A combination of a culinary travel adventure and a search for the author’s Italian family’s home cooking.
In a knowledgeable, robust narrative that emphasizes proud traditions, Lust (Italian/Dartmouth Coll.; Pass the Polenta: And Other Writings From the Kitchen, 1998) chronicles her trips of discovery to Italy's backcountry. After years working in a New England restaurant, she headed for Rocca Canavese in the Piedmont, where a sumptuous meal by her mother’s cousin proved to be inspirational. In early chapters, the author details specific dishes from that menu, including gnocchi, braised rabbit, stewed turnips, bagna cauda (a fonduelike dish with garlic and anchovies), and trout baked in parchment. Gastronomic history and the lore behind certain dishes intertwine with memories of the author’s relatives. She also describes her stateside quest to re-create rustic flavors, which highlights the differences in food culture between Italy and the U.S.—e.g., in America, rabbit never took hold as a staple. The many included recipes feature fresh ingredients and minimal steps, with helpful suggestions for substitutions. In the middle section of the book, Lust takes readers to the coastal area of Maremma, where she immersed herself in language study. “To make myself at home at the Italian table would require real fluency,” she writes. Throughout the book, Lust emerges as both an observer and apprentice, and her journey toward an authentic, down-to-earth cuisine is sincere rather than pretentious. Beloved regional dishes and lessons from a skillful hostess make clear the seasonality and intuitive approach of Italian cookery. The final section, set in Le Marche, focuses on foraging, with a dense botanical appreciation that is sometimes dry but reflects Lust's farm-to-table ethos. A mildly humorous essay on the effects of eating asparagus offers a few curious historical references, but its place in the collection is tangential. For foodies, Lust hits all the right notes; she demonstrates abundant love and respect for the food and the people dedicated to making it right.
An exploratory, celebratory memoir that elevates family repasts.