When Anne Mei and I returned from our trip to Spain and France, a friend asked just one question, “Tell me about your best meal.” As those of you who read my posts during that trip know, Anne Mei and I ate mostly paella and pasta bolognese. Since I find most conversations about food profoundly boring, I have even more trouble understanding the current equation of travel with fine dining. It’s not that I don’t like to eat good food. I enjoy watching my brother-in-law Paul and his wife Karen cook delicious dishes. I do consult them when I have questions about food preparation. But they don’t engage in the interminable discourses I’ve had to endure at the tables of some foodies. They just do good eating and hospitality.
So it was not surprising that Sunday’s Travel Section of the New York Times went straight to recycling with its cover story about going to Rome in order to learn how to cook like the Italians. Luckily the news briefs at the front of the main section mentioned that the article described the Italian art of not seeming to be doing art. I quickly retrieved the section from recycling to learn more about what the Italians call sprezzatura, which sounds very much like what the Chinese call wú wéi.
Italians, who are extraordinarily good at elevating simple tastes and textures into the realm of the extraordinary, will also go to great efforts to make the whole process look effortless. Five hundred years ago, the humanist author Baldassare Castiglione labeled such studied nonchalance “sprezzatura,” from the verb meaning “to undervalue.” “We may call that art true art,” he wrote in “The Book of the Courtier,” “which does not seem to be art.” For a gracious nobleman in Renaissance Urbino, that meant being able to finish dancing the most elaborate saltarello with a double hop and a self-deprecatory shrug.
With so much information coming at us in this day and age, we have to pick and choose what to read, what to skim, and what to skip. That means we have to live with missing something we might have enjoyed or which might have taught us something. In this case I’m glad that I got a second chance to discover yet another example in yet another culture of the practice of doing not-doing, which has been the subject of a number of previous posts.