Voices on Addiction: Rome, Risotto, and My Alcoholism

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Whenever I tell people I studied abroad in Rome, they always ask if the Eternal City is where I fell in love with cooking.

On paper, my time in Rome is a beautiful story, and one I’ve told before: I travel to Rome, drinking problem in tow; discover my love for food through my insatiable love for wine; begin cooking for my roommates; and before you know it, I become a full-fledged chef. I wrote an essay at the time called “realizing things,” a callback to Kylie Jenner’s infamously iconic 2016 adage, in which I waxed poetic about how I’d finally “fell into my groove,” found myself, and was thriving.

Nothing is ever that pretty. No matter how many gorgeous, rose-gold filtered moments I ‘grammed from places like a Sicilian cave or a Grecian beach, the reality of my life was far darker.

Luckily, my alcohol problem was veiled under the convenient camouflage of “studying abroad.” Drinking until you’re sick is a university-sanctioned event when traveling and studying in a European country. Drinking four or five bottles of wine with my roommates became a nightly routine.

My roommates didn’t know I was going back to my room to drink vodka alone on top of the wine binges. I never wanted the party to stop, and I didn’t let it—for myself, at least—until I passed out every night.

I turned twenty-one that semester, which was around the same time that my body began to become physically addicted to alcohol. Morning withdrawals and hangovers began affecting my mental health and schooling; my daily morning walks through our hilly neighborhood of Gianicolense became hungover slogs alone, late for class. Eventually, I stopped attending most of my classes; drinking wine and cooking alone in my apartment was life enough for me.

There was one class, however, that kept my attention: “Writing About Food: A Moveable Feast.” The class was taught by a famous Venetian author, Andrea di Robillant, who became formative in my writing career. One of our first assignments was to create an Italian recipe using ingredients found at any open-air market across Rome.

Looking back now, I’m ashamed of the apparent apathy that bled into everything I did while drinking. An assignment to cook a meal using fresh, local ingredients in Rome and write about it should’ve been something I took seriously—but again, at that point in my life, my brain was focused only on my next drink.

One February morning, I rolled out of my tiny twin bed and headed out of our retro pink apartment at Via Antonio Bennicelli 32. Gianicolense is a small neighborhood just outside of Rome’s city center. I made my way up the steep, cracked sidewalks along the winding road, packed to the brim with parked smart cars, Vespas, and piles of dog shit. The tram stop was filled with a flock of little groups of Roman elders huddled together, all of whom I assumed were quibbling in Italian about something or another. I could never really tell if Italians were fighting or just talking. They’re very passionate people.

We all boarded the tram when it arrived. I pushed my way into the crowded carriage, muttering “scusi” while attempting to avoid stepping on the feet of any nonnas in the area, a feat for a 6’4” American man. I was headed to one of the most famous farmers’ markets in Italy and perhaps, in the world: Mercato Campo d’Fiori.

The market is in a square in Trastevere in central Rome, which is the cinematic neighborhood you think of when you think of Rome. While on the tram, I had a chance to research recipe ideas on my phone, and I decided to make an heirloom tomato risotto. The recipe seemed Italian enough; who doesn’t love risotto?

The market was gorgeous, with tables covered in beautiful bounties of fresh produce, jars of tomato sauce, dried pasta, and wheels of cheese. First, I walked past the market into the nearest liquor store to pick up a few bottles of wine and three small airplane bottles of Ketel One vodka. The store clerk disapprovingly watched as I carefully packed the wine bottles in my backpack. She rolled her eyes and gave me a knowing look as I walked back into the square, the glass in my backpack clinking the entire way.

Now that I’d picked up what mattered, I could focus on the recipe. I grabbed a long vine of Roma tomatoes and a big bright bushel of basil from the nearest stall and searched along the line of tables for anything resembling grain. I was out of luck. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it up before slipping down a nearby winding alleyway. I came across a different outdoor market a few blocks away, where I was able to score a bag of arborio rice as well as a sizeable Italian soda in a big ole’ plastic cup, in which I’d pour my vodka and be on my way home, buzzing, with risotto on the mind.

Risotto isn’t the simplest dish to make. The cook must constantly stir the rice, adding ladles of boiling broth every two minutes or so for about an hour. The technique is quite a process, and it was one I was unaware of before I decided to tackle it in my tiny, poorly equipped kitchen. With the promise of a free meal, I convinced my roommates—a group of five fraternity brothers from the University of Alabama—to give me the entire space for a few hours.

My first problem arose when I realized I didn’t buy chicken broth. I’d been so focused on the produce, rice, and alcohol at the farmer’s market that I’d completely forgotten everything else on the list. I searched the dusty cupboards, hoping to find anything, even a god-damned bouillon cube. Plain white wine and water would have to do.

I made a quick trip to the bar (a.k.a. my living room) and grabbed the three bottles of pinot grigio from my backpack, arming myself with the precious nectar before heading back into the kitchen to begin the recipe. I made sure to have all three bottles ready for the ½ cup the recipe called for—after all, I was cooking!

After an eternity, the risotto took to an al dente form. I grated an entire wheel of parmesan on top and dug in. This was when I experienced a full ayahuasca-esque bodily experience. The work was worth it. I plated the risotto for my roommates, ladling spoonfuls of a white wine and cherry tomato reduction on top of each dish, finishing with a ribbon of torn basil, a grind of cracked black pepper, and grated parmesan. When my roomies took their first bites, I watched the bliss wash over their faces as they experienced the mind-body experience that my food was igniting, and something in my mind clicked.

This could be a way out.

 

 

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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden

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Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.


Grayson Kelly is a writer, chef, and performance artist. He received his M.A. in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from the University of Southern California in 2022, as one of two students in the program's inaugural "Food and Culture" track. Currently, he's working towards his M.F.A. in Literary Reportage at New York University. He is based in NYC. More from this author →