15 Questions for Jessica Theroux

A Publisher's Interview with the Author

1. Why grandmothers, and why Italy? What inspired you to take on this particular project?

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. The Italian grandmothers are the obvious keepers of these traditions and these pleasures, so it made sense to focus on them. No doubt all of this was influenced by my paternal grandmother, Honey, having been one of my favorite and most enjoyable companions in the many years leading up to the trip. It was largely because of our relationship that I saw how just how much the older generation has to offer.

2. Your book contains recipes, but it's more than a cookbook: it's also a travelogue, a photo album, and a portrayal of the twelve women with whom you cooked in Italy. What motivated you to create this sort of book rather than a more traditional cookbook?

It seemed really natural. The whole process of cooking, from ingredient to plate, contains rich layers of story and history. 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.

3. How did you find the women with whom you cooked in Italy?

My method was simple: I flew to Italy with a few personal contacts, and those provided through the organization Slow Food, and trusted that I would find what I needed once I was there. The year began with these referrals, which then developed into more referrals. As time passed, and I became more confident, I also started to move to the towns or regions I was drawn to. 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.

4. In addition to this book, you have also created a set of short films about the women you met in Italy. Could you talk a little about the film aspect of your project?

I am very interested in how best to convey a rich, sensory understanding of food. To my mind, the more forms of media that I could skillfully employ to communicate this, the better. Each of the four films in the series portrays a single woman, and some aspect of my time with them. For example, in one we join Carluccia as she gathers her wild greens and beans and then cooks them over an open fire; in another we join Mary and her friends in their laughter and preparation of her favorite, simple, Tuscan dishes.

5. What did you know about Italian food before you went to Italy? What did you encounter there that was unexpected?

I had spent time in Italy with Mamma Maria as a child, and then when I graduated from high school; a friend of mine and I drove from London, across France, and around the top half of Italy for six weeks. During those trips, I tasted a fair amount of the country's food, in particular pasta sciuttas accompanied by homemade sauces. One family that I stayed with for two weeks when I was eighteen had their grandmother living in the house; she and I made the same sweet fresh tomato sauce almost every day for lunch. It became my weekly Saturday night special during the following years.

When I returned to work on this project, a number of things surprised me. One thing that stands out is the common use of chard, and the addition of a light grating of fresh nutmeg to many savory dishes. Another is that almost all of the homes in the small towns have their own kitchen gardens, largely tended to by the family's elders. The tradition of raising and butchering ones own farmyard animals was also a novelty to me; I remember feeling a bit shocked when I saw Bruna's rabbits laid out on the counter, and then when Armida killed one of her chickens for our Sunday lunch. 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.

6. You mention in the book that your culinary background lies with healthy cooking. The recipes in Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, though, don't always fall into typical health food patterns; some of them are quite luxurious. Did cooking in Italy change the way you think about healthy food and eating?

Yes, 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 that you care about engenders an overall sense of wellbeing that is often overlooked by typical health food trends. We quite literally digest and absorb our food better when we eat in a calm and loving atmosphere. I also found that eating in this way naturally fostered the development of moderation; knowing that there are an endless number of delicious, lovingly-prepared meals to be eaten allows one to stop when satisfied but not overly stuffed.

In addition, these women ate very locally, and therefore seasonally; I believe that this is of utmost importance in bringing the body into a more natural and balanced state of health. For example, Carluccia harvested her bitter wild greens, whose properties are very supportive of detoxification, throughout the late winter and early spring, the time of year when the liver most easily detoxifies. Eating those greens during their season supports the liver in doing what it naturally wants to do. Similarly, richer dishes tend to be eaten during the colder months, when the body is in need of denser fats and proteins; this is a time when our bodies want to gather energy for a deeper internal warmth and sustenance.

Finally, my time in Italy confirmed my belief that eating the freshest and highest-quality food possible is important for both the health of our bodies, and that of our greater environment.

7. One thing that really stands out in Cooking is the regional variation in food that you encounter. At the end of your trip, did you have a favorite regional Italian cuisine? Was there a region you missed that you wish you'd had the chance to visit?

If I had to pick one, I would say that the foods I ate while living in Lunigiana were my favorite; the earthy, woody ingredients used in the hills and mountains were amazing to my taste, as was the varied use of seafood along the coast nearby. Being able to eat Armida's testaroli with pounded pesto, and Daria's steamed anchovies and porcini dishes, while living in the same area, was heaven to me.

I always wanted to go to Puglia, but was not able to find any good contacts there. It's the first place I'll go to if I have the opportunity to return to Italy.

8. Learning to cook from grandmothers, as opposed to just any good cooks, highlights a traditional kind of relationship between older and younger generations that's not always kept up today. How did focusing on grandmothers affect your exploration of Italian cooking?

It made my experience of Italian cooking much more personal and cultural than if I had focused simply on great cooks and their recipes and techniques. As a result, I was most interested in the dishes that had memories and stories woven into them. For example, Mamma Maria's involtini were learned from her mother, who was known for making the best ones in her town, to the degree that everyone who got married wanted them to eat for their wedding celebration. Exploring Italian cooking this way felt like an inside-out approach; I learned what was truly relevant to these women and their Italian way of life, rather than trying to learn what I thought I "should" know.

9. What do you think was the most important or influential thing you learned in Italy?

I learned in a very visceral and immediate way that if I follow what I love doing the most, things tend to work out. 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.

10. Most of the women you cooked with and wrote about live in the country; for the most part, you avoided Italy's cities in favor of more rural areas. What can urban cooks do to continue food traditions and eat in ways that are connected to the land?

The simplest ways for urban cooks to have their food be more connected to the land is to shop at local farmers markets. This allows cooks to feel more connected to the people growing their food, and easily develops knowledge of seasonality. Belonging to a CSA deepens this type of purchasing relationship, and taking farm visits or a short course in small-scale, urban vegetable and herb gardening makes the connection even deeper for urban cooks.

In terms of learning about food traditions, I have found that simply taking the time to ask and listen reveals that most people have food memories and stories that they are eager to share: their great-aunt's soup from her home-country, or that their grandmother had peach trees and made sticky preserves from their fruit every summer. Simply asking the people around us about their food memories is a good way to begin to tap into food traditions.

11. Is there a conflict of interest between cooking a traditional, local, seasonal cuisine and expanding one's cooking horizons to include more international dishes and influences?

I think it very much depends on how you look at it. My approach is that I first look to what ingredients are available locally and seasonally, and this becomes the base of my cooking. If there are international dishes that I am interested in, I then layer in spices and certain other traditional ingredients that might not available locally. I try not to be dogmatic and strict, but very much orient around what is produced nearby. I think that each person needs to come into a relationship with this that they feel good about, and that is fun for them.

In the United States we are in an interesting position around "traditional" cuisine, in that ours is much less developed and locally-oriented than in the countries where there are long-standing, traditional dishes and a strong historical food culture. Because of this, cooking international dishes here is less in conflict with a traditional, American cuisine per se; the issue becomes more about how to source well locally.

12. Italian cooking, as the cuisine at the origin of the Slow Food movement, seems to be a natural fit for an exploration of food traditions. Do you think that a project like this one would be possible in other countries? What other home cooking traditions would you like to explore?

I think that it would be possible wherever home-oriented food traditions are a mainstay of family and community life, and would work well in countries where the elders are absorbed into the family structure and participate through food preparation.

I am particularly interested in documenting home cooking traditions in Japan, Mexico, India, and Ireland.

13. What kinds of food did you grow up eating? Care to share any food memories?

As I once wrote in a fellowship application, "My mother was good with a microwave, and my father with a toaster oven." Until I had to change my diet to heal my digestion as a young girl, I ate mostly prepared foods from Marks and Spencer, warmed in the oven. Those years were peppered with some special homemade foods though, which I always found to be most exciting: Grandma Honey would visit and make her mother's Irish cabbage and bacon dish; my mother baked her grandmother's chocolate and carrot cakes from scratch for our birthdays; and my father slow-curdled the most delicious creamy, cheesy scrambled eggs during our family holidays.

14. What was the first dish you learned to cook?

Pink peppermint patties, in first grade. I learned how to make them at school, and when I tried to teach my sister at home later that week, the little bottle of pink dye splattered all over our yellow Labrador who was waiting hungrily below. Despite London being a Mecca for the punk scene in the 1980s, for weeks people made snide comments at my mother when she walked the dog in the park.

15. The connection between food and memory, between food and one's life, comes up repeatedly in the book. What is it about good food that affects us so much?

I think that eating good food in good company is the ultimate form of nurturing and comfort. 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.

On a very literal level, we are what we eat and absorb, and so when we eat good food that agrees with us on a biochemical level, we quite literally become more healthy, vibrant and alive.