“Quando vanno a tavola devono sapere che qualcuno ha portato quelle cose a tavola, e quelle persone siamo noi.” When they sit at the table, they must remember someone brought the food to the table, and those people are us.
The words of a bracciante (agricultural worker) speaking in Piazza San Giovanni last Sunday. Also speaking were bike couriers, whose work has taken on new significance and toll in the concentrated days of lockdown; teachers, whose lives are made even more difficult by the precariousness of short-term contracts and substitutions; airport and airline workers; carers; refugees and migrants; young architects expected to work for pitiful sums and “experience”; mothers in a Catch-22 of work and childcare; musicians and theatre workers; the homeless, and many others. It was a gathering of those whom the trade unionist and activist Aboubakar Soumahoro describes as gli invisibili – the invisible ones. The unseen seen, on a stage flanked with twin banners for a movement called Stati Popolari; in front a well-spaced, masked crowd, in front of Rome’s oldest basilica.
As the sun beat down, Soumahoro raised a black plastic crate filled with vegetables, a few kilos representing the millions picked every year by the braccianti, many of them vital migrants doing essential work, undocumented and pitifully paid, without rights, anything near humane living conditions – conditions compromised further by coronavirus, social distancing another privilege denied.
These are the stories Aboubakar Soumahoro has been documenting in his video diaries; these are the braccianti he represents. Born in Bétroulilié on the Ivory Coast, Aboubakar has lived in Italy since 1999, and the age of 19. His thesis on graduation with honours from L’Università Degli Studi di Napoli Federico II was an analysis of the conditions of migrant workers in the Italian market. His work as an activist and trade unionist is an continuation of his sociology degree and thesis, and a single-minded dedication to the rights of migrant workers – to all workers. The stories told on the stage were, of course, as different as the people who told them. What united them all, though, was a call to listen and remember who is delivering our food, stepping in to teach our kids, loading our bags, picking our tomatoes and beans. Once we engage in these daily acts of remembering and recognition, we can act, ask our locals shops to change, force our governments to act.
It is near impossible not to recognise a San Marzano tomato, a slender curving plum that fits perfectly in a pan. A DOP protects the geographical status (in Campania) of this fleshy tomato. Who can we trust to tell us the braccianti who picked the tomatoes have the same protection? Like working at home, or social distancing, being able to choose what you eat is a privilege that I never take for granted.
I do take sage for granted, though, and use lots of it (too much according to my partner) in this Tuscan recipe for beans cooked with tomatoes and sage. This dish is often called fagioli all’uccelletto, which, according to the writer Pelegrino Artusi, was because the ingredients were similar to those used to cook little birds. Who needs birds though, when sage is so mustily persistent and meaty?
White beans with tomato and sage (fagioli all’uccelletto)
Dishes such as this are always better after a rest – a night even. You could serve it with sausages, but it is a meal in itself, with bread or rice, and remembering.
600g cooked white beans
600g ripe tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled, gently squashed
If you are using dried beans, you will need 250g. Soak overnight, drain, cover with fresh water, add a pinch of salt, bring to just before it boils, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour, or until tender. If you are using tinned beans, you will need two tins, drained.
Peel the tomatoes by scoring a cross in the base, plunging them into boiling water for a minute, then into cold water, at which point the skins should slip off. Cut roughly, discarding any tough bits.
In a heavy-based pan or terracotta pot, warm a good amount (60ml) of olive oil and garlic as slowly and gently as possible. Add the tomato, sage and a pinch of salt, and raise the heat so it bubbles for a few minutes, pressing the tomato with the back of a spoon to break it up.
Add the beans, stir, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes, or until the tomato has formed a rich sauce and the beans are a red-tinted colour. If at any point the pan looks dry, or the sauce too thick, add a little water.