A Bit of Pot Luck
— Besides the proverbs and catch-words which become the property of the state and part of the language, there are always innumerable family bywords, enriching their own little patch of soil, and allusions whereof the significance is keen to the few, and known to them alone. The members of our little party who made a European trip together not many years ago do not say, with the English, “ to rough it on a beefsteak and a bottle of porter.” Their equivalent for roughing it is “ to eat a Bozen stew,” the homeliness of that dish having impressed all their imaginations, though only one of the party could report of its flavor.
The experience was mine. We had stopped at Bozen for a Sunday rest, to break the journey over the Brenner Pass. It was in the last days of December. Two of us started for a walk in the direction of the Rafenstein, a gray ruin perched on the edge of the mountain, — just far enough off to promise an easy climb, with a view at the end of it. A steep road, roughly paved, led up the hill in the direction of the castle. The snow lay deep on the mountains, but near the town the frozen ground was scantily covered ; and as the forenoon wore on, the ice began to melt, and flow in little rills between the cobblestones.
On our way we came up with a woman, and walked beside her for some distance. She had a long journey before her, to her home in a village among the mountains, seven good hours from Bozen. She was going to stop at an inn at Rafenstein for her dinner. The noonday meal at the hotel was already beginning to loom up in our minds as a bore. The air was so exhilarating, the sun already so warm ; the freedom from city bonds in midwinter gave a sense as of a pleasure out of season. In fact, the view of those gray battlements and snow fields of the Dolomites took away all our desire for Italy. Why should we not get a day’s delight, at least ? Why not lunch by the wayside, and take a longer way back to Bozen ? We asked the woman about the inn. She said it was a small one, frequented only by the people of the country. She was not sure that it would suit the ladies. We could not miss it, as it was close to the castle.
On arriving at the castle, we found a jumble of ruin and farmyard, and a shabbylooking farmhouse, which was without bush or signboard, but was nevertheless an inn. We devoted ourselves first to the castle, and “did” it thoroughly. We rambled through its cellars, climbed upon its walls, looked out at the Dolomites through its many apertures, and crossed gulfs that had been its rooms.
The tenants of the open, sunny, downstairs rooms of Castle Rafenstein were a set of ragged-looking hens, scratching ineffectually at the frozen ground between the patches of snow. Their presence no doubt suggested to my companion a whole menu. “ If I eat anything in this place, it will have to be boiled eggs,” she said, as she stood in the narrow passage of the inn, and looked, with a hesitation in which there was a considerable amount of firmness, into the room where our friend the peasant woman was already established. It was a large, bare room, not over-bright, with wooden tables and benches. In one corner a man was lying on the top of a porcelain stove, which afforded a surface about the size of a truncated double bed. The windows were small, and had probably not been opened since the summer ; the atmosphere was as substantial as the rest of the furniture.
My companion, as I have indicated, was for staying outside ; but hunger and the curiosity of a traveler impelled me to enter and sit down at one of the tables, and she gradually summoned courage to follow. The man descended, pipe in mouth, to survey us ; a number of children came in to assist in the operation ; also a woman, to take our order. We asked about fresh eggs. There were just two to be had. What else was there in the house ? They had nothing cooked, the woman said, except what they had had for their own dinner ; perhaps it would not do for the gracious ladies. The peasant woman was eating soup, with a dish before her reserved for a second course. I ordered, for the double satisfaction of my appetite and my curiosity, a dinner like hers, my companion secured the eggs, and we asked for bread and the white wine of the country.
This repast, after a reasonable interval, was set before us. The eggs fairly warranted the trust reposed in them ; the bread was black bread, hard and not sweet, but eatable ; the wine, a pure juice of the sourest kind of grape. My order consisted of a bowl of thick black bean soup and a dish of something equally dark and mysterious, but solid, massed in a large heap, on the top of which two little sausages, brick-red under their brown skins, reposed like lizards on a pile of stones. My hostess pointed them out with pride. “ I thought you would like them,” she said. I ate the soup, and then proceeded to investigate the other problem. It proved to be composed of portions of a fowl, though exactly what portions I was not anatomist enough to tell. The comb and claws were recognizable when picked out ; the rest I classed, in my ignorance, as “ liver and lights.” The dark brown liquid in which they had been cooked could scarcely have accounted for the dark hue of the whole dish, except on the theory of a very prolonged solution.
It was the Sunday dinner of the family, and it was mine. I will not say that the first step was the only one that cost, but we had a very cheerful, sociable little meal, and carried away a pleasant recollection of Rafenstein and its people. The host, whose siesta we had interrupted, came and sat near to talk to us while we ate, and his wife stood and joined in. He asked from what country we came ; and when he heard it was America, he began to make inquiries about a great flood which had overwhelmed our land. We were puzzled at first, supposing the disaster to be recent and as wide as the continent, but soon found he was talking of the Johnstown flood of a couple of years before, of which he had read in the newspapers. He was well up in all its details. What he could not understand was the situation of the reservoir, and the reason of its construction having been allowed in a position where it endangered the lives of the community. We had to confess that we did not ourselves understand it ; that it was an abstruse question, connected in some way with the sovereignty of the almighty dollar.
While we were talking, the children of the family, all sizes, ranging from a tall youth and a maiden with braided hair down to a tow-headed urchin, stood about the room, looking earnestly at us, and showing in their bright faces an interest in all that went on. There was nothing rude in their stare ; they were silent till they were spoken to, and then answered shyly, but with a pleasing manner. The elder ones went to school, and all could read. Their mother told us about them with apparent pride. She was a pleasant, evidently hardworking woman, and very anxious that we should be well served. Perhaps it was this anxiety of a hostess, perhaps a curiosity to know how they lived in barbarous lands, that prompted her to inquire, as I partook of the stew, whether I ate food like that in my own country. What can one do but give a pleasant answer ? I told her, nothing half as good. But any tendency to indisposition on my part, of any sort whatever, for months afterwards, was set down by all the rest of the party to the account of that Bozen stew.