Julia is a fireball with steely blue eyes and big pretty lips. When she speaks, she uses her body as a prop like in a play. Her stories are full of physical animation, moving hands and raised eyebrows—you can't help but stare in wonderment, even if what she is telling you is completely ordinary. But she rarely says anything ordinary: she was introduced to this type of music when she was living in a tent on a farm in Hawaii, or her Italian boyfriend’s Grandma insisted that she take some Parmigiano home with her so she arrived in the States with an eighth of a wheel of cheese in her backpack. The only reason I believed her stories at first was because there was always someone sitting next to her nodding, saying that it was true. After awhile I became that person.
The first time I met Julia, I was annoyed with her. I had just begun working at the Deli and one of our balsamic vinegar producers came to visit us. Signore T. spoke no English and his assistant spoke little more than that. There were forty people sitting in the outside tent waiting to hear all about his fabulous product and no one to convey the message he had brought. In a spur the moment remembrance—I had written ‘Italian’ as one of my two college majors on my application—my manager came to find me and asked if I would translate. I became extremely anxious, suddenly. I hated speaking in front of crowds, had loathed it since Middle School when we had to stand up and give presentations in front of the class. But they were clearly in a bind and I was their only hope, so I put on a brave face and followed her to the tent. When we walked in, a tallish blonde—a natural blonde at that—had command of the microphone and everyone’s attention was on her. “He’s saying that the production of balsamic vinegar is an important tradition in Italy,” she told the crowd confidently, “and that up until recently, people didn’t make it as an item to sell. It stayed in the family.” I was relieved in a way but also disheartened that I wasn’t the one everyone was counting on anymore. She went on and conveyed information and gestured with her hands and the crowd was really into it…until there came a moment when she couldn’t translate something. “He’s saying that the tradition of making balsamic is still kept within the family," I snuck in. "When his son was born, he and his wife filled a barrel with vinegar and it’s been aging ever since. As it ages, it evaporates and thickens, so they’ve transferred it into smaller and smaller barrels. When their son gets married, they will give it to him; he and his wife will have a small barrel of twenty- to thirty-year old balsamic vinegar as a wedding present.” The crowd had stars in their eyes and so did Signore T. I knew this was an important story for him to tell. I glanced at Julia and offered her a shy smile. I hadn’t wanted to step on her toes—she had been doing so well translating thus far. She grinned at me. At that exact moment, I had the distinct feeling that we'd be lifelong friends.
As my comrade prepares for her departure for California, I've been reminiscing about old times, and naturally most of my memories are intertwined with recollections of meals we shared together, ghosts of sensory stimuli past. Here is a recipe, vivid in my mind, and oh so Julia. Let's call it...
Note: For this particular salad, it is absolutely a pre-requisite that you use your hands, not kitchen gizmos, throughout every part of this process, just as Julia would. It will taste better.
Whatever you have on hand
(examples: cherry tomatoes, avocados, dried cherries or raisins; pine nuts, walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts; chunks of cucumber, carrots, celery, etc.)
Toast the nuts in a small pan over medium heat; when you smell them, it's usually a good sign that they're done. Take them off the heat. Wash and dry your lettuce. Rip it into easy-to-eat pieces. Begin adding your ingredients, one at a time, and toss. (For example: tomatoes, toss; carrots, toss; raisins, toss.) Toss in the nuts when cool.
In a small container with a lid, pour in some good quality olive oil and less vinegar (anything you want-- white wine vinegar, balsamic, sherry vinegar), cover and shake vigorously. *Pour over your salad and toss, just before serving.
*At this point, you can use a kitchen gizmo, like tongs. ;)