Parmigiana Bianca di Zucchine (White Zucchini Parmesan)
The Unbearable Lightness of Trying
Fifteen years ago today I was at the new student orientation for incoming freshman at Georgetown University. I hated that orientation. Following a skit about blackout drinking and inappropriate touching, we separated into small groups. Our ‘team leader’, a professor of nursing, made us throw a beanbag around and say something interesting about ourselves.
Throughout high school at candy striper orientations and at Model United Nations icebreakers, I had usually been able to get away with saying that I liked sushi. But that could hardly qualify as even remotely interesting in 2002. I was a white girl from a middle class family in Orange County, California. What did you expect?
The only interesting thing that had ever happened to me is that I had once traveled to Japan as a foreign exchange student, ate sushi and while there peed standing up over a Japanese toilet a few times. I even wrote a how-to essay about this unique urination experience for future foreign exchange students called You Don’t Know Squat. To this day I consider it my finest work.
Yet for some reason, sharing a pee story seemed ill advised at an event in which I would meet my future best friends for life. I contemplated making something up or borrowing an interesting fact from someone else’s life. My father had been a baker and made bread loaves in the shape of crocodiles to support himself in high school…..that seemed a compelling anecdote.
My friend Louis announced to everyone that he liked wake boarding. None of the other students knew what the hell wake boarding was, which I think made Louis briefly reconsider his decision to leave his native Boise in order to study international relations at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. It also probably made him question why he had picked Georgetown over Harvard. He is now a plastic surgeon and he still likes wakeboarding.
Then there was some weird student named Justin who claimed that he did “whip-its.” I did know what wakeboarding was at the time but it took me at least another five years to figure out what a whip-it was. I vaguely remember thinking a whip-it was either a dog or the name of a George Michael song. In our sophomore year it was rumored that Justin dropped out of Georgetown to open a bicycle shop. I never confirmed that rumor but in hindsight Justin’s dropping out probably had something to do with those whip-its. I hope for his sake he found a good accountant.
After Justin, another even weirder student volunteered as his piece of interesting information that his father was a gynecologist. We were all ready to either jump into the Potomac or worse still enroll at George Washington University when it was Julie’s turn. Dressed in some sort of vintage gunnysack dress and dripping affected apathy far beyond her years, Julie stated, “my grandfather invented Vicodin.” Years later I successfully confirmed that Julie’s story was in fact true. She went on to become a successful (non-fiction) writer and a friend.
I have no recollection of what I said when it was finally my turn. In all likelihood I probably stuck with my old, if unremarkable chestnut of liking sushi. All of these years later, I have to fight the feeling that the most successful among us had the most interesting tidbits to share at that stupid orientation. Or at the very least the most successful friendships I have forged have been with the new students who shared the most memorable (and relatively normal) anecdotes.
In other words Julie and Louis are still dear friends. The kid with the whip-it addiction and the one with the gynecologist father are lost to my imagination. I like to think they live next door to each other in Park Slope, jointly own a bicycle shop and cheat on their pretty wives with each other.
And I wonder, what became of all those promising new student orientation freshmen and that nurse with the bean bag?
I would be hard pressed to even say what became of me. It would go something like this: a few meaningless years of study and histrionic self exploration in Sao Paulo; followed by ten years of government work in Washington (meaningless?….I hope not); and finally the Italy years. Of all the gin joints in all the world, how did I end up in Napoli?
There were surgeons, politicians, lawyers, investment bankers, writers and scientists in that incoming class of freshmen. And there was me. I don’t know what my label is now. Student, writer, friend, expatriate, business owner, occasional misanthrope, whiner, lover, eater, fighter. At 34, I am what my father might call, to borrow a phrase from John Irving, a ‘gradual student.’
For so long, I have wanted to re-conquer a title, a position, a meaning here in Italy. But the gradual student in me is content to enjoy the unbearable lightness of trying, occasionally failing and yet always remaining curious.
I have no shortage of interesting things to share about myself now. I have experienced a broken heart, dengue fever, a divorce, deaths of loved ones, mourning, loss, joy, satisfaction, longing, unbridled curiosity, and mistakes, soooo many fucking mistakes. Today, I live near the reported ancient entrance to hell in Lake Averno. So perhaps if really pressed to share one interesting thing about myself, I would say that I have been to hell and back. And I am here to stay.
This morning on a trip to the market, I bought 2 kilos of zucchini for 2 euro. Batch by fucking batch, I grilled those zucchini and thought about that day at Georgetown years ago. It is hard not to feel nostalgic for the days in which the most interesting thing about myself that I could think of was that I liked sushi. And yet I sigh with satisfaction. I am in Napoli, grilling zucchini and making lunch.
Parmigiana Bianca di Zucchine (Zucchini Parmesan)
Serves 8 as secondo
3 lbs zucchini cut vertically, 1/8” thick (best to use a mandolin slicer WITH hand guard)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 white onion, minced
1 tablespoon chives, minced
5 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons flour
1 quart whole milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ lb thinly sliced smoked provolone
1 cup Reggiano Parmesan
½ lb thinly sliced deli ham
Spread zucchini slices over large platter and sprinkle kosher salt over zucchini
Mix salt evenly across zucchini and rest zucchini for 30 minutes
Rinse zucchini in colander and pat VERY dry
Find yourself a gooooooood podcast because you will now be grilling zucchini for the next 30 minutes
Heat grill pan over medium heat and add scant amount of oil (best if you can spray or brush onto pan)
Grill zucchini on both sides in batches without overcrowding
Set grilled zucchini on paper towel lined platter
While grilling zucchini, make béchamel
Melt butter in medium sauce pan
Add onion and chives and cook onions until translucent
Slowly add flour and whisk to incorporate
Whisk flour and butter mixture (roux) until it is a beige paste
Gently heat milk in separate saucepan
Just as milk barely bubbles, add slowly to roux
Bring to a boil, lower to low heat and cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly
Remove béchamel from heat and add fresh nutmeg and a pinch of salt
Preheat over to 350
Place a layer of béchamel at the bottom of 2 quart casserole dish
Layer grilled zucchini, provolone, ham, parmesan and béchamel
Complete three layers total and finally top with zucchini and parmesan
Bake for 30 minutes until cheese is forms melted golden gratin
Remove zucchini parmesan from oven and off heat
Rest for 15 minutes before serving, allowing to firmly set (this cooling process results in a more flavorful, presentable zucchini parmesan)
Serve warm or at room temperature