Family reunions over the holidays — that six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's — bring the promise of festive dinners prepared, should we be so fortunate, by our infintely talented, infinitely wise grandmothers. So it's appropriate that Jessica Theroux's admirable book, Cooking With Italian Grandmothers, arrives just in time.
Theroux spent a year traveling through Italy, meeting and cooking with an even dozen women who shared their kitchens, their recipes, and their personal wisdom. The result is a a 296-page work, subtitled Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily, that's part travel diary, part photo reportage, and part cookbook. It recently won the Publisher's Weekly award for best Italian cookbook of the year, beating Mario Batali and Mark Ladner's Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking.)
Theroux's travels begin in Milano, where Maria (she only uses first names) teaches her how to make osso buco. She continues to Lake Como for pumpkin tortelloni, and to Piedmont, where Irene introduces her to handmade gnocchetti. At two agriturismos in Tuscany, she learns about rabbits. In Liguria, where they grow lots of basil, she learns how to make pesto genovese.
Driving south, Theroux realizes that the country villages get more crumbled and romantic. There's underwear hanging on the line, something you'd never see in the cities up north. Wild greens and hand-rolled filej pasta with Carluccia in Calabria; neighbor Raffaela makes bread for the entire town.
When she reaches Sicily she stays in a village on the slopes of Mount Etna, where Maddalena teaches her about caponata, sarde beccafico and panelle. (But who puts orange juice in caponata? Too weird!) Finally, feeling trapped in Sicily's "self-protective and guarded" culture, Theroux flees to Ustica, a tiny Mediterranean island an hour's ferry ride from Palermo, where the book's second Maria makes ricotta.
There are 100 recipes in the book, many of them illustrated with mouthwatering photographs. Lots of travel shots as well — low-contrast pictures that look like foggy-day landscapes, and posed shots of each grandmother, seated at the table in her immaculate tiled kitchen.
They don't look particularly "grandmotherly," whatever that might be. Some look like secretaries or school teachers. For that matter, most of them don't even look particularly old. (Of course, you can be a grandma at 35.) But, writes Theroux, "Grandmothers are the guardians of our collective culture, and their secret and techniques are as relevant now as they were a hundred years ago."
In the end, Theroux comes away with a rich store of images, notes, stories, recipes, and memories. She has learned how to listen. You read this book as you would a memoir, for its sense of time and place.
If you go: Theroux will be in Seattle early in December for a couple of promotional events.
The first is an authentic Sicilian dinner, 6:30 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 4), prepared by Mamma Enza Sorrentino at Enza Cucina Siciliana, 2128 Queen Anne Ave. N. The cost is $35 (or $70 including a copy of the book). Details are online; reservations by email or at 206-694-0055.
The second is a family-style supper, 6 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 5), prepared by Matt Dillon and his crew at The Corson Building in Georgetown, 5609 Corson Ave. S. The cost is $100, including wine and a copy of the book. Reservations by email or at 206-762-3330.