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Building Community, One Meal at a Time

By Frank Gruber

August 18, 2009 -- We spent just over a week in Italy, and now I'm spending the rest of my vacation at the New Jersey Shore, the traditional summer gathering place for my wife's family.

Before I left home I wondered to a friend whether he knew many people who would spend their vacation partly in Italy and partly at the Jersey Shore.  He paused only for a moment and said, "Well, in both places you can get great Italian food."

At the moment I'm still waiting to eat my first hoagie in Jersey, but we did eat well in Italy -- and got reminded about community at the same time.

A village called Acqualoreto, one over from the village where my dad has his house, and where we have a number of friends, was having its annual festival while we were there.  It's a weeklong thing where they serve a different pasta each night in their piazza, have concerts and contests (a drawing contest and a bocce tournament, for example), and one night throw a fantastic dinner in the piazza.

Travel advisory digression.  If you travel in the countryside in Italy in the summer you will see billboards and highway viaducts plastered with posters like these:

Poster for taverna in Montecchio (Photos by Frank Gruber)

You may wonder what they're for -- and it pays to find out.  What the posters advertise are festivals -- called tavernas -- that towns throw during the summer, usually featuring music and a local product that's good to eat. 

This poster, for instance, advertises a festival in a town called Montecchio that features cinghiale -- wild boar, along with music and dancing every night.  The festivals are a lot of fun, and "good value."  Usually you can get a three-course meal for about ten euros, wine included.

The towns throw tavernas for various reasons -- to keep their teenagers, who typically do the serving, busy, to raise money for local charities, to promote themselves, and, of course, just to have something to do together.

The reason why that was a digression is that the dinner in Acqualoreto that we made sure we bought tickets for was something different from a taverna.  It was a cena (dinner) in piazza.  A cena in piazza is a more formal meal.  The tickets cost more, and it's more of an event for the villagers themselves (and, fortunately for us, their friends) than for anyone driving around.

What a meal that cena was.  Five courses -- an antipasto plate, a pasta, a dish of lamb cooked with truffles (black truffles are a local specialty), then a plate of roast pig (porchetta) with potatoes, and finally a dessert of cookies to dip into vino santo, and watermelon.

Cena in Piazza in Acqualoreto
Slicing the porchetta

I'm not writing this as an example of foodie porn.  I'm writing it to remind us Santa Monicans that we do things like this in our neighborhoods, too.

We may not be able to send anyone out into the woods to harvest truffles, but from the humble pancake breakfast ("WHAT I SAY -- When Not to Have an Opinion," May 12, 2008), to the block party ("WHAT I SAY -- Up the Alley, Down the Street," September 9, 2002), to the neighborhood barbeque (I remember a great one the PTAs at John Muir and SMASH threw to celebrate the opening of their new schools at Los Amigos Park), we celebrate community -- we commune -- by eating together, too.

* * *

There was another community event we participated in that was based in Acqualoreto.  Near the village, at a spring in the forest, there is a shrine.  There's a little church there, and -- I know this may be hard to believe -- a hermitage, where an actual hermit, a retired schoolteacher, lives in a cave (fortunately one that's been upgraded with some masonry).

The hermitage near Acqualoreto

A few times a year, there is a pilgrimage from the piazza in Acqualoreto, which is up on a hill, down to the shrine, and one of those times was last Friday, the day before Assumption Day.  We joined about 150 people for the trek, which follows a steep path of switchbacks down to the bottom of the valley, where the shrine sits on the hillside overlooking a narrow gorge spanned by the arch of a stone foot bridge.

Pilgrims from Acqualoreto outside church at shrine

We left the piazza around 8:15 in the morning and the hike took about an hour and a half.  Then there was a mass in the church that took about an hour.  After that, everyone was a little hungry.  No problem -- the organizers had thoughtfully converted the leftover porchetta from the cena in piazza into sandwiches.

More food, more community.

* * *

Last week the Santa Monica community suffered two deaths and an unexpected retirement.

There's little for me to add to what's been written around the world about Eunice Kennedy Shriver.  Like other Santa Monicans, I felt privileged to meet her when she was in our city campaigning for her son, Bobby. 

As a local politics obsessive, I was beyond charmed by the idea -- the reality -- that this accomplished woman, who had been involved in national and international events and movements her whole life, was spending so much time and energy getting her son elected to a local city council.

What they would say in Italy is "Brava, Signora."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver at a campaign event for Bobby Shriver in 2004

* * *

One can hardly begrudge City Manager Lamont Ewell the retirement he has earned ("Ewell to Leave City Manager's Post," August 12, 2009), but his retirement is unfortunate for the City.  Mr. Ewell has engendered such trust in the city that it's too bad the City Council will have to search for a successor in the midst of trying economic times, and as the long process to revise the land use and circulation elements of the City's general plan comes to an end, finally.

Mr. Ewell is only 56.  To me -- I'm 57 -- it's obvious that he's in his prime.  While due to his 34 years of working for the public Mr. Ewell is entitled to his retirement, one has to believe that our society is the loser if someone can't entice him into some kind of job -- teaching for instance, or trouble-shooting local government problems somewhere -- where he can give us the benefit of all that he has learned.

* * *

Activist Laurel Roennau, who died last week, and I didn't agree about much, particularly when it came to her passion, traffic.  Ms. Roennau nonetheless had many admirers.  I admired her, too.  Local government is not going to function unless there are principled residents making their cases.

As for the case Ms. Roennau made, I also admired how she remained true to the idealistic principles about transportation she learned back in the '60s, when planners and traffic engineers believed that they could make a world based on automobiles work.  Idealism is always admirable.  In theory.

It was a heroic time when Ms. Roennau studied transportation.  Planners thought that by counting cars, by measuring how fast they went through intersections, by providing more road capacity and parking for those cars, by creating road hierarchies from the cul-de-sac to the freeway, by spreading development horizontally through the landscape to accommodate all that road capacity and parking, they could pave a paradise.

It was exciting -- futuristic.  But the fact that the ideas the planners implemented resulted in the automotive-dystopia they thought they were preventing never discouraged them.  That's the flipside of idealism.

Nonetheless, how the planners then could be so wrong is humbling.  Realists can be wrong, too.


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