Rarely would I say "I couldn't put it down" about a cookbook, yet that's how I felt about Cooking with Italian Grandmothers by Jessica Theroux. The author, an American chef, spent a year traveling throughout Italy, cooking and talking with Italian women, learning their recipes and their stories. This book is interesting on so many levels that the sum is much greater than the parts. It contains about 100 enticing recipes that make you want to get to work in the kitchen. It is illustrated with beautiful photographs of Italian landscapes, houses, and people. It is dotted with interesting facts about how to grow, harvest, and cook all kinds of unusual vegetables, plus tidbits about regional cheeses and meats. And weaving throughout it all is a truly touching story about a young American woman who entered the homes of 12 Italian women and developed friendships with most of them. As she travels from north to south the length of Italy, I could hardly wait to meet the next woman who would take her into her kitchen.
The women are, in fact, all grandmothers but they are definitely not the flat caricature of the Italian grandmother we get from so much media. They are complex people from all kinds of circumstances, some living in small apartments in cities, others living on farms that have been in their families for generations. They range in age from about 50 to 100. They have in common the fact that they are locally acknowledged as great cooks. Some were located through the organization Slow Food, which works to preserve food traditions. Others were friends of friends. Theroux spent several weeks to a month with each of them, cooking beside them on a daily basis.
Theroux's great respect for each of these women shines from every page. She obviously has great people skills as well as cooking skills, and was able to elicit a tremendous amount of knowledge about Italian cooking. With this book, she passes on to her readers the benefits of her experience.
Perhaps the best way to convey the value of Theroux's book is with a quick example of a vegetable much beloved by Seeds from Italy gardeners, puntarelle chicory. She writes about Irene, a woman in Bra, Piemonte, who loves puntarella, which has bitter outer leaves and sweet, crunchy shoots inside. "This is of exceptional delight to Irene, as it allows for two types of salad to be prepared from a single vegetable," she writes, then provides two recipes, one for the outer-leaf cooked salad, the second for a chilled salad of inner buds.
Hardcover, 296 pages, color photos throughout.
Review by Lynn Byczynski
THIS BOOK SHIPS FREE