Almost Nothing Was Under My Control

A 1500-word answer to the 6-word prompt to write Joel Stein’s backstory in 600 words

Joel Stein has such dark secrets that there were too many to contain in just 600 words. Here’s one of them. Joel thinks back to that foreboding day, ten years ago….

Almost nothing was under my control. Like most inveterate gamblers, though, I thought I controlled almost everything. I told myself it was just that last one percent that gave me the thrill of the chase, that frisson of danger. That everything else, every last drop of risk, had been accounted for. There was no way I could lose. When that wheel of cheese, taller than any man, rolled across the finish line, I would be the Yoda of fromage. The Don Juan of queso. And I’d triple my annual salary, which, the prices of New York private schools being what they are, and journalism being what it is, would be a welcome change.

I was an adrenaline junkie masquerading as a journalist. I had never been a gonzo guy or a Thompson acolyte, but for the first time, I felt like I should have a lawyer next to me with a salt shaker full of cocaine and a suitcase full of barbituates as I watched the competitors roll their cheeses in wonky paths up to the line under the shadow of the great Baroque basilica of Superga.

In the interest of promoting long-form, in-depth, boots-on-the-ground reporting in this age of syndication and sharing, I’d proposed to Ruth R. over at Gourmet that I should embed myself in Turin to explore the origins of the emergent Slow Food movement in its patria. New York had become a strange place in 2004 — the city of busy had become one of hand-pulled mozzarella, hand-churned butter, and hand-plucked kale. Our most famous food has always been pizza — five minutes in an oven hotter than hell and it’s done and distributed to everyone to gulp down, sizzling cheese and all, before they can even take a seat! What was with this deliberate front of leisure? I swore to find out, and was given a very hefty advance and a fully funded Italian vacation.

Turin had always been a car city, Detroit’s twin sister. And it was turning its back on the roar of engines to wallow in the sweet fog of deliberate, meditative acts of chopping and stirring. The gears had ground to a halt. Or so I thought. But then I discovered the speed that’s right outside the outskirts of the slow city.

For weeks, I had been writing up my observations of the sluggish city, sipping rich, bitter espresso as I tallied up the number of home-grown tomatoes simmering in large pots in tiny kitchens. But as the days passed, the word Superga kept prodding the edges of my hearing. And following that word were hushed, fervent exchanges and handshakes. Behind newspapers, under tables, in the hand off of a baby to her grandmother.

On my map, Superga was a dot on a hill, with a towering church that glowed golden in the sunlight and a couple houses leaning against the hillside to keep from sliding down to the puttering motor city below. But within these houses, I learned from eavesdropping and guessing at the unfamiliar words, there was a culture of speed. A superbly trained contingent of young Amazons and Spartans wrestled with olive trees and climbed the peaks of Piedmont, carrying their bony grandmothers on their backs as they ran. And these brave souls, a waiter finally confessed to me, these would be the rullo di formaggio of 2004.

2004: Their year of glory. My year of pay off.

I abandoned Turin to its chestnut roasting and composting, and went in search of the real action. As I learned more and more about this seedy underbelly of Italian food traditions, I got sucked deeper and deeper into the pleasantly moldy caves in the hillsides, where the cheeses were cradled and wiped down and waxed like lactic Maseratis. Soon I was spending 23 hours a day in darkness, but I told myself it was all in the name of research. I’d break this centuries-old story, and I just knew that I could make a solid buck along the way.

The horses had gotten me started, back in college. Saratoga and its roaring crowds. I would pore over the genealogies of racehorses for hours, skipping finals to watch their hooves whir the turf into mud. I kicked the habit before I lost too much. They were animals —unpredictable, skittish. Never a sure thing. Then baseball, with its stats and its scores and the totting up caught me off guard — the spring training of rookie pitchers and the slowing arm of the first baseman made me think if I could just absorb every moment of every game, I’d have the next one figured out. I’d know what would happen. Once I had a bead on my Yankees, I’d shoot: slap that wad of bills down and hold my breath. But even the Jeters of the world falter, and my cash ran too low. I had to leave the ballpark, head hanging, under the watchful eye of my creditors.

But this race — this could be my redemption.

No more errant wind pushing the ball past a waiting glove, nor excited fans making a racing horse shy clumsily into his neighbor whom I happened to have next month’s rent riding on. In Italy, those wheels of cheese, the public road that was the course, and the openness of the cheese rollers’ families to strangers and neighbors alike meant I could cover every angle. I could heft the cheeses, roll them around to watch for wobble. I measured every angle and bump in the Strada dei Colli. I interviewed every roller, and the generations of rollers before them. I wrote up personal encyclopedias on the Superga event. Here, finally, was the true heart of Italy I knew I would find: fast food.

I thought I had everything under my control. The owner of the café where I first heard Superga whispered took all my euros, promising to deliver them into the hands of the shadowy, unofficial bookie. I was betting on Giovanni, a bike messenger who was the son of a lawyer in Turin. He was my dark horse, but I’d drifted around Superga enough to have learned that Giovanni’s family won the cheese roll every three generations — and lucky me, this was his first year. But it wasn’t going to be just luck on my side. I had it mapped out. Giovanni’s cheese was perfect — evenly dense, large but not too weighty, and with a strong rind that wouldn’t crack at the least sign of rocky ground. He had been assigned a mediocre position on the line, but I’d seen him roughhousing with his friends enough to know he could break out with a burst of speed when called for. I’d been sending messages all over town to get him racing on his bike. I left my glasses behind more often than was my wont so I could call him up to grab them for me from the pension. I knew what I was doing. I was his shadow by the day of the Great Superga Roll.

Looking back now, I know how arrogant it was, to think I could predict the outcome. But I didn’t count on the passions running so high in the crowd. I knew from the rumbles of excitement that enfolded the region that the feats of strength and speed we’d see would be talked of for the next year, that the year would be etched into the winner’s cheese cave for all to gawk at. But I didn’t count on the low, underhanded moves that others, as desperate to win as I was, and more reckless, would stoop to. Like boring a tiny hole in a chalky rind that a mouse wouldn’t notice, but which bloomed into mold just before the race. Like enticing his off-and-on-again ragazza to mack on her new lover right at that most tricky hairpin where the racers rolled down from the Via Superga onto the Strada dei Colli. I even suspect the guys who worked for the county of adding a subtle grade to the road when they resurfaced it just weeks before the day of reckoning.

My dreams for Giovanni were dashed that year, and so was his cheese. Some lowland upstart named Angelica wove her way past all her competitors, her tall, skinny round of parmigiano regiano rolling like a gold coin in search of its slot in the piggy bank, gathering speed all the way down the hill. She just flew behind it, leaping as she nudged the wheel ever onwards, past the fervent clusters of bettors watching from the shoulder.

I went home with a story, but one I could never tell. I’d been in too deep, my journalistic objectivity irreparably compromised — I was as tainted as the Black Sox, as Pete Rose. The kids left the Collegiate School and enrolled at PS 108. They’re getting the shit kicked out of them, as am I. I came back empty handed and indebted to a shiveled, fearsome nonna, who, it turns out, was La Allibratore, a hard bargainer who now rides my (well, Ruth R.’s) Vespa. My Italian, it turned out, was that of a very focused savant — I know all the names of different regional cheeses, and have a good grasp on words associated with physical exercise, but am at a loss to discuss the Superga basilica’s architecture or the history of the ancient parklands of the Piedmont hills. I had turned my back resolutely on the slow trend and couldn’t bring myself to write about the real Italy, the one that even the futurists couldn’t fully grasp, that I had glimpsed for just a minute. The article went up in smoke, like the dusty blossom of spores that a rotten cheese throws off when slapped.

Cosi veloce,” I say, when they ask me how Italy was. “Cosi veloce.” And I grab a slice of pizza and slump against a building, burning the roof of my mouth.