Top | Excerpts

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

(article, Jessica Theroux)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true][%adInjectionSettings noInject=true]

h3. From the section titled "Mamma Maria"

It began in 1987 with a shoe full of strawberries.

I was eight. My mother, sister, and I had traveled to Milan for the wedding of our au pair, Graziella, to Beppe. There was dancing and sweet chaos, multicolored rice thrown at Graziella as she walked out of the church.


h1. About the book and author

A chef and teacher who focuses on nutritious cooking, Jessica Theroux works as a health and food consultant. 

In 2003, she spent a year traveling around Italy, staying with local grandmothers and documenting their food traditions. Cooking with Italian Grandmothers is the result — complete with profiles, anecdotes, photographs, and recipes — of that year abroad.

Copyright 2010 by Welcome Books. Reprinted with permission.


Late in the evening my dessert of wine-soaked strawberries fell into my blue shoe, and I decided to eat them anyway, plucking them out one at a time. Those strawberries were boozy and sweet, exotic and delicious. They got me hooked: These Italians seems to know something about having fun.

There's a rumor that after the wedding Graziella chopped off the bottom of her wedding dress and dyed it red, so that she could go out dancing in it. I thought she was so racy! As our au pair, she would make us crispy white toast slathered with Italian chocolate on dreary London mornings. Chocolate and hazelnuts from the north of Italy, creamed together with sugar and fat. It was pure decadence for an English schoolgirl.

On another trip to Milan when I was four, my sister and I stayed with Graziella's mother, Mamma Maria, while our parents toured the rest of Italy. I remember vividly the hours we spent propped up in our chairs at her kitchen table, sticky from the summer heat, waiting eagerly for Mamma Maria to bring out the next warm, soft dish. Her kitchen seemed endlessly filled with smells and flavors to comfort and distract us from missing our parents: soups swimming with tiny pastas, creamy curdled eggs, and countless numbers of cookies made moist from being dipped in milk.

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 and stay with her first.

I hoped to spend the next year following my taste buds through the kitchens of Italy's beloved grandmothers. I was convinced that I needed to learn about food in a country whose culture centered on cooking and eating. 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.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Author Jessica Theroux at age 4 with Mamma Maria."]

My first night there, we talked at length about Lombardian cooking, the foods Mamma Maria ate as a girl, and the ways in which things had changed since her childhood. Rather than the abundance of the current Italian meal structure, with its multiple courses and dishes, Mamma Maria was raised on meals that comprised either a starch and vegetable, or a protein and vegetable.

It occurred to me that one of the effects of the enforced wartime simplicity was an essentially rather healthful lifestyle. Modest meals were eaten at night, and stronger foods were consumed during the day, when more energy was needed for active work. There was 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. This type of interconnectedness was also mimicked in the family structure. "In the past, when you married, you would go live with your mother-in-law and your husband's family," explained Mamma Maria. "No one moved into a place alone."

Mamma Maria's mother was known by all as an incredible cook, and one who could make a delicious meal out of whatever was at hand, however plentiful or meager. On Sundays, she would kill a chicken for the family meal. In addition to chicken day, there was also "a day for eating eggs each week — eggs in frittata, eggs cooked in warm tomatoes, eggs cooked many ways." Each autumn Mamma Maria and her mother would help to slaughter and butcher the family's pigs for fresh and cured meat. The special meals were those that contained animal protein; one of Mamma Maria's favorite childhood meals was stuffed pigs' feet with home-grown potato purée.

Mamma Maria learned to cook at her mother's side. "You just watch and spend time. You lend a hand. Maybe the first time you make a mistake, then the second time you do it right. It's not that you are 'taught.'" This was, of course, what I'd come to Italy to do — to spend time with women like Mamma Maria, listen to their stories, drink a lot of espresso, watch them cook, and make meal after meal at their sides.


h1.Featured recipe


My first morning with Mamma Maria was typical of those to come. The double doors to the balcony off the kitchen were open, and city sounds and birdsong drifted into the room. Mamma Maria was in there, waiting for me to arrive in my bathrobe and the purple slippers she had bought especially for my visit. The espresso pot began to bubble and hiss as I walked through the door, and the full-fat milk followed shortly behind. A selection of biscotti was laid carefully on a plate. It was breakfast time.

After talking briefly about the night's sleep, we got right to planning what we would cook together over the coming weeks. We mapepd the whole thing out: involtini and polenta (her mother's best dishes), cotolette alla Milanese, and perhaps risotto alla Milanese (we were, after all, in Milan). Mamma Maria did not like to dirty her kitchen too much, and these were rather involved recipes, so we would take our time and pace ourselves with all the cooking. Besides, one of the most important things I learned from Mamma Maria is that you have to do things with calm. Whenever we were in the kitchen, she would say, "Devi fare le cose con calma. Una per volta." Things must be done calmly, bit by bit.

reference-image, l

feature-image, l

featurette-image, l

promo-image, l