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Etna author releases memoir about cooking in Italy

  • Writer Teresa Lust, of Etna, N.H., adds a log to the fire while Hazel and Addie take advantage of the heat on Feb. 27, 2020. Lust's new book "A Blissful Feast" tells of her travels through Italy, learning traditional cooking while becoming fluent in the language. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Teresa Lust, of Etna, N.H., mixes eggs and flour to make pasta at her home on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Lust's new memoir "A Blissful Feast" was 15 years in the making and tells of her travels through Italy. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Teresa Lust, of Etna, N.H., at her home on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/3/2020 8:43:16 PM
Modified: 3/3/2020 8:43:10 PM

What Americans callleftovers, Italians call gli avanzati. The former connotes something rejected or forgotten, the latter something done in advance.

Those little words contain essential truths about how the two cultures approach cooking, says Teresa Lust, author of the new book A Blissful Feast, which came out Tuesday.

Lust set out to learn the secrets of Italian cooking more than 15 years ago, little knowing what the task would entail. Not long after she conceived of a culinary expedition through Italy, she decided she needed to learn the language.

“But I really didn’t know what that meant,” said Lust, who lives in Etna with her husband and two children. “At first, I thought I could just learn a few words from menus, but I just kept digging and digging and digging. … I realized that I didn’t just want to learn to cook Italian. I wanted that more profound level of understanding the food and the culture and the sensibility of the table.”

That depth of knowledge led to a book as rich as an Italian dinner, layered with memories, musings, stories and culinary terms, along with descriptions of treasured dishes and their origins. Each section of the book covers a region where Lust spent time learning to speak Italian, and cook Italian food, and each chapter tells the story of a particular dish or culinary adventure. A cookbook it is not, but each chapter ends with a recipe.

“I wanted to provide the recipe just to kind of complete the story,” said Lust, who will talk about her book at the Norwich Bookstore next Wednesday.

More important, she said, are the stories of the dishes and the connections they create to the cuisine and the culture.

“The dishes, the ingredients, they all had such meaning,” said Lust, who became fluent in Italian through the process and now teaches at the Rassias Center for World Languages at Dartmouth. “When I make them now in my own home, they just have more meaning.”

Italians have a different relationship with food and cooking than their typical American counterparts, Lust said. Gli avanzati is one example. Italian meals are linked in complex ways: A roast chicken furnishes stuffing for pasta, and surplus pasta ends up in a soup, and so on.

“It’s not like you have to get up every morning and start from scratch and slave all day in the kitchen,” Lust said. “There’s always something partly done.”

That distinction is not just a strategy but a mindset. Instead of treating dinner as a chore to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, “it’s the idea of making cooking a part of your life,” Lust said. “There’s a mindfulness that I think most of us lack in the way we eat.”

The ethos of Italian cooking came naturally to Lust, who worked in restaurants on both coasts early in her career but whose real passion is cooking for family and friends.

“I just love cooking. I feel like it’s such a personally rewarding thing to do. It’s meditative … it’s sensual. It appeals to truly every sense,” she said.

Lust grew up in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, in a family that carried on the culinary traditions of its Italian roots. She writes:

“As with many children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants, food is what tied my family to our heritage. It is what set us apart. My mom learned to cook from my grandmother Teresa, so we ate polenta and risotto for dinner in the 1970s, a time when the only other people I knew who ate these foods were either related to me or of Italian descent as well. We had dainty anise cookies and hand-shaped ravioli at Christmas. My mother put up quarts of Roma tomatoes each September for sauce, and pints of a tomato based, sweet and sour vegetable medley she called generally ‘antipasto,’ which she served as an hors d’oeuvre. There was always a 5-liter tin of olive oil in the pantry and a whole salame in the refrigerator, along with a wedge of Parmesan cheese.”

After moving to Hanover with her husband, Bert Davis, in 1990, Lust earned a master’s degree in creative writing. Her first book, Pass the Polenta, a collection of essays on cooking, was published by Steerforth Press, then in South Royalton. She also began traveling to Italy and dining with aunts, uncles and cousins. Many of the meals contained elements of the meals Lust had grown up eating, and they stirred a desire to learn more.

“It was as if a part of me had been dining at those tables all along,” she writes. “I wanted to explore this connection to my mother’s cooking, wanted to trace the origins of the dishes my grandmother used to make, wanted to expand my repertoire.”

Lust’s journey began in the Piedmont region, home of her mother’s ancestors. There, she learned how to make homemade gnocchi from her mother’s cousin, Giuseppina, watched Giuseppina’s husband, Felice, kill a rabbit and treated a head cold with hot spiced wine, among other adventures.

Lust chose the other regions of focus, the Maremma and Le Marche, based on her desire to learn Italian. “I searched for small schools in places little visited by tourists, so I would have no choice but to use Italian,” she writes, “and if the websites from these schools had intriguing things to say about the local cuisine, so much the better.”

In Maremma, a region of Southwestern Tuscany, she learned how to make a treasured local dish, acquacotta, a bread-and-vegetable soup from Alessandra, a woman who held all the secrets of the dish in her head but rarely cooked. She helped Alessandra’s mother, Franca, make spinach and ricotta gnudi — small dumplings — for Sunday pranzo, the midday meal that many Italians revere. And she helped harvest grapes and prepare elaborate meals for the harvest workers at a family vineyard.

In the mountains of Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy, Lust foraged for wild asparagus, and in a local trattoria, she learned the art of handmade pasta from a veteran sfoglina, a person whose singular duty is rolling out pasta.

“What really interested me was the fact that in a country like Italy, where cooking is still an important part of their culture and an important part of their daily life, their cooking is just so genuine,” said Lust, who made multiple trips to the regions, as her work and family schedule allowed. “It represented what I appreciated about cooking.”

Lust’s leisurely pace produced a book that’s far more immersive and intimate than she originally envisioned. It also presented her with unforeseen hurdles. The publishing world had undergone significant changes since the publication of her last book, and in that time, Lust had also lost her connections to publishers.

Numerous agencies rejected the book because Lust didn’t have a big enough social media following. Several liked the topic but felt it wasn’t commercial enough and suggested that Lust recall some sort of dramatic transformation resulting from her journey.

There was no drama, alas, to recall. “No abuse, no booze, no drugs, no lover,” Lust said.

Eventually, Lust resorted to cold-calling.

“I almost gave up,” she said.

Finally, after re-working the book from a collection of essays into a more cohesive narrative, Lust got an offer from Pegasus Books. To her delight, the publishing house wasn’t especially concerned about her Instagram presence either, although she did finally have to put a website together.

The book will be shelved in the crowded “food memoirs” section, and though its presumptive readers are those who know their way around a rolling pin, Lust hopes it also conveys the delights of cooking to those who haven’t yet connected with food in a meaningful way.

“It doesn’t have to be that you grew up around cooking. With practice you get confidence, and you learn how to cook with all of your senses. ... You recognize the right brown sheen on the pie crust when it’s done, the sound of cake sizzling, telling you that it’s done, the sound of the juices in the pan when they go from blip blip blip to bloop bloop bloop,” Lust said. “Pretty soon you develop your own language for it and your own foundation.”

Teresa Lust will discuss A Blissful Feast: Culinary Adventures in Italy’s Piedmont, Maremma and Le Marche at the Norwich Bookstore on March 11 at 7 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Call 802-649-1114 or visit info@norwichbookstore.com.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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