I was thirty, single, and had never cooked a roast. For many years I had been vegetarian and had lived in rented rooms in Rome without a kitchen. Those weren’t the only reasons. I didn’t believe I was capable. After moving into an apartment all my own, I wake up longing for roast beef.
I loved meat as a child: pineapple-glazed hams, pork loin with apricots, lamb with mint sauce -- I have yet to see their equals. Those perfect roasts were the product of science. It was my father, a chemist, who supervised the Sunday roast. A lover of good food, he mingled his gusto for all things natural with stern precision when it came to cooking times and temperatures and the strict observance of proper procedure. A candid snapshot of Sunday noon in our kitchen would show my father and mother leaning over the roasting pan, piercing the flesh with a skewer, scrutinizing the color of the liquid oozing from the tiny aperture. Is the meat done? Is it underdone? Will it be too dry? They never agreed. Oven thermometers, timers , glass measuring cups still stir in me a certain anxiety.
I get out an old cookbook and study oven roasting. Here too, science is required. How much liquid, if any? At what temperature? I shut the book and go off to my neighborhood butcher where I examine the cuts of beef displayed amid labyrinthine coils of brains , lungs like fuchsia sponges. The baleful, bloody eyes of a severed lamb’s head reproach me for my apostasy from vegetarianism.
I ask the butcher for a suitable cut to make rosbif al forno. A philosophical disquisition follows – would I prefer a girello, a lombata, a filetto, or a controfiletto? I have no idea, but tell him I have guests for dinner, my closest friend and my new boyfriend, and I want to impress them both.
Later, alone, with the roast, I try to remember my father’s gestures as he ministered the meat. I rub it with garlic, herbs, butter; pat it with flour, plop it in a pan, pouring in a generous cup of wine. I throw in some quartered potatoes – that was never done in my house – and dribble them with olive oil. My oven is a battered monstrosity from the fifties salvaged from a friend’s basement. It looks as though it has been fashioned with parts recycled from an allied tank. There’s only one setting: high – any lower and the flame goes out. This is folly, I think. I put the roast in and stand guard with a basting brush.
Soon a delicious smell spirals through the flat, delighting my friends when they arrive. When I pull the roast from the oven and pierce it with a fork, the color of the juice is just right. I carve the meat and serve the potatoes. I watch my friends set to with obvious pleasure. Their enjoyment for me is in itself a sort of nourishment. Perfect --- they say --- it’s perfect.