You know, of course, that I am a bibliowhore and cookbook fiend. When a friend offered me a first look at Faith Heller Willinger's new cookbook "Adventures of an Italian Food Lover," I leapt at the chance. What came was a surprising little tome -- more travelogue where food features prominently, and memoir about living, eating, and cooking in Italy, than your run of the mill recipe book. The book is a compendium of 213 recipes and each recipe is introduced with a vignette about the friends and family with whom she first encountered the particular dish. It's also very personal as her sister is responsible for the watercolors that dot the book. I read the book cover to cover on the plane ride to Orlando a few weeks back while the Puggle slept -- and I swooned with jealousy over some of Faith's adventures (she knows the ILLY FAMILY! I swear to God I fund that family's lifestyle!).
I called Ivonne, my favorite Cream Puff in Venice and we talked about how much we enjoyed reading cookbooks, especially the ones that include stories about people's experiences with friends and family and food -- and decided to create a food blog event built around that concept.
The cookbook won't be in general release until July 10, but we've rounded up some of our bloggers friends and we've asked them to participate in Adventures of Italian Food Lover by making a dish for anyone they wish. "No book reviews," we decided. We're much more interested in the bloggers themselves --so everyone will be making a dish and sharing a story with us about the particular friends or family with whom they will share the dish, or by whom they were inspired when making the dish.
My selection was the Torta della Nonna, a delicate pine-nut filled Ricotta and pastry cream filling between two buttery layers of pastry dough.
This is a dish I would have shared with...well, let us call her Sarah...though it is moot what name we know her by since she's been gone nearly ten years.
I dated her son. She did not approve. I found this out purely by accident when an acquaintance of hers let slip one day that she did not favor my relationship with her son. I'm pretty sure the word "bigot" was mentioned and I was upset for several days upon discovering said fact. But the truer fact is that while she did not care for our match, she liked me.
We met for tea at the Four Seasons. We planned to see the Royal Ballet together at the Kennedy Center. We talked about books and music. We shared recipes and cookbooks. In fact, it was she who inspired me to read cookbooks as novels - when I saw her devouring the Union Square Cafe cookbook one evening, I broke free of the idea that cookbooks are meant for utilitarian purposes only. We enjoyed a similar passion for refined things. I knew the arts and the haute culture in which she immersed herself. She genuinely liked me. Does that sound contradictory? Sarah herself was full of odd contradictions like that. She was proud, very proud of her heritage and jealousy guarded what she felt were her family's genteel connections. But Sarah truly thought well of me. She just thought that her son and I would have mongrel children. (Sidebar: my friend Jim, upon being informed of this when I confided in him, was incredulous. "But you're the purebred! He's an American mongrel!" Understand that Jim breeds bloodhounds and you'll understand why he speaks this way. I still laugh remembering this comment.) But that's irrelevant to our story.
This recipe just sort of whispered her name when I brushed past it in Faith's book. I don't know why but the memory of her was so strong when I baked this torta.
While I was toasting the pine nuts for the recipe, I recalled how she and several girlfriends went to Italy together and enjoyed a romp through the cities and the countryside. She talked about the food they ate there and laughed at how they muddled through the country with not a one of the five women capable of speaking Italian, so that when their car broke down, they had to resort to communicating with the mechanic in a blunder of broken English and half forgotten French.
When I made the pastry cream and Ricotta mixture, I remembered mixing cream and eggs to make creme brulee in her kitchen whilst looking out the window and admiring her view of the Rappahanock River.
And biting into the pastry -- thin, delicate, wafery and oh so buttery before my teeth sunk into pastry and Ricotta cream -- oh that moment, that sweet moment right before the pastry crumbles and falls apart in your mouth -- oh...well that moment was slightly bittersweet. I recalled sitting outside on the stoop of her daughter's house, she dragging on a cigarette, flicking the ashes expertly.
"Is there anything you would like me to do for him?" I asked her.
She took a puff and held her breath before releasing the smoke from her lungs. "No dear," she said. She was a classy lady. Never once, never by any action, word or gesture had she ever betrayed her disinclination towards her son's relationship with me. That I knew was the bumbling tactlessness of another woman. Sarah herself -- she was always gracious and always welcoming towards me. It's entirely possible that she knew her son and I would not last; we were wholly ill suited to one another and I knew this. I suspect she did too. Or maybe in that moment on the stoop, confronting her mortality and accepting that her remission had passed, she was trying to reconcile her misgivings with what time had proved: that I had been good to her son. "I'm just glad you've been in his life. You've added so much to it."
In the wake of her death, I did not stay in her son's life because as much as I had added to his in her estimation, he had not added to mine in any way that was meaningful to me towards the end.
Do I miss Sarah? No. We could never be more than very cordial and very keen acquaintances.
But I do know Sarah would have loved this torta.
Ivonne's post is here - check back in a few weeks when we do the roundup of Adventures of an Italian Food Lover!