The new Italian recipe: Eat, Pray, Publish

Books about Italian food run on Tuscan experiences, historic echoes, and Vespa rides.

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Mark Leslie

Books about Italian food run on Tuscan experiences, historic echoes, and Vespa rides.

You can understand why they get written, these tasty memoirs. Written and published, one should add. Full many a story might have bloomed unseen, but here they are nonetheless, perfect-bound or case-bound. We thank (or blame, depending on how you feel) Elizabeth Gilbert's EPL, Peter Mayle's YIP, Francis Mayes's UTS. Three relatively recent titles fall under their spell.

Let's start with Mark Leslie, author of Beyond the Pasta, who's going to be on national television next week. Leslie has a mind like a steel trap. Everything he sees and does in the course of a month in Italy (cooking with Nonna in the village of Viterbo in southern Tuscany) is recalled with the precision of a stage manager writing down the rundown of light cues, props, entrances, and sound effects. (In his day job, Leslie really is a stage manager for a community theater.) The format, one chapter and one menu per day, turns this memoir into an undifferentiated vacation slide show; there's no fast-forward to the best photos, the happiest memories, just one day at a time. What saves this from terminal boredom is his infectious and self-deprecating good humor. He escapes the village for a weekend in Rome, cruises the gay bars, then phones his boyfriend back in Alabama. (We get the word-for-word conversation.)

The book is published by a Seattle outfit, Gemelli Press, and I met up with him (at Bisato, in Belltown) for the book last year. Even without the negroni cocktail, Leslie would be your ideal dinner party guest, always good for an anecdote (or two, or three) about his travels. Much is made of transportation issues, getting lost on country byways, the way 'merican  travelers used to tell funny stories about the plumbing in Yurpeen hotels. (You might want to say, Dude! It's not about your ride!)

Anyway, as it happens, Leslie is going to be on television next week, appearing on the "Today Show" alongside Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, no less, on Monday, Oct. 10. Mark will prepare two Columbus Day-themed dishes, minestrone alla Genovese and  scampi. He'll also discuss a Southern cornbread recipe done in the style of farinata di ceci, the popular chickpea flour skillet bread from Columbus's hometown of Genoa.

The second of the current triad isn't a memoir but fiction, and by a professor of creative writing, yet. Erica Bauermeister's School of Essential Ingredients received much praise from the foodie community when it came out a couple of years ago, though my own enthusiasm is more, shall we say, nuanced. It's about the romance of cooking claases taught by a famous chef, whose dishes work their magic on a handful of ragtag misfits. What bothered me wasn't the hackneyed story line but the author's schoolmarm assignment: you could almost hear her saying, "Good, now go back and put in the some metaphors and similes." So sho-nuf, missy, we have at least one every page or two, creating images that are puzzling ("watching the butter melt across the pan like the farthest reach of a wave sinking into the sand") if not incomprehensible ("a business meeting smoldering into a passionate group session by the recycling bins in the back" and "The ring James gave her [...] slid onto her finger like his hands moving across her skin.") So why bring all this up at this late date? Well, it seems that School has its pupils, a new generation of foodie writers with ambitions that approach the limits of their story-telling abilities. 

Barbara Elaine Singer's Living Without Reservations acknowledges its debt to EPL, but disputes the notion that only a trust-fund baby can afford to chuck it all and take off in search of happiness. Having done the wife-mother-corporate thing, she survives the sudden death of her cultured fiancé, Tom, and takes off for Alaska in a motorhome with her dad ("a treehouse for grownups"). Regrouping in Florida, she sets off to sail the Caribbean with Captain Pete on his 42-footer (another treehouse for grownups), then flies off to Tuscany where she meets a handsome winemaker named Giuseppe. Relentlessly upbeat, she turns her adventures into a dense, 435-page book as well an advice website. "Wake up and start living, she says. And ride a Vespa.

Didn't take long: there's even an offshoot website devoted to visiting Singer's new home. That would be from Jennifer Young, a friend of a friend, who visits Singer at the winery where she now lives with Giuseppe, and turns the experience into a blog of her own, Jennifer's Life in Tuscany.

Two funny things. First, when I took Italian lessons two decades ago, there were two gents in the class. I was preparing a wine tour to Italy; the other fellow had a business importing terra cotta from Italy. The other students were half a dozen 30ish women from a variety of professions, but they were all there, they told us one by one, because their life's dream was to make enough money so they could live in Tuscany.

Second, both Beyond the Pasta and Living Without Reservations are published by small houses, with nearly identical logos: a woman on a motor scooter, ponytail flying in the wind. Where do you suppose they're going?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).