There was something ominous about this year’s New Year celebrations in Sardinia. At the town’s Communist Club, a lavish dinner was being planned – but somehow we all knew things would go wrong. Not because the media was against us, not because of the Capitalists, but because there was a peasant uprising simmering.
Bottarga caviar had been bought by the kilo, scores of artichokes had been trucked in and were now being stripped of their spikes by zealous volunteers wearing padded rubber gloves. The seminar rooms, usually so empty and calming with the old framed prints of Che Guevara and Lenin on the cracked walls, the well-thumbed proletarian novels stacked in the shelves and the obligatory carafes of stale red wine, were suddenly impeded by lines of punch-drunk tables like intestines turning in on themselves. To commemorate the glorious foundation of their club, the town proletariat had decided to do a bit of fund-raising at the same time as they stuffed the people’s gullets. Dinner cost 40 euro per head, and there was a good deal of head-scratching about the political implications of this.
Communists aren’t rich, are they? Well, yes, in fact in Italy they often are. They are middle-class intellectuals, college lecturers, film producers, merchants, even landowners… with the odd trade unionist and a smattering of workers (let’s face it, workers don’t live in Europe any more, there aren’t any factories left). The CIA spent years in the the 1960s and 70s giving clandestine support to terrorist groups in Italy, mistakenly believing that the Italian Communist Party was a danger to Western democracy. All they managed to achieve were a few assassinations and a beefed-up Mafia in the south. The CIA should have sent a few agents to our party. They’d have gone home with a deeper awareness of Italian cuisine.
The Commissar of the Casa Del Popolo – the House of the People – took a sober view of the controversy. “I am raising money”, he said, “for a film projector so the town’s youth can come here and have a bit of culture…” Good point, thought some. Others could not so lightly let go of this enormity of the 40 euro entry ticket.
Only a few months ago while I was having my lunch, a friend turned up with a fish so big that he’d brought his brother along to carry it up to the terrace, where I was sitting. Did I want some, they wondered. When I said I did, they proceeded to carve it up, shedding such vast amounts of blood in the process that the drains coloured the street and we were attacked by a huge swarm of wasps. I had to hose the tiles down afterwards, the place was like an abattoir. 20 euro bought me enough fish to cook for ten. I still have some of it in the freezer, in fact.
So now you see the conundrum of the 40 euro ticket…
As we approached the big day, the Communists were ecstatic about their commercial success. They had sold almost 70 tickets. The trouble was, they had not considered the problem of supply and demand.
A couple of Communists went down to Oristano to buy a shed-load of baby goats, which were duly slaughtered. The day before the party, we were treated to a dish of goat heart, lungs, stomach, kidney and thyroid glands. Fried with onion and garlic. It was actually quite delicious, and I suppose ideologically it was also a good thing to eat the stuff no one else wanted.
Preparations were well under way, and the menu seemed unbeatable. A few old girls up in the hills had made stacks of ravioli stuffed with prawns and wild mushrooms. The roast baby goat would follow, then carpaccio of artichoke with dried slivers of bottarga caviar, followed by sheep’s cheese, smoked and air-dried ham, the finest olives and salads. Finally desert – to be honest I can’t even remember what the desert was. All washed down with good-quality Nepente and Malvasia wines. It sounded good, but whether you’re a Communist or a Fascist you still like to eat, and eat plentifully.
Twelve hours before kick-off the Communists were starting to bite their fingernails, as one of the things they had not thought about was their primitive kitchen with a few weak gas burners and a single cold-water tap. It was hard to admit it, but some further investment was required there.
On the big night, floods of guests started pouring in from about eight o’clock. They were damned hungry, they’d paid their dough and now they wanted a decent feed. The smell of roast goat lingered in the corridors. The tables were filling up fast. Plates startled trickling in, but mysteriously as soon as they were put down they were picked clean, as if marauding foxes had taken over the place.
The kitchen was working at full capacity, blood-curdling yells in there as if the chefs were being water-boarded, but there was no way of satisfying the hunger of the people, all of whom had paid their darned forty euro, mind you, and now wanted some value for money. Wine was unlimited, but in Italy one does not drink wine in quantity, not unless it is accompanied by delicious morsels. Before we knew it, arguments were breaking out, heated debates could be heard resounding under Lenin’s severe frown and clenched fist. We were on the third course and there was still a lot of hunger going round. Bread riots seemed imminent.
Suddenly the door opened and there was a general silence. The town’s one tramp had decided to pay a visit, knowing a sure bet when he saw one. He stood there grinning through his blue-cheese-stinking beard, until a Communist got up and fetched him a chair. The tramp dug into his food with gusto, his toothless gums chomping and swallowing lumps of goat whole. His neighbours, wincing slightly, spoke fondly to the tramp, a patriot and citizen who’d seen the harder side of life.
It’s probably fair to say that tramp was one of the few diners that evening who only had praise for the organisers. As soon as we’d cried out our hearty cheers for the New Year, there was a stampede to get the hell out of there. Not being Italian, I sat down and drank a lot of wine. Then, after vomiting a few times in the street outside – this, incidentally, is out of character for me, I can usually eat and drink to my heart’s content – went home to pick up my electric guitar and amplifier.
There weren’t so many people left by the time I came back. Twenty or thirty, maybe. I tuned up, cranked up the volume and sang an old Memphis song. “The Bourgeois Blues”. Written by a black man, in another time.
“Me and my wife/ We been all over town/ Everywhere we go people put us down/ It’s a bourgeois town…”
And then I wandered home in the rain, thinking to myself that in the end, politics is just a word. Prejudice, that’s the problem. And greed.