Cooking with Italian Grandmothers:
Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily

by Jessica Theroux

Welcome Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-599-62089-3.
Reviewed by Becky Lane
Posted on 12/13/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

I must first apologize for taking so long to complete this book review. I was expecting this to be a mere cookbook. I thought I would skim over it quickly, try a recipe or two, then tell you if they were any good. But that was not to be. This book will not allow one to rush. It demands that you savor it slowly, one page, one recipe, one photograph at a time, with pauses for absorbing what you have seen. It begins with a quote—most appropriate, considering what is to follow:

"No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers." —Laurie Colwin

In an introduction to the book, Chef Alice Waters says, "We have forgotten how to feed ourselves and each other and are at risk of losing our culinary heritage. However, when the stories are told and the recipes retained, we somehow manage to secure them for the future...Jessica Theroux has taken a gift for connecting with people and new cultures and translated it into an anthology of stories that capture the role of food and family in the lives of twelve remarkable women. Her closeness with the women she has lived and cooked with comes through with clarity and beauty as we meet them through their pasta, beans, and rabbits."

As a young girl, Jessica Theroux was fortunate to have an Italian au pair. Then she and her family traveled to Italy a few times to visit Graziella (the au pair) and her mother, Mamma Maria. "It seems to me now that I was always destined to return to Italy someday to recapture those childhood pleasures... Mamma Maria was the original Italian grandmother for me, and as I set out as a young chef to document and learn Italy's food traditions, it made complete sense to go back to that beginning...I also yearned for the sense of nurture and connection that comes with being well fed; I wanted to experience this, and I wanted to learn how to do this for others." If you too are interested in learning how to do this, I think this book would be a very good place to start.

As someone who is very much interested in using local, seasonal ingredients and trying to recapture the "taste of place," I was especially interested in seeinghow the cooking of each of Italy's regions has been informed by its geography, history and evolving circumstance. For instance, Theroux tells us that the Lombardian cooking of Mamma Maria's youth was affected by wartime's enforced simplicity, with an intimate dependence on one's garden, on the local trees, on the land and the ocean, on the animals one raised, and on the foods and skills one could trade with neighbors. "As Mamma Maria and I cooked these Lombardian dishes together I started to get a better sense of Northern Italian cuisine. These dishes were heavy, warming, and very sturdy. Mamma Maria was like this, too."

From there Theroux worked her way south, absorbing all that she could from the women she cooked with along the way, until at last she found herself with another Maria—one whose cheeses tasted of the local grasses and ocean air—on a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. And the recipes she picked up along the way? Oh, my, my. Working my way through them will be the next best thing to spending a year in Italy myself!

The first recipe I tried was Giovanna's Brown Butter and Sage sauce, served over mushroom ravioli from my freezer, but I look forward to autumn, when I shall try it on her Pumpkin Tortelloni with crumbled amaretti biscuits in their filling. Over the holidays I plan to try her Torta de Grigna, a simple cocoa and almond cake which will be perfect for afternoon tea. I also plan to try several of the soup recipes in the book—so warming on a winter's day. Come summer, it will be difficult to choose between Daria's Pesto Lasagna and Maddalena's Spaghetti with Burst Tomatoes, but one thing is certain. Dessert will be Blood Orange Gelato!

Theroux says, "This is a book about women and food and listening... Good cooking, the kind that feeds the soul and nourishes the body, is the result of listening openly and acting simply. All of the women in this book taught me something about the power of food to connect us to ourselves, our history, our land, our culture, to our past and to the present moment...My greatest hope is that this book will encourage you to pay the utmost attention to your life, and in particular to your food and the people around you. What you discover could change your life."

Read an excerpt from this book.

Jessica Theroux graduated from Brown University with a BA in Visual Arts, focusing on photography and film-making. She is a healing foods chef, who works in private practice as a health consultant. She lives in Northern California.

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