Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Three days, 567 questions

The last time I had my testicles professionally counted was in the Winter of 1989, along with every eighteen-year-old male with whom I shared a birthday in the greater Milan area. Together, we had been summoned to appear at the army recruitment precinct in via Mascheroni.

No, wait, that’s not it. That’s my old primary school. This is it.

They lined us up in the poorly heated corridors, with nothing but our underpants on, and one by one we underwent the scrotal inspection. There were hundreds of us, all chosen exclusively by birth date. They gave us spirometry tests and chest x-rays and a comprehensive hearing test that went like this: “Can you hear?” “Yes.” They counted our testicles and checked for the absence of varicocele. They vaccinated us against typhoid and meningitis. But most of all, they made us wait.

The examinations lasted three whole days, which involved sleeping in the barracks for those who came from out of town. Those with advance knowledge of what awaited us came armed with a copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s legendary pink-coloured sports newspaper, which could be traded for various forms of preferential treatment (most typically: skipping a queue). Or with cigarettes, which could also be traded. But they, too, spent most of their time waiting for the next event. We waited standing or we waited sitting down. Always, we waited where they asked us to wait, clothed or half-naked, because even the most naïve among us knew better than to question the orders.

The army examination at eighteen was known as ‘the three days’, as in ‘Mario has done (or is yet to do) the three days’. Its ostensible purpose was to determine whether or not young men were physically fit for conscription, and was therefore compulsory for all males of age who didn’t meet a handful of exclusion criteria (such as having two older brothers who had already completed the service). Not turning up for the three days was a crime punishable with up to two years in military prison, a sentence served most commonly by Jehovah’s Witnesses and by those who practiced the so-called ‘total objection’ for political reasons. I think my paternal grandfather was one of them. As I wrote before, I eventually took the civil option, which was a far less hard-core form of conscientious objection won by previous generations of pacifists. As such, I had to still go through the three days, which was like a mini-version of the year we were all supposed to spend in the army.

Image by Gin Angri

Never before or since have I had an opportunity to meet such a comprehensive cross-section of my fellow male Italians, without the class biases that attending such institutions as your local school entail. But it was a sample distorted by the context in which we came together. Within the walls of that military precinct, we weren’t citizens: we were future recruits, that is to say people that even privates had the power to order around. The whole experience was a prolonged, slow-motion hazing, punctuated by ritualistic examinations of dubious medical value such as the aforementioned ball census. Along with the enforced nudity and poking, we were subjected to army humour, whose peculiar joylessness lay in repetition. How many times had the attendant standing next to the queue for the urinals yelled the line: “Remember, after two shakes it qualifies as a wank”?

Above all, however, we caught a glimpse of the immense, almost incomprehensible waste of time that the real, eventual service would entail. Like queueing in your underwear, but for a whole year. I’m sure many of us made the decision to become conscientious objectors there and then. I was foolish enough to say it out loud, and for that they sent me to see the psychiatrist.

But first came the famous and fabled questionnaire. This was an interminable psychometric test that most of us had heard whispers about. For some reason, we had been warned that it would contain questions about flowers and being a florist, and that we should answer them carefully, unless we wanted to be sent to see the psychiatrist. It was only last week that I tried to find it online, doubting very much that I would, and lo and behold, it is there. All 567 questions of it. Questions ¬in the form of statements such as ‘I think I would like to work as a librarian’ (#4) or ‘My hands and feet are usually quite warm’ (#8) or ‘Sometimes I am possessed by evil spirits’ (#24). And, just as they had warned us, ‘I like to pick flowers or grow plants at home’ (#119) and ‘I’d like to be a florist (#74), which were supposed to trick you if you answered them inconsistently.

Image by Gin Angri

As it turns out (again, I only just discovered this), the test was modelled on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychometric test designed in 1939 by psychologists at the University of Minnesota to assess personality traits and detect signs of mental illness. The test was recalibrated in 1989, the year I sat it, but I doubt the army ever updated the old test, nor do I have any great faith that they employed it for what might have been a reasonable purpose: namely, to identify psychological vulnerabilities in those for whom the service risked becoming a death sentence – as suicides among conscripts in those years numbered on average over 400 a year. Instead, they sent us to the psychiatrist for what appeared to be random, arbitrary reasons, according to a logic that mirrored the social topsy-turviness of life in the military: a life that stripped you of the qualities that education sought to develop, in order to elevate violent dullards to position of prestige and authority.

Italy no longer has a compulsory draft, and the recruitment precinct where I spent those three days is being converted into a new campus of our famous academy of fine arts, Brera. It’s a happy, hopeful ending for a place that use to be synonymous for generations of young men to experiences ranging from inconvenience to mild torture.

As for me, I must admit that sometimes I worry excessively about things that are not really important (#442).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

My fucking food bag: Torta sbrisolona

Brisa in the Mantuan dialect means crumb, a derivation from the Latin brisiare – to break into crumbs – also found in the French verb briser. However, sbrisolona means something rather more colourful than the English culinary term ‘crumble’. At once descriptive and affectionate, it’s closer to ‘big ol’ crumbly’, if I had to attempt a translation.

Big ol’ crumbly was a regular part of my diet when I visited my grandparents, who lived in the south-eastern corner of that province. Cuisine in this part of Italy is ‘of the Prince and the pauper’, meaning that historically farm labourers and the aristocracy ate largely off the same menu, although of course the latter got to pick more than one course per meal and never went without. Still, it’s true to say the most well-known Mantuan dishes originate from the ingenuity of its peasants. This is certainly the case with the sbrisolona, whose earliest documented traces date back to the 16th century and refer to a cake whose main ingredients were nothing if not humble: dripping, cornmeal and nuts.

Upon reaching the table of the family that ruled over the dukedom, the Gonzagas, the original recipe was upgraded by replacing the dripping with butter and the nuts with the noble almond, as well as by adding that most wonderful of new-world spices, vanilla. These ingredients survive today in varying proportions, leading to more rustic or more genteel versions of the sbrisolona. At the rustic end, you’re required to break the cake by hitting it in the middle with your fist. At the genteel end, you can cut it in slices using a knife. If you can imagine such a thing.

The recipe below sits somewhere in the vicinity of the ‘punch this cake’ end of the spectrum. It has as much dripping as butter, and as much cornmeal as flour. Both are necessary in order to produce the ‘true’ sbrisolona, rather than a generic and anonymous crumble. And that is often the thing about the peasants’ table: it’s just much more interesting.

The sbrisolona is a cake for all seasons and latitudes. Light, it is not, but on the other hand – being essentially a piece of edible masonry – it also keeps for a very long time.

Having generously greased a cake dish of a diameter of let’s say 30 cms or thereabouts, we proceed to assemble our ingredients.

200 g cornmeal (the fine kind, Healtheries makes the most common kind in New Zealand)
200 g flour
200 g sugar

(The sbrisolona was also known as the “cake of the three cups” because it required a cupful each of the three main ingredients above. Go with the same quantities, anyway.)

150 g beef dripping (the hard, not the liquid kind – also known confusingly in North America as lard, even though they aren’t the same thing. Crazy Yanks.)
150 g butter
200 g almonds, coarsely ground
2 egg yolks
Pinch of salt, teaspoon of vanilla essence, zest of 1 lemon

While melting the dripping in a saucepan and softening the butter, mix the two flours, sugar, salt, almonds, lemon, vanilla in a bowl. Make a well in the middle and add dripping, butter, yolks, comme ça:

Mix with your hands, messily. You won't get a dough but rather a crumbly series of lumps. You'll think you've done it all wrong.

Turn on your oven to 180°C. Transfer the mixture into your cake dish, without pressing it down too much.

Cook for 45 to 60 minutes, until the top is golden and the edge looks slightly burnt. Let it cool.

If you find that it's too hard to cut it in slices, congratulations: you have made the perfect sbrisolona. However: if you used a dish like the one pictured as opposed to a sponge cake-type tin with a removable bottom, you’re unlikely to be able to lift out the cake. Therefore, don’t punch it in the middle or you’ll just hurt yourself. Use some sort of sharp tool instead to make a crack in the surface. The cake should break into shards, like so.

The shards are not unlike what some outside of Italy call biscotti (which for us is just the word for biscuits) and that in Italy we call cantucci or cantuccini. These are also almond-based and are consumed traditionally by dipping them into vin santo – literally ‘holy wine’ but really a Tuscan style of dessert wine similar to Malvasia. Therefore, it won’t surprise you to know that you can also dip fragments of sbrisolona in a dessert wine or even, I’m told, grappa. But I just take them neat.

Enjoy. Merry Christmas.

On a decidedly less jolly note, I wrote a piece this week for Overland on polite Nazis and the violence of speech, following an appalling episode that occurred last week.