Employing her crusty step-grandmother’s crusty Italian bread instead of a madeleine, memoirist and biographer DeSalvo (Adultery, 2000, etc.) adds to her remembrance of an operatic past.
She offers not one interlarded Ruth Reichlian recipe. The cuisine in DeSalvo’s childhood home wasn’t the loving Italian sort with lots of tomato meat gravy on the vermicelli. Chef Boyardee, Dinty Moore, Chung King with Minute Rice, and Dugan’s pastry were the staples of her troubled mother’s menus, served with vitriol for Mom’s old-country stepmother. Clad in classic black, the old lady glared and muttered in dialect. Family dialogue consisted of lusty curses punctuated by sudden lunges. It was Italian New Jersey in the 1950s, when old men descended to basements to make wine or, in winters, to sit near the warmth of the furnace. DeSalvo tells of strong men and steadfast women from Puglia and Campania, Sicily and the Abruzzi, superstitious and wary in a new land. She depicts a culture of put-upon wives and fierce husbands, of immigrants only reluctantly and never fully assimilated. The flavors of the old world were ever redolent, despite the Dugan’s white bread. The author’s family lore is marked by intergenerational warfare, recrimination, regret, hatred—and love, too. Beneath the crust there were, after all, tenderness and nourishment. The revelations mount, and lessons of universal significance are drawn from trips to the vegetable markets and journeys to Italy. DeSalvo finally finds pleasure in food, in tasting, and in preparing artfully prepared dishes. The dramatics of her youth, it seems, produced a superior, dedicated writer and a determined, devoted cook who may go a little crazy in the kitchen.
As in life, past tense unites with present in this juicy, tender text, seasoned with fear, loathing, and love served Italian style. Suitable for literary ladies, sensitive guys, and others, too.