My Lunch With Three Italian Women
“Go easy,” said my girlfriend.
I attacked my second plate with the same gusto as the first. Had food ever tasted so good? I was on autopilot, shovelling pasta into my mouth like a savage, and as I swallowed the last ravioli, my plate had already been refilled. I didn’t complain, on the contrary — it was mind-blowingly delicious.
A mountain of grated parmesan found its way onto my third helping of those rich, tomato-clad parcels of heaven. My girlfriend, my girlfriend’s mother, and my girlfriend’s mother’s mother all sat there watching me, vaguely picking at their own plates but much more consumed with the spectacle of unrestrained gluttony unfolding before their eyes.
This was my first time meeting mother Tina and grandmother Lydia, and I aimed to make a good impression, despite the odds being clearly stacked against me. It was also a couple of days into my first ever trip to Italy, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to the mealtime ways of the natives. But I was eager to learn.
I devoured my third plate, with enthusiasm at first then slowing down towards the end. This was a good performance by anyone’s standards. I’d definitely pushed the boat out. Also, I was drunk. The wine was like nectar, and somehow my glass was always full, no matter how fast I drained it.
I was done, but one thing wasn’t: the dish in the middle of the table. In one corner, about a dozen ravioli claimed unfinished business.
Words were exchanged in Italian, and my girlfriend translated for me, although she didn’t have to — I knew who the majority had designated for the task. I shook my head, trying to convey with a smile that, while this was the most amazing food I’d ever eaten, I couldn’t possibly manage another bite.
Needless to say, the ravioli were scooped out onto my plate. This fourth helping was just as big as the first three. I swallowed hard and suppressed a belch. The last thing I wanted was to offend anyone, so I put on a brave face and began the long climb to the summit.
One more, I kept repeating to myself, just one more, and on I went, one ravioli at a time.
Ten interminable minutes later, my plate was empty, and stayed empty. My belly was taut like a balloon.
I loosened my belt and relaxed into my chair. I yawned. This was the life.
My vision was somewhat blurry at this stage, and I was more or less ready to hibernate, when I noticed a tray of meat on the table.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“The main course,” my girlfriend replied.
I stared at the meat. It was glistening with oil. The meat stared back at me. I was glistening with perspiration.
My stomach was processing enough complex carbohydrates to power me through a marathon in about a week’s time, leaving little energy for mental prowess of any kind.
“I don’t understand…”
“That was the starter. I told you to go easy.”
“But they kept on — ”
“You should’ve said no.”
While I mulled over my predicament — and the insanity of serving pasta as a starter — more food materialised. Roast potatoes with sausages. Peas with pancetta. Two different salads, one of them bursting with balls of fluffy white mozzarella. Slabs of crusty white bread thick as loafers. And a second tray of meat.
They say ‘When in Rome…’ But I was in Rome, and I wanted out.
A bit more about the meat. One tray displayed slices of a sort of roulade, layered with egg and thinly-sliced veal. The other tray presented thinly-sliced veal again, but coated with breadcrumbs and steamed with lemon. Beyond considering the almost certain deliciousness of it all, I was more concerned with my immediate well-being, which was waning fast.
I watched in a stupor as my empty plate was replaced with a much larger one, about the size of a centurion’s shield. Tina and Lydia busied themselves filling it with a sizeable portion of every dish on the table. I remained silent. Protesting would only exacerbate their verve to feed me.
As they talked among themselves, I fished my phone out of my pocket and kept it under the table as I googled ‘how to win an eating competition’. Any tip would do. But the page wasn’t loading — weak signal. It was too late anyway. Everyone’s plates were filled and it was time to eat.
Their appetites gently teased by the half-dozen ravioli they’d consumed, my opponents tucked into their meal and resumed their conversation, but I knew a good part of their attention was on me. So, with my gut already housing approximately fifty ravioli, I put my head down, took a deep breath, and wrapped my fingers around my fork.
I aimed at a pea, stabbed it, and brought it to my mouth. I chewed. I swallowed. I kept it down. Maybe I could do this, one morsel at a time. I just had to alternate flavours, keep the palate entertained, and ignore the alarm bells ringing in my stomach.
Proceeding this way, I cleared half the plate. I hadn’t touched the meat & egg roll yet. It filled me with dread. Every time I gazed in its direction, it started to spiral, sucking me into a swirling vortex. I was overdosing on food and hallucinating. Maybe if I stared at the roulade long enough I could hypnotise myself into being hungry. I needed a breather.
I put my fork down, grabbed my napkin and dabbed at my mouth.
I threw a discreet glance at my phone. Still loading.
Tina looked at my plate and noticed the space I’d cleared. She stood up and filled it again with more food. My heart sank. Not by much — my expanding stomach was pushing against all the other internal organs.
Tina handed me a slice of bread and nodded vigorously. I took the bread, wiped my brow and lowered my gaze.
I don’t know exactly what happened next, but somehow I disassociated my mind from my body, and I ate. I didn’t finish the plate, but I came close. I even managed a good half of that mesmerising meat & egg roll. I couldn’t tell you what it tasted like, but I was assured it was one of Tina’s specialities, so it must’ve been awe-inspiring, under different circumstances.
The table was cleared. Not by me — I was moored to my chair by an anchor of undigested food.
Dessert plates were laid out. This wasn’t over. My girlfriend grinned. She was enjoying this.
A box was opened. Pastries. Mini choux buns and tiny croissants, some filled with chocolate, others with cream. I wolfed down fifteen of the little bastards. Dessert is never a problem for me. My girlfriend watched on. She wasn’t smiling anymore but I knew she was secretly impressed, maybe even a little turned on.
Tina said something to Lydia. I found out later what it was:
‘My god, he’s greedy.’
She then said something to me, which included the word ‘coffee’. I nodded in approval.
I was offered a bowl of coffee-flavoured ice cream. I’d been played.
I forced it down. I didn’t die, but I came close. Then, actual coffee was served. I needed more than caffeine to save me, although at least this was the strongest coffee I’d ever tasted. I sipped the bitter, tar-like syrup, which coated my throat and pooled at the bottom, resting atop the mound of previously ingested food.
My girlfriend and her mother went to the kitchen to wash up. Usually I’d help out, but not today, and probably not tomorrow. I glanced over at Lydia, who had retired to the sofa. She was watching a soap opera and experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions, laughing and slapping her thigh one moment, sobbing uncontrollably the next. I’d never seen anything like it. She was living every frame of that TV show.
With great effort I lifted my spent carcass off my chair and dragged it to the sofa, where I slumped by Lydia’s side. Safe in the bosom of three generations of Italian women, I closed my eyes and slipped into a deep, velvety coma.