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Q-and-A With Jessica Theroux

Life lessons from the kitchens of Italian elders

Q. Can pasta from just flour and water possibly taste good?

A. It's so good. It's also easy. It's amazing what you can do when you have to. A lot of these dishes developed out of necessity.

Q. Did the women you met in Italy use food for medicinal purposes, also?

A. Very much so. It was really woven into the culture in a subtle way. For example, Carluccia would go foraging for wild greens. They're bitter and wild, and she loved doing it. But she also had a sense, and said outright, that they help cleanse the liver, which she knew was important to do in the late winter and early spring. She liked eating the greens more as she got older.

Q. Did they share any particular medical secrets that could be applied here?

A. Armida's chicken broth. [She lives in Lunigiana in northern Tuscany.] She would occasionally kill one of her prized chickens, boil it, pick its meat and then put the bird back in the broth. The collagen and the cartilage and all of those substances that are released during boiling are really good for the joints and seem to help arthritis. Certainly you'd want to use a free-range, organic chicken if possible.

Q. And the bitter greens!

A. We could all do with more dark, leafy greens, and in particular bitter ones like dandelion greens.

Q. The women in your book had these incredible ingredients they grew in their own backyards or purchased within their communities. Is it possible to replicate that quality of ingredients here?

A. Most towns have some kind of a health-food store relatively nearby, so that's a good option. Farmers' markets are great. CSAs [community supported agriculture] are wonderful. I'd encourage people to reach out into their communities and to really get to know who's producing their food.

Q. Is knowing who's producing your food important in Italy?

A. It's just the way it's done, and it creates an overall sense of community around food. I was really struck by Raffaela's story. She was a bread maker in Calabria. Traditionally, all of the women in her town used the same flour and starter that they would pass around between them. They had a community wood-fired hearth, and they would each take turns baking the bread, and everyone would get bread for their family, and no one woman had to do too much of it.

Q. That sounds like a fairy tale. Does it still happen?

A. Raffaela's husband died, and she was totally unsure of how to support herself and all of her children. But she remembered the bread and knew that there were still women baking the bread, but not on such a large community scale. She got a knob of this old sourdough starter from a woman in the community and refurbished the wood-fired oven. Now she's the town baker. The whole community comes — I mean from miles and miles away — to get bread from her a couple times a week.

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