Going back to – and gathering – our Italian roots

Digging up plant roots to make dye and tracing family roots were all in a day's work.

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Armed with a machete, an ancient digging stick, and a mailbag, my husband, his aunt, and I set out one chilly April morning to dig Tuscan roots.

We'd picked up our zia (aunt) from her stone house in a village built along an Apennine spur. Wearing Wellington boots, nylon stockings, a black skirt, and a knitted wool vest, she dressed in the same style as village women in photos from World War II.

The roots we searched for today (not family-tree roots – we'd left those in the village) would dye eggs and wool a bright maroon, the color of a Medici cloak. "We dyed our socks red with these roots during the war," recalled Zia.

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I remember being amazed at such fresh wartime memories when I came to the village from Seattle 20 years ago. My father-in-law recounted the first American he'd ever met zooming up the road in a Willys jeep, asking where the retreating German Army had gone.

Morning dew swamped our tennis shoes as we climbed past blackberry thorns. Zia marched along and tutted at the overgrowth. Only 10 years ago, there had been sheep on these trails and vegetables in the ground. But youngsters don't make money from herding sheep, the old folk say, and there are plenty of vegetables at the market.

Suddenly she stopped, crouched next to a tree, and began to whack at the earth with her digger. It's an ancient-looking tool, with a leather-wrapped, adz-shaped head. Zia wormed her fingers into the rich soil and carefully followed a cord back to the mother plant.

Sitting on her heels, our white-haired zia grinned. "How long do you think people have been digging these roots?"

After gathering the stringy rhizomes, she made a bundle in her hand and wrapped a long piece several times around the middle to tie it. Zia eyed a broom plant and handed my husband the machete. "For the rabbits," she said. Roots and broom disappeared into the mailbag, to keep the trunk of our car clean.

Back in the village, we crouched outside Zia's house, sorted and cut our roots into two-inch lengths. Zia peeled back the bark with her fingernails to show me the orangey core. When the roots were layered on the bottom of a battered steel pot, we picked it up and turned our backs on the gardens – olives, vines, and, behind them, snow-hooded mountains.

At a stone fountain, we rinsed our dusty goods under a brass spigot, scrubbing them against the pot and dumping them all out onto the flagstones, only to put the roots back in the pot and rinse again.

Our zia had no difficulty crouching on her heels, bent double over her little chore. Her spine is perfectly straight after a lifetime of tending sheep, goats, and now chickens and rabbits; maintaining her garden; hunting mushrooms on the mountain with her walking stick; and preparing endless plates of homemade ravioli, polenta, and loaves of focaccia.

As we worked, she told me that eggs dyed in the root "stew" will be edible even if the shells break. We returned to the kitchen and the brown wood stove that is central to her home's warmth. She stoked the fire and pulled out iron rings until the bottom of the pot fit snugly into the hole, over the flame. It would stew all day.

After adding freshly gathered eggs to the red-black dye, I took my son to the end of the village that evening. It was 7:30, and the mountains blushed pink to our left. Soon they would be silhouetted in twilight as the moon rose. The day before, we'd met a cousin down in Pontremoli, a castle town and the closest city, and she had invited us to stop by her house in the village.

When she opened the door and introduced her son to my son, I saw the family resemblance in the shapes of their faces and eyes, and in their stocky builds.

"We're third cousins," another woman had said as she introduced herself to me two years ago. Yes, I could tell. She shared my children's noses. This is what it meant to go back to your roots.

The eggs emerged from their root-dye bath a deep red, the color of wet jasper, almost the color of rust. We cooled them in their pot on the tile floor. The dog came in to sniff, and Zia fed him leftover torta di riso (rice pie). Here, dogs eat pasta and feast on minestrone and fresh chicken eggs. But he didn't like the scent of that root soup.

"Bring your socks tomorrow, and we'll dip them in the pot," said our zia. We smiled, thinking of red socks to wear on our feet, warming our roots.

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the author's last name.]

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