Southern Italy, the Fall of 1980 – I had just been at the wedding of my Mother’s sister Anna, and my cousin and I were driving one of the guests back home. Shortly after the drop off, as we pull away down a narrow alley, our little car seemed to encounter some odd mechanical difficulty. Engine running? Check. Wheels spinning? Check… but, we were not moving – not horizontally at least. Our car appeared to be bouncing wildly up and down, hopelessly trying to gain traction in the air. What in the world was happening?
At that moment on the evening of November 23rd, 1980 we were in the midst of the most devastating earthquake to hit South Italy in recent times.
Within seconds life around me suddenly became bizarre and surreal. The sky turned strange borealis colors. There were explosions, fire, smoke, screaming and devastation everywhere. The whole of Sorrento was in shock. There were strange sights you would never have imagined. I saw a building collapse, leaving only a sliver of itself standing, supported only by a skeleton of metal plumbing, and on the fourth or fifth floor, a mother, holding her baby, stood on a toilet screaming for help. There was nothing I could do.
I sprinted back to the restaurant… only to discover there was no restaurant. It, along with some lives, had been taken by the Mediterranean Sea. There, floating in the clear water was the wedding I had just been to… just peacefully bobbing up and down among the waves. I heard that the bride and groom had just barely escaped by jumping out of a window and onto an awning as the floor collapsed beneath them.
Sorrento practically lost all its businesses and residences, and soon my own family was placed in a hotel until we waited for an answer to the question “Now what?” The time that passed in the next few weeks and months seemed both long and short. Much needed to be done, but at the same time there was little that could be done. For all its urgency, mostly all you can do is sit and wait. This part of Italy is certainly no stranger to life changing disasters. It is the home of the infamous graveyard city of Pompeii, once buried alive by volcanic ashes. There are literally cities built on top of older cities that did not survive one disaster or another. We counted ourselves lucky. In relative good fortune, while we were there, we met a bar owner, told him our story, and he agreed to let us use a part of his space for business, which we quickly turned into a makeshift restaurant - a kind of tourist location in one of the many “piazza” in Sorrento. It became at least a buzzing and busy place with a lot of activity.
One sunny afternoon, during our break, a large group of American Marines on shore leave from the legendary Nimitz, in port at Naples, came to get their load of beer. The waiter came to our kitchen to let us know that 20 Americans were in the mood for some sweets to go with their drinks, specifically “Bananas Flambé” also known to some as Bananas Foster. The flambé part is simply a bit of liquor added and lit to produce a little alcohol fueled pyrotechnics show, mostly for entertainment purposes, but also to add a bit of caramelization. My mom quickly refused, explaining that her husband was not present (my stepfather was out losing our money in a little poker game), and therefore we could not deliver.
I protested “But mom, we could use this money. I’ll cook.”
“Be quiet”. she scolded. “That is not a thing for a 14 year old to handle”.
But I continued to insist, assuring her that I had watched the dish assembled many many times and that I could indeed handle it. With a prayer and sweating pearls, she sighed… and bravely agreed to let me step up to the stove. A short while later, we delivered 20 plates of Bananas Flambé… and just 10 minutes later was a request for an additional 20. Apparently the Americans loved them, claiming them as the best dessert they ever had in their life. You can imagine what a tremendously huge boost that was for my confidence in the kitchen. That was the first taste of the special feeling that has since been the reward and motivation for my career as a Chef.
Even still under a long shadow in this difficult time, somehow I was gifted this one bright spot - a hint that life might one day be good again. Just one moment, a very small push forward. But how much we all need that sometimes. Because that’s how you get through life – one moment at a time.
PS: Years later, Bananas Flambe was the first dessert I ever made for my now wife of 22 years… so thank you again Bananas Flambe. Amen.
Banana Flambe- ingredients and recipe:
Ingredients- 2 semi-hard bananas(peeled and cut in half lengthwise), 4 tablespoons of granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 juicy orange(including zest), 1 lemon(including zest), 1 shot of Grand Marnier, enough Cognac for flambe (the pyrotechnic effect as well as for taste), 2 portions french vanilla ice cream, and some chopped toasted almonds.
Recipe: In a frying pan, put sugar, and butter and let it melt slightly. As the sugar begins to caramelize, add the juice of the citruses and let it all become a creamy caramel. As all the ingredients are blended, add the bananas, poke the top of the bananas with a fork to let the juices absorb into the fruit. Add the Grand Marnier. It is now time for the cognac. Set it on fire, getting your flambe effect. You will see, as the alcohol burns out of the sauce, the flames will extinguish by themselves. Time for serving. In a dessert plate, arrange the two halved bananas almost into an oval shape. Arrange the vanilla ice cream in the center and pour the sauce over the entire dish and sprinkle with chopped almonds, and be ready for pyrotechnics, but this time in your mouth and your belly.