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Italian grandmothers share cooking secrets

Created date

October 26th, 2010

Before there was Martha or Emeril or Mario Batali, people learned to cook from the most accomplished chef they knew, their grandmother. So, when young chef and nutrition teacher Jessica Theroux wanted to learn about the food and traditions of Italy, she bypassed the celebrity chefs and went directly to the source Italian grandmothers. Italy intrigued me because of its long history of maintaining a strong local foods culture and its love of the table as a daily, delicious gathering place, says Theroux. The Italian grandmothers are the obvious keepers of these traditions and these pleasures, so it made sense to focus on them. Theroux set off on a year-long quest through Italy, the result of which is Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily (Welcome Books), a beautiful volume that highlights not just the cooking but also the culture and lore of the Italian countryside. The book is divided into 12 chapters, each an intimate profile of a grandmother from a different region of the country.

Kitchens opened warmly

Of the 12 grandmothers profiled, Theroux knew one, Mamma Maria, before she arrived in Italy. She also had a handful of referrals from friends. The year began with these referrals, she says. As time passed, and I became more confident, I would find a room to rent and then begin asking around for the area s beloved female elders. Directions were followed along dirt roads and to front doors, where I introduced myself and my work, and was usually warmly welcomed in for the next big meal. While Theroux s motivation was to learn about food and cooking, the time she spent with her Italian grandmothers provided a valuable life lesson. I learned in a very visceral and immediate way that if I follow what I love doing the most, things tend to work out, she says. It was very striking to arrive in Italy, somewhat unsure of how I would spend my time, and discover that as soon as I surrendered to my enthusiasm for cooking with these elderly women, kitchens opened warmly and easily for me throughout the country.

Rich layers of story and history

Flip through the beautifully arranged book and you ll find not just recipes but also stories of the grandmothers and their families and pictures lots and lots of gorgeous pictures all taken by Theroux. The whole process of cooking, from ingredient to plate, contains rich layers of story and history, says Theroux. In particular, that was how I experienced the food in Italy, and it was important to me to try my best to share this approach with my readers. While American cooks will undoubtedly enjoy trying the many delicious recipes in Theroux s book, one thing they may have trouble replicating is the absolute freshness of the ingredients. Almost all of the homes in the small towns have their own kitchen gardens, largely tended to by the family s elders, says Theroux. Many of the families also raise animals, some up which end up as Sunday dinner. While this type of relationship with one s animals was of surprise to me at first, I came to believe that it is one of the best ways to assure the quality of one s food and the life it leads on its journey to the dinner plate.

A new perspective on healthy eating

Prior to her Italian adventure, Theroux s background and training as a chef was focused on cooking for good health. She says the grandmothers gave her a new perspective of healthful eating. I came to see that how we eat is often as important as what we eat. Slowing down to cook and eat your food with people you care about engenders an overall sense of well-being that is often overlooked by typical health food trends. In the introduction toItalian Grandmothers, famed American chef Alice Waters writes, Grandmothers are the guardians of our collective culture and their secrets and techniques are as relevant now as they were a hundred years ago. Waters sees Theroux s work as a vital step in the right direction. I think that eating good food in good company is the ultimate form of nurturing and comfort, says Theroux. It makes sense too. As little ones, we either nursed from our mother s breast or were cradled by someone who loved us while we ate. So, there is usually a very early connection between food and love and comfort that gets replayed as adults when we eat something really delicious and nourishing it touches us deeply, on a core level.