From an Italian journalist who lives part of the year in New York, a beguiling memoir of growing up in a Tuscan city, learning to cook local and family favorites.
Chen’s memories are soft-edged and nostalgic as chapters such as “Garden Lessons” and “In Emilia’s Kitchen” recapture the way it was in Livorno on the Tuscan coast during the postwar years. Born in 1948, she missed the hardships of the war years, during which the family’s elegant home was taken over by a destructive German regiment and food was in short supply, but her relatives still practiced the economies learned then. Drawers were filled with wrapping paper, bits of ribbon, and pencil stubs that might be useful one day; one excessively thrifty aunt kept a jar labeled “STRINGS. Too short to be useful.” Chen and her brother were constantly reminded how fortunate they were to have food, which they were forbidden to waste. (Here the author inserts a recipe for economical and filling minestrone; other chapters also include relevant recipes.) Emilia, the family cook, taught her how to cook and shop daily at the local markets. Chen describes their house with its marble terrace and vegetable garden, the nearby convent school she attended (the competitive girl strove to be the most virtuous), and visits to her paternal grandparents’ seaside home in Sicily, where freshly caught swordfish was a staple at meals and the bedroom had a wonderful frescoed ceiling. She also vividly evokes period housekeeping details: the laundress washed their sheets in spring water and dried them on the grass; the pantry contained only dry goods, as perishables were bought daily in limited quantities; the family didn’t acquire electrical appliances until the ’60s. Chen entered adolescence during that decade, and she notes the growing American influence on music, television, and fashion that irrevocably changed the way Italians lived. She closes with a bittersweet account of visiting present-day Livorno.
A richly textured past intimately evoked.