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Q-and-A With Jessica Theroux

Life lessons from the kitchens of Italian elders

Q. Cooking aside, is mealtime also different in rural Italy?

A. The women I was with all have lunch at 1 and eat dinner at 8. That's part of the culture. The family traditionally reconvenes in the kitchen for lunch, and then takes a nap, and then goes back to work around 3. That's a big difference; everyone always comes together at least twice a day.

Q. How did you get each recipe in the book?

A. It was complicated. These women didn't have recipes, really. There was "a bit of this" and "a bit of that." I had filmed all of the women, so in writing the book I went through the films to see what they were doing and turned their rough ideas of measurements into concrete measurements and then tested, and tested, until I was getting the taste that they had produced.

Q. Did the Italian grandmothers inform parts of your life other than your cooking?

A. Definitely. Usha's approach to health has been invaluable whenever anything happens in my body that I'm trying to figure out. I make my bed the way that Mamma Maria does. I've become very, very particular about how my bed should be made and how the pillows should be fluffed.

Q. Of course!

A. But it's also just important for me to feed my friends and my family. I try to emulate the attitude that both Irene and Armida had: "You make food, you see who shows up, you nourish them really well, and you listen really closely because you don't know what they have to offer." And it could change your life.

Q. You describe baking with Usha, who lives in Le Marche, and it almost sounds like she uses emotions in her cooking as if they were ingredients.

A. If a grandmother was in a bad mood, she would burn whatever she was making. Or it just didn't taste as good. But if she was joyful and loving while she was cooking, it just elevated it in a way that's kind of hard to describe.

Q. Is there a connection between the cook's emotions and health, too?

A. Definitely. It's not scientifically proven, but it's something that I really encourage people to play around with, to see if they notice it. When people approach cooking with an attitude of love and respect and care and a desire to really nourish the people that they're feeding, their love makes it so much more delicious. You can be a very inexperienced cook and make fabulous food just by doing that.

Beth Goulart lives in Austin, Texas.

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