As Huey Lewis and The News sang:

I want a new drug — one that won’t make me sick,
One that won’t make me crash my car, or make me feel three feet thick.
I want a new drug — one that won’t hurt my head,
One that won’t make my mouth too dry, or make my eyes too red.

In Los Angeles, we did yoga. Amid the perpetual traffic, the “walla” (background noise) that is the nightly lullaby of the big city, the dearth of parking spaces at Trader Joe’s, the stress of work no matter how much you like your job, another episode of “your call is important to us, and your expected wait time is ________” [fill in your own joke]. We needed Namastay. In a small town, everything is scaled back … and in the countryside, nights are dark and quiet, the bark of dog, hoot of an owl the only sounds to break the silence. We needed to be energized.

We found zumba. Like all special relationships, I remember how and where we met. Galyna, my Ukrainian friend in my advanced language class, asked one day if I wanted to come with her to a zumba class. Sure, I thought. I remember seeing the zumba instructor in L.A. … she came in after yoga wearing brightly-colored baggy pants, and turned on Latin music. David and I never tried it … but it was intriguing. Yes … let’s go, I said to Galyna. And David was all in, too.

In town, just 15 minutes from home, is a circolo … a club of sorts where people can have an espresso or drink, play cards with their buddies, maybe have pizza on a Saturday night, or take a judo lesson … had a large room that was set up for dancing and theatrical productions. Think high school gym without the basketball hoops. The room was filled with dozens of women and one man. Plus David.

Galyna introduced us to the instructor … Gloria. She was excited to welcome us, and said we could have a couple of lessons free, to see if we liked it.

The music started … the dancing started … it was love at first step. All my youthful dance lessons came back in a flash. I remember the move Gloria did when I fell in love with her … a step, a movement, a gesture that I later learned were reggaeton. She and her husband, Giovanni, own a dance school in a nearby city … professional salsa dancers who won first place in Italy and in the teens internationally, they are poetry in motion when they swing, sway and glide together, in all manner of Latin styles, around the dance floor. I was hooked. Over the years we’ve made many friends, seen people come and go and return, and danced at many exhibitions. That first exhibition at an annual sports show was outside the supermarket. Barely a piazza, there was just enough space for us to dance, with the audience standing in the parking lot. Wow … how nervous I was. Embrace the butterflies. But once the first song started … excitement and energy. Gotta dance …

Zumbo … zumbi … zumba … zumbiamo … zumbate … zumbano!

That was several years ago … and it has become our drug of choice. So addicted, we realized we needed our fix more than twice a week. So in addition to dancing with Gloria, we found another dealer, oops … teacher, another Zin. Her gym is 10 minutes from home, so we can get to the morning classes after only one cappuccino. Zin Francesca. I remember the move she did that made me fall in love with her … a step, a movement, a gesture I later learned were classic Francesca movements. She also sings along with all the songs … which I do, too, when the lyrics are in English … with David’s booming baritone soaring above us all. Francesca’s daughter, Tessa, teaches Pilates … and taking those classes, we have found our balance between stretching/breathing/calming and dance/Dance/DANCE.

(We’ve tried other zumba instructors … if we don’t fall in love with you during those two free lessons, we won’t be signing up.)

Actually, I do zumba whenever I hear a zumba song, or something that sounds like it could be a zumba song. At the pharmacy, clients stare … and I’ve seen the staff lean in, explaining, sottovoce, Americani.” I do get smiles from a few folks (those I jokingly call my target group) … old men and children in strollers. Once a man came over and gave me a kiss for my joie de vivre.

The school year is September to June … and come the summer, exhibition season starts. Now we have two sets of schedules. Events small, medium and large … audiences that want to dance with us, others that sit silent, grave and indifferent … we are the entertainment for the event. Up in the mountains on a makeshift stage … at a local sports complex … on the basketball court in the fairgrounds … we dance. I’m happy in the second or third row, especially if I’m at the side … I love to look at the crowd, pick out an audience member or two for a smile or a wave or a wink.

If we are lucky and the sponsor is generous, they feed us, usually a buffet apericena. That’s the new Italian word … cena (dinner) that is big on antipasti, small on meat. Tapas with pizza.

Will zumba for food. Cheap date.

This summer, at our last exhibition of the year, we hit the food jackpot. It was a festival celebrating hunters … so cinghiale (boar) and cervo (elk) were on the menu. There were 30 or so zumbere, sharing a couple of long tables, waiting with two plates in front of each of us. And bottles of wine. We realized there would be lots of food. Before dancing, I prefer not to eat too much … and certainly not sugar, which gives me a stomach ache. But then the food started arriving. Game over.

The waitress came over with two large aluminum pans … one for each end of our table … filled with tortelli con ragu di cinghiale … tortelli stuffed with potato and topped with wild boar sauce. The plumb pasta had a delicate filling and the boar sauce was rich and rather delicious. Then followed … another two pans … tagliatelle con cervo … homemade ribbons of pasta with elk sauce. I don’t know if I’ve had elk before, and this was great. This sauce was flavorful and irresistible.

Then came meat. A large bowl was filled with boar stew. When it’s bad it can be very, very bad … but this delicious and fork tender. The hunters’ wives certainly knew how to tame the gaminess of the game. But wait, there’s more … a large plate of sausage and ribs and thickly-sliced pancetta, all grilled to porcine perfection. Plus French fries. Just the light snack that one wants before two hours of dancing … she said with great irony in her words and indigestion in her belly.

Even those who like to indulge and dance ate more than usual.

I did not have the fish-head container to bring home treats for the kitties … I didn’t want to confirm my craziness to these women who seemed to like me. I secretly knew that I could improvise with bread and napkins … and when I saw the aluminum pan, I realized it could be bent and manipulated into an awkward, but appropriate shape. Cora … my first friend in this group … was sitting next to me, and I asked her if I could take home what was left in the pan nearby. Certo … of course, she said. When everyone saw me playing with the pan, they quickly offered the few tortelli remaining in the other pan. And what was left of the tagliatelli. And the meat. By the time we were done eating, the large container, re-formed into its original rectangle, was full. Mamma mia. When the waiter came over and saw the pan, he offered the lid!

Dessert was cimbala … a ring cake … flavored with orange, light in texture and taste was not too sweet (I only took one bite so I could tell you about it), and served with Vin Santo. The Italians think an after dinner drink helps digestion. Wink wink, I’ll go with that … and I enjoyed it in the little plastic cup.

Thirty minutes later … showtime. The crowd joined us for the last few songs … always the sign of a good performance. The DJ even played “New Kind of Disco” … a dance-along song that every Italian seems to know … followed by “YMCA” that every American knows. Yes, I was in the front row for that song.

Hoo-hoo …!!!

Grazie Gloria! Grazie Francesca!

ORANGE RICOTTA MUFFINS

These are also very good with lemon peel and juice … in which case, I recommend using the walnuts. If you prefer, you can make these in larger (greased and floured) pans …1 9x5 inch loaf pan OR 4 mini loaf pans OR a Bundt pan.

4 oz. butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup ricotta
Rind from 1 orange
1 Tbl. orange juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups flour
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup chopped walnuts … or chocolate chips

- Preheat oven to 350° F (170° C). Line 12 muffin cups with papers.
- In large bowl, cream butter and sugar, then add egg, ricotta, peel, juice and vanilla … blend well.
- Stir in flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- Fill muffin cups (or pan/s).
- Bake muffins for 20–25 minutes. (Bake mini pans … 20 to 25 minutes, loaf OR Bundt pan 45 to 50 minutes).
Enjoy!

DOUBLE CHOCOLATE RICOTTA MUFFINS

3 oz. butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 cups ricotta
3 eggs
1-1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup cocoa
1-1/2 cup sugar
3 cups flour
1 Tbl. baking powder
Pinch salt
1-1/2 cup chocolate chips or chunks

- Preheat oven to 350° F (170° C). Butter and flour 2 8x4 inch loaf (plumcake) pans … OR use liners in 16 to 18 muffin cups.
- Whisk ricotta and eggs, blending well. Then add butter, milk, vanilla, cocoa and sugar.
- Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Fold in chocolate chips last.
- Pour into cups or pan.
- Bake muffins for 20–25 minutes … loaf pans for 45–50 minutes, until done.
- Serve at any temperature.
Enjoy!

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.