“You know how people have these little habits that get you down…?”
Kander & Ebb, Chicago
If you’ve ever cooked pasta, you know that it requires salt in the water. But, in Italy, there are two schools of thought about the precise moment when that salt should be added: before or after the water comes to a boil.
My ex-husband Enrico was firmly of the “add the salt before the water boils” school. I have no idea whether it makes any difference at all when you add it, but I learned to make pasta from him, so I always added the salt as soon as I’d put water in the pot and put the pot on the burner.
How many times a week does an Italian family eat pasta at home? Five or six, usually. And, when I wasn’t traveling, it was usually me doing the cooking. So, figure 40 weeks a year when I was home and cooking, five meals a week involving pasta, times 20 years, equals about four thousand times that Enrico might have observed me cooking pasta.
He’d come in while the water was boiling and I was doing other things: preparing sauce and salad, slicing bread, setting the table, etc.
And he would inevitably ask: “C’hai messo il sale?” – Did you put the salt in?
And I would inevitably answer: “Yes.” Because I always had. Maybe once in twenty years did I ever forget to add the salt immediately.
But he always, always asked. It was so predictable that, if he came into the kitchen at all while I was cooking, my shoulders would hunch defensively, in anticipation of the question – which, after years, began to sound like an accusation.
Sometime around year 18 or 19, I pointed this out to him: “You ask EVERY TIME. And I have already put in the salt EVERY TIME. Stop asking!” He looked momentarily surprised.
But he kept asking. Every damned time. As if he could not help asking, could not forbear to assume, even after all these years, that I would screw it up.
And now, even as I’m in the process of divorcing him and we’re living on opposite sides of the globe (we’ve been separated for years), my neck tightens as I put on the pot to boil, and reflexively add the salt.
C’hai messo il sale?