Focus on Food: The Lost Art of Real Cooking (Kitchen Re-Entry)

I actually thought I’d stop buying cookbooks, since everything is online these days, but a new sort of cooking genre has sprung to life in recent years, one of memoir or history, sometimes both blended together with a generous dollop of commentary on top. I’d managed to end up with a collection of these tasties, most of which, owing to a critical, chronic lack of time and energy, I never read past the beginning or a skim through. This was a reality that contributed to my slowdown last October, when I decided to take some time off from penning book reviews and, hopefully, start pursuing other interests and projects as well. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would to get my mojo back, and my reading has seriously slowed down. Little by little, however, I’m feeling something, and last night I got serious about a few recipes I wanted to try out.

I know I’m not ready to jump back into things in quite the same way as before, particularly relating to food, given the “field work” involved in these examinations. There’s also the reality that I’m not what one might call a “foodie” – I don’t have a culinary degree or a bank of nutritional information stored in my brain and my expertise is limited to what I’ve taught myself to do from previous reading and experimentation. There were also a few setback years in which my now-teenaged son, who as a toddler and young child ate all the spicy Indian and Middle Eastern food I cooked, switched to a puzzling array of home-cooked “fast food.” (At least he has always disliked the commercial stuff.) He’s still stuck on pizza, but his repertoire at least has once more begun to expand. He’s a loyal child, but will in fact tell me if something was too bland, a criticism that actually fills me with joy.

So it works well for me that The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time is set up the way it is: with a table of contents dividing dishes into categories, sure, but the book itself takes a narrative approach. This is a delightful concoction that allows one to begin at the beginning and stop when one reaches the end, skip around or do both. Moreover, it slowly and patiently brings a reader like me back into the fold: I’m exhausted but expectant, longing to know the etymology of food (so to speak) and have an aversion to measurements in cooking. It also (negatively) references the long line of products and foods developed for those wanting fast results, a condition I have over past years grown to deeply dislike. One of my very first blog entries spoke of it and I still retain a deep abhorrence for the condition because I believe it has damaged our society and how we interact with each other.

Food and literature pair exceedingly well: the sharing of labor, love and stories to nourish our bodies and souls. (Click image for more about the book.)

I’ve said it before: A delicious meal prepared with care for those who will eat it is an act of love and actually tastes better, and I want to gift that, especially to my son. Universally food is a uniter, and some of the best discussions are over a good meal, especially when one is eating slowly, savoring the textures and flavors of food and conversation alike. It takes us places, even when one reads about it, which is probably why these new food books are so successful. Even “ordinary” novels and other works can magically bring that feeling alive, such as in Rodriguez and Vigorito’s Forty Years in a Day, when the children sneak into the kitchen on Sundays to dip bread into the simmering sauce. I remember doing it myself as a kid – smearing the soft and chewy bread with real butter, especially delicious on the ends, which we fought over, and using them to wipe clean our plates and pop the last bit of chewy heaven into our mouths. This is the moment you ease back in your seat and enjoy those in your midst, saying, as my son and I still do, “You wanna know the best part of that meal?”

“The company.”

*****

I’ve got a lovely task ahead of me today, straight from the pages of The Art of Real Cooking, but within my kitchen, exactly the reason the authors put the book together. “Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining,” they write. I agree, but would add that it’s also meditative. It calms me. It helps me to slow down by forcing the deceleration, enabling me also to focus more on actual mindfulness (and not the cash cow it’s being turned into) as I learn to let go of not having finished everything today I would have liked. When fatigued, it doesn’t necessarily pep me up, but does engage me in a slow stir of calm movement redirecting my mind’s insistence that I sit down and close my eyes. The entertainment referenced above sets in as my ingredients meld, dance, reduce, bring me into its midst as the world and its concerns take a bow for the time being. This is our show. We loosen up and anticipate, engage in the movements uniting my hands and what the ingredients become as, together, we provide something while we prepare to share with those we love the most.

Check out the websites for Ken Albala and Rosanna N. Henderson

Banner: Azerbaijani tendir oven made of clay in a hole in the earth, courtesy MrArifnajafov. Click image for more details. 

Book Review: Forty Years in a Day

Forty Years in a Day
by Mona Rodriguez and Dianne Vigorito

History is a fascinating mirror and perhaps none within more so than the people who lived through it. Adding to the layers of intrigue are oral traditions passed down within families that lend new angles of perception and understanding to previous events, not least of them being the awareness that these are one’s own people.

I’ve been fortunate recently to have made the acquaintance of several books written about authors’ relatives and ancestors, amongst them Forty Years in a Day, a family story told to one woman by her immigrant father on his 90th birthday. Having journeyed to Ellis Island, scene of so many immigrant beginnings on our shores, the pair pass through the interior of a building that “exploded with thousands of personal stories of hardship and hope.” Clare sees her father’s face in those lining the walls, these images reflecting the “disquietude of an era.”

She understands already that the comfortable life she lives now is in debt to those who came before, including her father, Vincenzo. His childhood journey from an Italian village to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen was marked with a near-death experience and instances of degradation his mother, Victoria, tried to pass off as ordinary in the hope he would forget. Whether Vincenzo recalls those earliest instances or retrieves them from his mother’s diary is not articulated, but authors Rodriguez and Vigorito lay out an understanding for Clare to absorb that is much larger than any of it, suggesting that even had Vincenzo remembered, he is beyond it. As father and daughter sit outside the island’s museum, silently taking in the crisp autumn afternoon, Clare remarks on the beauty of the day.

“My father simply replied, ‘Clare, every day you’re alive is a beautiful day.’

Throughout his life, the phrase ‘it’s a beautiful day’ had become his mantra. I had always thought of it as cordial chitchat used to fill the uncomfortable gaps of silence in conversations, but only now did I comprehend the depth of his penetrating words.”

As they sit on the bench, Vincenzo Montenaro tells his daughter Clare the story of his life and his family, more precisely that of his mother, forced to leave an abusive husband and board a ship alone with several small children. The language is straightforward and accessible, but never simple, and the authors clearly work well together, possessing a talent for relating details that elapse over a long and arduous period of time, without overburdening the reader. We get a clear sense of how awful is the journey and its inherent pains, terrors, humiliations, discomforts, even cruelties.

“Hell’s Kitchen and Sebastapol,” by Jacob Riis, c. 1890, shortly before our story begins, via Wikimedia Commons

This, in fact, is the style of the entire novel—many years encapsulated in much the same way the elder Montenaro would have done when taking only a single afternoon to describe forty years of his life. It is part of the authors’ craft that one never really knows for sure whether each individual segment is shortened by necessity or because suggestion is more powerful than a full-on witnessed account. Indeed, certain details are too wrenching to lay openly on the table, so to speak, and in fact would not do them justice. Some things, as is oft repeated, are best left to the imagination.

Vincenzo takes Clare—and us—through his mother’s story, her journey with the children to America and the years in which her life is essentially on hold because she mistakenly believes the husband she fled lives on. As time moves forward, Victoria, and her family as well as society, experiences growth and the awkward, inspirational and even ordinary moments informing and directing decisions pertaining to children, careers, dating, friendships, recreational activities, marriage, crises, illness and death, war, struggle, failures and triumph, and looking toward the future while remembering dreams of the past.

Somehow the myth pertaining to this era’s more “innocent” time has managed to stay afloat in our own society,  though Rodriguez and Vigorito attempt no such fluff. Life at this time was difficult, even nightmarish for some, though there were opportunities as well. New York City in the first half of the twentieth century was no playground: Irish mafia wars rivaled disease and poverty and though many emerged intact, very few escaped at least some contact with all three.

But, like life in any era, there existed also the magnificence of the ordinary, perhaps what Vincenzo, even in childhood, reveled in the most as he passionately embraced his appreciation for life:

Victoria knew the smell of the fresh baked bread and sauce simmering on the stove were ones the children looked forward to six days to Sunday. The minute she and [sister-in-law] Genevieve left the kitchen to ready themselves for church, Vincenzo would rip a loaf of the warm bread into pieces, dunk them into the sauce, and dole them out to his cousins and siblings. By the time Victoria returned, washcloth in hand, one of the loaves would have inconspicuously disappeared. Smiling to herself, she would casually wipe away the residue of red that rimmed their lips, pretending she was unaware of their weekly ritual.

Mission House, Hell’s Kitchen, c. 1915 Bain News Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps one of the novel’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it balances understanding of one realism within history: from the beginning human beings have always loved to be told stories, and it is no accident that our own histories resonate so deeply within us. The series of stories told throughout the book, as Vincenzo and his siblings—and the enlarging cast of characters—journey though teen years and young adulthood, as they enter into middle age, these stories satisfy a need to know about life for others and at other times, told by two with the eye and instinct of keen storytellers who know exactly when to divulge, when to pause and hold onto secrets and twists. They also embody the mirror image of those who love to be told a tale by fully displaying the seeming human satisfaction in telling one. Effortlessly weaving through time and connections within the characters’ own era, neighborhood and circles, they also touch our own.

So much happens in this novel, really a memoir of sorts–beginning in first person and shifting away as Vincenzo picks up–but readers are moved forward, perhaps a reflection of Vincenzo’s own perspective and the manner in which he habitually looks forward, rarely dwelling on past events. Here, too, the authors, who are in fact cousins telling their own family’s story, bring us to witness exactly how much the patriarch values the future and those who will occupy it. Like Clare who learns so much that afternoon, readers will be “exhausted and inspired from the journey[,]” and wouldn’t have it any other way.

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This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location.

A copy of Forty Years in a Day was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.

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R.I.P., Dianne Vigorito. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us.