It wasn’t long ago that Raccogliere was the heart of the town. That’s not to say this town was without other delights, far from it. This city was beauty in all its form. The architecture was all crafted by the citizens with love and care for they knew this town would be, for generations, their home. In fact the town square had buildings of commerce, philosophy and law that enjoyed the faces of their citizens carved into their pillars that held the buildings tall. This was intentional, of course, to remind everyone that passed by the pillars the citizens were what carried this town. It was not the actions and decisions made within these important and revered walls because with enough support those actions could be halted. Those decisions could be reversed. This town was as close to perfection as any town before and every town after.
The farmers had the best land and produced the freshest, tastiest of vegetables and meats for the citizens to buy and cook with care. This was incredibly important for the town because within their culture it was the cooks of each family who were held in highest regard. It’s well known, but not often considered by outsiders, that their trade brought the family together from all their daily activities. The act of cooking was not considered the pinnacle of achievement. It was understanding your loved ones enough to provide something so enticing they rush home to spend time together. In this town that was to be admired and those cooks were the glue that kept the family together. No matter the time away from home, in the daily dealings of their own trades, the stress of every day encounters, all fade away when surrounded by the love of family and the feasting on great food.
In this beautiful town, positioned just right for the near by ocean breeze to waft the restaurants aroma’s through the town each weekend, we meet the town cook. Now recall the significance of a families single cook and then imagine the importance of one who can unite not just a family but a town! What a privilege to be such a person as this cook whose delicacies brought the town together each Friday and Saturday night. This cook was appreciated by the town for at least once a week every citizen from every enterprise was sharing in conversation, laughter, perhaps a glass of wine or two and the finest meals ever created by someone of no immediate relation to his patrons. The heart of the city was Raccogliere and the pulse it carried each weekend kept the town alive.
As matters go in towns as incredible as this, word eventually spreads by way of traveling merchants, who fell awestruck by what they enjoyed and those they engaged with. As time went on, the town began to grow and grow and grow. The town never lost its charm. The young men would romance young ladies, then evolve to newly weds. Some time after they would produce new families and each new family stuck to tradition and added certain new charms. It was always a challenge to guess how quickly the passionate, and often young, newly weds would keep only two chairs at the dinner table. Their attention to each other certainly was enough to bring forth new additions rapidly, seeing the chairs around the dinner table increase in number. There was never a surprised face when their amorous activities produced new additions to their family and hungry mouths around their table. The houses were filled with love. These new smiling citizens made this already remarkable town a shining beacon for all who had business here and more so for those who enjoyed frequent holidays.
The restaurant, Raccogliere, was busy as always and as time went on the cook realized he must eventually hire help. The demand was growing and while he enjoyed his privileged position he knew he would not be able to provide such quality by himself for much longer. One day while prepping the ingredients and planning the weekend menu a stranger walked into his restaurant. The man approached with a gentle and calm demeanor. He had a smile that was warm and his personality non-threatening. He told the cook that he was new in town and had heard many good things about the restaurant, Raccogliere. He was curious if he could help the cook by taking over the managerial duties and provide him time to do more of what he loved, cooking. Always a patient and thoughtful man (which one would expect from someone whose trade is delighting in hours of work to produce a single meal to several people all at once) the cook said he would consider it. The stranger understood and said he would be back in 3 days time to speak with the cook again. The stranger had taken up residence near by in the hotel and welcomed the cook over any time to talk, if he felt so inclined.
The stranger took the next 3 days to meet as many people in the town as he could. He seemed delighted to share stories with strangers and over time turn them into friends. He seemed a likable man by most standards but something was different. Most people didn’t notice his forced smile, similar to those of the traveling salesman the river boats always brought into town. Water merchants were good for little except the occasional tall tale of their misadventures floating from town to town. They were also a dirty bunch who enjoyed river water bathes and little, if any, soap to purge the smell of dead fish or worse. This stranger had something similar to these vagabonds, these gypsies. He had charisma and charm. He brought with him the unknown but still familiar. He was entertaining in conversation and never asked of anyone for anything that wasn’t already an option. He was almost too likable and the towns people grew to befriend him. The stranger was now a welcomed part of the town and it only took 3 days.
True to his word the stranger arrived back at the restaurant in 3 days time. The weekend was almost upon the cook and he, after some consideration, granted the stranger employment for the weekend only. This was his interview. The cook informed him that if he could successfully manage the towns people, who had recently become friends of his, while the cook was able to stay in the kitchen, he could enjoy further employment. The first weekend was a success and the increased success of shared responsibility saw the restaurant double and then triple in size that month alone. As more people enjoyed what the cook was providing it only made sense to hire more workers to assist him with his labor of love. As such, the stranger hired new faces to the restaurant and the cook continued to make increased amounts of food until the volume became too much for him alone. The cook grew sick from exhaustion and the stranger hired new cooks.
In a short time the stranger had become one of the wealthiest citizens in town. He had managed to turn the restaurant into a service provider that saw patrons every night, instead of just the weekend. Slowly the heart of the city grew and grew, until it didn’t anymore. It wasn’t long after all the success that citizens started to fall ill from their dining. The stranger found a spoon on the floor once and blamed the wait staff for not paying enough attention to the utensils. More grew sick and the stranger saw that the pans too were not being washed regularly during the evenings. He blamed the cooks and their helpers for not being diligent in their duties. Even more became sick and soon the heart of the city broke. The stranger turned and blamed the patrons for abusing the privilege of dining at his restaurant. He ridiculed the towns people for expecting what was supposed to be special and slowly convinced everyone he was right. He convinced everyone but the cook that is, who was still recouping in his bed.
The cook decided one day that he was feeling well enough to climb from his bed and walk to the restaurant. It wasn’t long after leaving his residence that he saw what had become of his beautiful town in such a short while. The streets were littered with trash. The exterior of the buildings were in need of repair. The people no longer laughed and shared together. In fact, he could hear once friendly voices shouting at each other despicable things. Things that no one of his town would have ever engaged in before. The cooks of the family cared little to provide for their loved ones. They barely cooked at all anymore. The towns people mostly hung out by the river with the water merchants now. They were all but part of this once great gathering of citizens. The cooks town appeared to be no more.
Eventually the cook found his way through the mess and to his beloved restaurant, Raccogliere. The windows were sealed shut so the smell of the cooks in the kitchen wouldn’t get out to the town. On the door was a note, barely legible, and the cook was patient enough to read it. The stranger had left the note and in one last final act of indigence blamed the sick chef for abandoning his post and leaving the restaurant to fail in his absence. The stranger went on to accuse the cook of never loving the town at all and using the stranger as a means to build a lucrative business that would earn only the cook some fortune. The cook, patient as always, took the note inside and used it to clean off the windows so he could open them once again. He released the cooks who were sitting idly by in the kitchen and began cleaning his restaurant. Slowly, the heart of the town beat again.
The cook discovered the kitchen staff had been neglecting to clean the prep area. He noticed that his once sharp, shiny blades were now rusty and dull. He discovered the pots and pans were growing mold and hadn’t been washed, presumably, since he left. It was no wonder the towns people fell ill. It’s a wonder how none died. The cook took all the now useless items that once served him well and threw them into a pile in the middle of the restaurant. He then did what he knew he had to do. The town he remembered, the town he loved more than his cooking, would never come back to a place so vile and disgusting. He knew that the sickness that took his town must be purged. He must create something so spectacular that people will want to stop by Raccogliere. So, with tear filled eyes and a half hearted smile, he lit a match, set the strangers note on fire, left it near his curtains and left the restaurant to burn.
The fire was so immense everyone in the town rushed to see what had become of the restaurant. They scrambled to get enough water to try and quell the fire but it was too late. The restaurant burned to the ground and all that was left was one old cast iron pot. The towns people hurried to help the cook who was now without his restaurant. The cook instructed the people that Raccogliere would never be again and that the true heart of the city beat because the people wanted it to. They sought him out and sought each other out. They looked forward to spending a night or two with friends and family. They enjoyed the change of pace each weekend and allowed it to refresh their spirits. It wasn’t the restaurant that kept the city alive. It was them and their appreciation for each other. The fact they celebrated family and togetherness and once they grew distracted from what’s truly important, well, it all fell apart.
It’s been many years since the cook passed away. He never did open another restaurant either. Instead, after he recovered from being sick he tutored the family cooks and united his city once again from within the kitchen. This time though, he did it one household at a time. Moving from kitchen to kitchen each night sharing his techniques with the new cooks and the veterans. They would learn from him and in turn he learned as well. The cook was a solitary man but in his last days he was surrounded by friends, who accepted him as family. The cook reminded everyone of what joy felt like. The town was reminded what togetherness looked like. And everyone, the cook included, was reminded of what incredible food tastes like.
There’s a new restaurant in town that we occasionally go to and on our way there we always pass by that old cast iron pot that survived the fire. We even named the old pot Raccogliere. We moved it to the center of town square before the old cook died. Rumor has it, if you listen close enough on the windy nights it sounds like the old cook himself is stirring away. Silly, I know, but it’s fun to tell to people here on holiday. It’s a reminder now that if you aren’t paying attention to what’s truly important, some vagabond will come around and convince you of what’s not. So we are reminded of that and more over dinner and a glass of wine or two. It’s challenging not have a glass of wine, or two, when dining. In fact just sharing this story encourages one to have a glass and loosen up. After all, loosening up usually helps with laughter. Thanks to the old cook, the laughter that could be heard all over town was sometimes deafening. But as I always say, I’d rather be deaf from laughter than blind from tears.