifetime of Italian dining, surely I’ve encountered this enchantment before. But now my antenna was tuned in, and I needed to know what this magical condimenti was.

I Googled for the cursory Wikipedia-approved context, and then phoned the two most knowledgeable authorities on Italian food in my rolodex: my Nonny* and Grandpa.

They both got on the line, no doubt from their respective posts: Nonny in her kitchen, Grandpa in his basement. The conversation went a little something like:

Me: Have you guys heard of bagna cauda?

Nonny: Yes! (A surprising answer. To my knowledge, she’s never served it to us.)

Me: Really? I don’t think I’ve had it before.

Nonny: [Beat] A bath?

She found this hilarious. Right. Further explanation required. I described it as I’d experienced it (i.e. not a relaxing spa treatment).

Grandpa: You’re making me hungry!

They agreed—sounds delicious. Never heard of it.

“It must be from the north,” Nonny guessed. She said upper regions of Italy served more white sauces, whereas near Rome—the ones in which she and Grandpa grew up—trafficked more in red, tomato-based condimenti. Back to Wikipedia, which confirmed—bagna cauda is said to have originated in Piemonte, a northern region and darling of Italian cuisine among food geeks today, home to hazelnuts, famous truffles and killer wines—among them the king and queen, Barolo and Barbera. It is not home to anchovies or olive oil, however—those ingredients likely found their way into local dishes thanks to medieval trade routes. It also appears I stumbled on the dish at the appropriate time of year. Historically, it’s considered an autumnal offering; there’s a tradition of serving bagna cauda at celebrations of grape harvest—naturally, paired with Piemontese wine.

As Nonny observed, bagna cauda translates dialectically to hot bath. Based on that description alone, the Lilia interpretation seemed most literal, and, my research would suggest, I’d tasted the most traditional preparation. But in component parts, bagna cauda is some combination of three to four very basic, fundamentally delicious ingredients: olive oil and/or butter, anchovies and garlic.

Now that I had a little insight, it was time to tinker. Fortunately, many chefs have generously shared recipes. The core ingredients were almost universal, but I was struck by how varied they were in terms of fat to solid ratio. Some were truly more of a vinaigrette, others super heavy on the anchovy and garlic, making a thicker, almost pesto-like sauce. I was going for the more Missy Robbins-esque iteration, so I started there, with a recipe from her recently released book, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner… Life.

And then, I experimented. Butter and oil infusions—orange or fennel—proved a nice counterpoint to the powerful anchovy funk. I vacillated between raw and roasted garlic (I read somewhere that Southern chef Sean Brock even swapped in fermented black garlic to punch up the already pungent solution). Herbs, like thyme and marjoram, played nicely too. And I actually found it equipped to pair with sweet flavors—a personal favorite being a drizzle over dried apricots, ricotta and honey, and served on a crostone.

When I felt satisfied with my finished product, I loaded into my little Honda with a large jar of precious, perfected personal bagna cauda, an assortment of raw and roasted vegetables, and drove the seventy or so miles to Trumbull, Connecticut, to pay my grandparents an overdue visit. Thanks to the freakish breadth of Amazon’s inventory, I was able to order that same little serving device I’d seen at Lilia, so I was prepared to give a proper show. I arrived, plated the veggies, and filled the tea light reservoir to the top.

And Nonny noted my every move. From a drawer that also contained tomato-stained placemats, a few bent forks that have sacrificed their lives to gnocchi preparation, a lighter, and some ziplock bags she washed and reused, she pulled a small pad of curled yellow paper and asked if I could spell the name of the dish. She wanted to write down this new recipe. I went over it with her letter by letter; even after more than seventy years in this country, it still strains my grandmother to write in her second language.

I couldn’t—and wouldn’t dare try to—compete with the pasta my grandmother has perfected over a lifetime of practice.

And then I watched, sitting in the late September sun that flooded their familiar kitchen, as my grandparents took turns timidly filling their plates with vegetables. There was a reverence in the way they spooned a little over each. They bit delicately into crunchy vegetables, taking time to honor my efforts—and were maybe a little wary of this unknown new thing.

Over the years, I’ve introduced my grandparents to other foods; we’ve gone for hibachi, I’ve made mole tacos, or treated them to more exotic desserts when I operated an ice cream shop—with varying degrees of success (fortunately, hibachi comes with something resembling spaghetti). But it never occurred to me to cook from the Italian canon for them. I couldn’t—and wouldn’t dare try to—compete with the pasta my grandmother has perfected over a lifetime of practice. Of course, I realize my grandparents grew up in small villages. I realize their experience in Italy was confined to an area of less square mileage than I probably travel in a New York City afternoon. That I’ve now seen more of their country than they have or ever will. And that they certainly haven’t had the kind of exposure to other exotic locales and lands that I’ve had. And yet, I felt serving Italian food would be rote and unremarkable to them.

“Stefanie,” Nonny broke the silence after a minute, setting down her wedge of red radicchio to turn to me. “You’re telling me people eat this? In restaurants?” The fact that something so simple, something considered cucina povera, would be worthy of a menu at a real restaurant, where people paid good money, was astonishing to her.

“They really do. Good ones too.”

“Oh my god. It’s delicious!” It wasn’t that they could claim any real ownership of this dish. They’d never had it. It hadn’t originated anywhere near their home provinces. And yet their pride was palpable. Profound. Contagious.

Over the course of the next hour, I watched my Italian grandparents, citizens of the United States for seven decades, as they meted out small bites and tiny spoonfuls. A lifetime of trying to stretch food for a big family, Nonny scolded Grandpa for taking too much: “I want it to last!” She swatted his hand. I had to assure her I could make more, to tell her how easy and inexpensive it would be, but she still treated it like liquified, fish-flavored gold.

After the bagna cauda, I decided to spend some time trying my hand at other Italian dishes I’d had elsewhere, but never on Nonny’s table. I had long ago learned from her how to make fresh, egg-based pastas like linguini and lasagna sheets, but a dried, semolina-based shape wasn’t something I’d seen her make. It took a few tries, but two weeks later, I traveled back to Connecticut with a plastic bag full of handmade orecchiette. Nonny treated it like a sack of coins straight from Scrooge McDuck’s diving vault.

A few weeks later, it was my birthday, and she insisted they be a part of the meal. I told her that being Apulian, the shape is classically served with olive oil and garlic, sausage and bitter stalks of broccoli rabe (her favorite). But you can’t take the red sauce out of an old Italian woman’s veins, so when that late October morning arrived, she cooked her granddaughter’s homemade pasta to al dente perfection, and tossed it in the sauce she made in August with tomatoes my grandfather grew and harvested from his summer garden. Orecchiette alla Ferrari.

At lunch, I talked a little about the origins of orecchiette while my cousins finished their second helpings. And when the platter was left only with pools of sauce and trace amounts of pecorino, Grandpa and Nonny sat back and began unspooling stories about their own peasant foods. About cooking for German soldiers that occupied their homes during the war (“They were pretty nice, most of the time,” Nonny told us while Grandpa vividly recounted a darker memory in which a drunken group played target practice with his family’s light bulbs). About cooking for their own kids when they were young factory-working immigrants in the States. And about the fettuccine alfredo she cooked for my sister and me when we were kids.

These were scenes I could never quite imagine. Thanks to them, and to my own mother, my life had always been so comfortable and safe. Such a contrast to the ones they led long before I was born and started frequenting fashionable Italian restaurants.

I thought about the comfort of a hot bath and the dish named after it, so quintessentially a comfort food. Born from need, economy and resource, passed through generations, traveling effortlessly between continents because of its adaptability and ease of replication. The transcendency of simple ingredients like anchovies, garlic and oil—even though that was not a dish they’d had, they felt a nostalgia for its familiar flavors.

The orecchiette on the table was an edible intersection between their Italy and mine. Old country and New World. The education they’d given me, and what little I could do to return the favor.

Later, I blew out my birthday candles and considered the celebrations bagna cauda has signified—in vineyards, in eras past, in faraway lands, on modern, Michelin-starred restaurant tables. I was reminded again of how food can connect—between generations, across continents and oceans, and for my grandparents, to a part of their culture that, at nearly ninety years old, was still new to them.

It’s likely I won’t ever have the chance to take Nonny and Grandpa to Lilia—or Fusco or Felix for a meal at which they would marvel, to see the level of dining to which the humble dishes of their roots have been elevated. But in recipes, thanks to chefs and cookbooks and the constant curiosity of culinary-minded friends, I can bring home to them proof that their country and culture are still relevant, being preserved and perpetuated in ways that are progressive and authentic. What started as a hot bath and a simple, but memorable meal became a full immersion in culture—a deep well of history from which my own family can continue to draw enjoyment and identity, comfort and pride.

*Please note in my family, the Italian translation for grandmother, “nonna,” has been abbreviated over the years, then given the same shortened, affectionate term of endearment treatment that I sometimes get as “Steffy.”

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