Neil Torrsell passed over the rugged, beautiful terrain of Le Marche during his nine months “on the run” in 1943–44. [...]
Let’s just say we lived from day to day. We didn’t know if we would come back alive or not. I may have mentioned before, this German SS patrol stopped near where I was staying. There were two American POWs staying there. The Germans stripped their house, set the house on fire, took the two Americans down to the river bottom, made them dig their own grave shafts...
Can you tell me about the Italians you stayed with—their food, cheesemaking, or baking bread?
I don’t know the exact process they used to make cheese. It was made out of goat’s milk. I don’t know whether they got it down to a certain degree [of temperature], or a certain consistency. Then they put it into little round wooden bowls, about five or six inches across. And then there was [another] stage—I couldn’t tell you how long the process was—but when it was first edible it was real mild, and as it aged it got stronger—like all cheese does. It wasn’t surprising to find a worm in it, so we always washed it carefully before we took a bite.
They were very thrifty as far as getting out and foraging for themselves, and the lived on a very limited diet. We had so much macaroni that I couldn’t eat macaroni for two years once I got back to the States. But now it doesn’t bother me.
What about their bread—or their pizzas—what we think of as Italian food?
Their so-called pizza was a very thin dough baked in their outside ovens. They didn’t have any meat or sausage to put on it, so they had garlic or peppers—something like that—or a little grated cheese to give it a little flavor. It wasn’t bad tasting, but of course in this country we are a little spoiled with all the stuff we put on the crust.
They were similar in size to the pizza you buy in the store here, with thin crust, but there was very little seasoning on top of it. That was because they couldn’t get it.
They were like share croppers.
Most of the places we stayed the horse, oxen, pigs, and sheep in the stable.
Did I tell you about taking a bath? We asked for water for a bath, and they told us nobody takes a bath in the winter. But we did talk them into heating hot water that we could bathe in it. The thing is everyone in the house smelled the same so they couldn’t tell the difference!
You had also mentioned in the other interview that you had a green salad that had snails in it.
Yes, we had salad of light greens and a little garlic and onion. And then the kids brought over a big snail shell. They started laughing and asked if I knew what I was eating, and I said no. At that stage in the game, you eat anything thing that is put in front of you.
I’ll say one thing for them, the breads they made—unleavened breads, that were made without yeast—they were the best-tasting breads when they came out of the oven. They were excellent—whole-grain bread.
Did I tell you about getting salt? I’m not sure how far away it was from where I was staying, but the women would go with big water jars on top of their heads to these salt wells, and then boil the water down to get the salt.
It was an amazing thing that these women would put a crown of braided material on top of their head, and the jar of water would be on top of that. And they would walk along and not spill a drop. They would stop and talk with their neighbors, not bothered at all by the weight on top of their head.
Was the well near the coast?
No, we were about 20 or 30 miles inland.
You mentioned that you had polenta there.
Yeah. It was basically cornmeal mush. A board was put on the table, and when [the polenta] was done cooking it was put on the board and everyone helped themselves to what was in front of them.
At one point you experienced an earthquake, right?
Yeah. That’s the weirdest feeling. First of all I heard rumbling in the distance and I thought it was artillery fire. Then all of a suddenly the ground was shaking and buildings were shaking. The Italian women were praying to high heaven. Fortunately, it didn’t do any structural damage where we were at, but I know it shook the buildings.
No one got hurt that you were aware of in that area?
Not where we were, no.
You were with one of the families at Christmastime?
The husband gave me some lire as a Christmas present, and also some kind of fruit. I can’t tell you what it was. It was about the size of an apple. It had the color of an apple, but it wasn’t an apple. I can recall the taste of it, but it was good—that’s all I can tell you.
We had a big dinner meal for Christmas.
Via Mariano Pallottini