Cooking With Italian Grandmothers: A Review
Everyone eats. This lends food a uniting ability as obvious as it is unique.
Aromas become calling cards. Recipes beget introductions. The storytelling potential of mealtime has driven many narrative cookbooks. ‘Cooking With Italian Grandmothers’ (2010, Welcome Books) continues this tradition. Jessica Theroux presents a young woman’s journey across Italy in search of companionship, advice and an education in food and culinary traditions from talented home-cooking nonne. With personal essays, photographs, and recipes, Theroux documents her travels in the year following her college graduation. Video footage from her travels can be found online at The Kitchn.
At once travelogue, cookbook, and memoir, this is a sit-down affair. Instructions are narrated without bullets or numbers. Want to know how long a recipe will take? Read the instructions and add up minutes, step by step. Slow Food International, based and founded in Italy, helped Jessica network with nonne. The emphasis on craftsmanship and unhurried preparation is apparent. [Read as: lots of handmade pasta]
I’ve had the book for nearly two weeks and have broached only the simplest of the recipes for dinner: Mary’s roasted potatoes with rosemary and olive oil; Carluccia’s roasted broccoli shoots (here, florets) with olive oil and salt, fennel and lemon salad, and dried figs with walnuts and fennel seeds. I’ve been roasting potatoes for years and wish I’d known sooner how much of a difference it makes to truly dry them off before baking. These recipes are straightforward and their results, satisfying.
By contrast, the Panelle (chickpea fritters) were fried doom. The batter was “dead easy to make,” but transferring the cooled dough slices into hot oil was more deadly than easy. Burnt fritter bits littered the skillet. Where I hoped for salty crispness, I bit into undercooked batter. Desserts fared better. The Croccante di Mandorle (crunchy almond caramels) are as addictive they are attractive. The subtle lemon flavor melds with sea salt to temper the caramel sweetness. I had two with breakfast and another as soon as I got home from work today.
The beauty and the challenge of Italian home cooking are one and the same: high quality and fresh ingredients are essential. The shorter the ingredients list, the higher the quality demanded. It’s fall in Boston so I’ve ruled out anything calling for fresh tomatoes and basil until next summer. Fortunately, there are recipes for all of the seasons. Irene’s Cavolo Rosso (Sweet-and-Sour Red Cabbage) sounds like the perfect vehicle for fall apples and second-day red wine. As the weather grows colder still, I look forward to Roman style gnocchi, desserts from Lombardy, bread and kale soup, and chicken broth with poached eggs.
The book as a whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Reading it as memoir, one notices redundant language, misplaced apostrophes, and a surfeit of adverbs. The writing, though thoughtful, tends to ‘tell’ where a cookbook needs to ‘show’. A sequenced diagram of rabbit butchering would be more useful than the current prose. In the absence of kitchen patter, Theroux seems comfortable filling in the blanks–two parts Carrie Bradshaw, one part David Attenborough. Sicilian Maddalena’s guarded nature inspired broad generalizations about gender roles in Italy.
It made me wonder about the impact of larger social structures; how in Italy everything had its place, for better or worse, and people knew their position within the grand scheme of things and inhabited it well. In many ways it felt repressive, but in certain ways there was a kind of freedom that came from not questioning one’s role in life. It was hard for me to imagine.
We are shown so little of Italy beyond the stove that these statements seem out of place. Theroux was driven to ‘learn about food in a country whose culture centered on cooking and eating’. Throughout her travels, Jessica gained access to the often solitary space that is a grandmother’s kitchen. The intimacy is palpable. However, as reader and eater, I also want to see the meals and mouths around the table–the community formed around home cooking. The food photography highlights the freshness of ingredients, and the texture and color of individual dishes, but often obfuscates the human context that presumably anchors this book.
As a cookbook, it offers a range of appealing recipes: seasonal noshes, weeknight suppers, breakfast treats, labor intensive acts of love, and a welcome reminder of how very good simple food can be. Ultimately, Cooking With Italian Grandmothers is best read as a celebration and record of twelve women, their stories, and their kitchens. It it makes a compelling case for me to find the time to cook with my own grandmother and to learn from her. I’ve been thinking about doing this for years. No other cookbook has ever given me dessert and a (gentle) kick in the pants. Thanks.
As part of the book tour, restaurants across the country will celebrate the publication and its recipes. For more information, see the Welcome Books website.
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