I have always been fascinated by the traditions that are honored in Italy. Italian culture is drenched in the arts, architecture, music, family and food. Traditions that began centuries ago are still celebrated just as they were from the beginning days. Italians have a deep respect for history and especially their heritage and customs. Recently, I was enthralled by something as simple as a walnut. I was certain that the walnut would become the latest lesson in my education on Italian traditions.
If you ever have the opportunity to dine at home with an Italian family, you are truly fortunate. This is where the best magic happens. You may get a whiff of the Italian dining experience in an outdoor café, at a food festival or even by eating “street” from a vendor. But, to truly appreciate all things Italian, pull up a chair and sit with an Italian family during a meal in their home. All your senses are tickled at once. The fantastic smells of the food, the hearty laughter, the excited conversation, and the general joy of sharing a meal all combine to make your soul sing. Your eyes follow the dishes of food as they are placed on the table and the sight is incredible, both for the presentation and the sheer size of the course being offered.
Not long ago, I was the guest of an Italian family who are dear friends. I was delighted to meet their five-year-old grandson, who was very excited to help his grandmother get ready for the meal. The pasta course was served and I was quite happy to see lemon risotto being placed in front of me. The place setting included the traditional silverware with an added mystery. A single walnut graced each place, carefully put just north of the fork. I quietly looked at the walnut and wondered exactly what I should do with it. There wasn’t a nut cracker on the table. I wondered if the hostess would crack it for us. As with all things that are new to me, I decided to watch closely to see what the other folks at the table would do with their walnut and follow suit with mine.
The first bites of the yummy risotto were taken. The walnuts were left untouched. As the risotto course was devoured, nothing happened with the walnuts. I was certain that we would eat our walnuts after the risotto was finished for good luck or some other reason, but certainly because it was traditional.
The risotto bowls were gathered and the walnuts were removed from the table right along with them. The mystery deepened. I thought to myself, “I just have to know why the walnuts were on the table.” I wondered if they were only served with risotto, or maybe even only with lemon risotto. But, why? I finally just had to ask.
I leaned over to my friend, the host, and quietly asked, “What were the walnuts there for?” At first he looked perplexed. Then, he got a twinkle in his eye and grinned, explaining, “They were there because my grandson set the table.”
Ah, mystery solved! There was no “tradition”, but simply a whim of the imaginative mind of a young child that had helped with the meal. I had to laugh at myself.
But, another thought occurred to me. The walnuts weren’t shunned by his grandmother as he set the table. They were not mocked by the lunch guests. They simply remained, where they were, honoring his creative choice.
Some traditions are universal. They transcend boundaries and unite us all. The love of our children and encouragement of their choices is certainly one of those. And as for me, I will never look at another walnut in quite the same way!