At an age when most children are starting to read and write, Jessica Theroux was learning how to cook. She felt an inexplicable but undeniable drive, even as a 7-year-old, to bring family together around the table. Saturday mornings she could be found at the stove, mixing custom combinations of fresh fruit and chocolate chips into pancake batter for her parents and sister.
But at the ripe old age of 9, Theroux became sick with digestive problems and was prescribed a regimen of medications to manage them. By age 10, she was spending even more time in the kitchen, baking chickens and topping potatoes with cottage cheese according to a strict program laid out by a nutritionist in conjunction with an array of medicinal herbs. As an 11-year-old, she weaned herself off her medications entirely — and learned how to make healthy, fresh foods taste delicious.
Fast-forward to college, when Theroux took a year off from studying filmmaking and photography to train as a healing-foods chef. After graduation in 2003, she set off for Italy's Lombardy region and the kitchen of Mamma Maria, the mother of her childhood au pair. Following word of mouth and her taste buds, she traveled and cooked through the Italian countryside for a year and a half, ultimately working alongside 12 matriarchs in their own kitchens — and around their outdoor hearths, under their olive trees, and in their gardens.
The result, Cooking With Italian Grandmothers, is equal parts travel memoir, biography and cookbook. The AARP Bulletin spoke with Theroux about documenting the traditions of Italian grandmothers. (Read an excerpt from Cooking With Italian Grandmothers.)
Q. Why did you choose Italy for your project?
A. I needed to learn about food traditions and pleasure around the table. Italy seems to do that best.
Q. And why grandmothers?
A. The grandmothers are the people who are cooking for their families. The next generation down is out working, and the grandmothers are taking care of the children. They are, quite literally, the bearers of traditions and the producers of the meals. They're the heart and soul of the culture.
Q. How did their life experiences affect their cooking?
A. They had lived through war, some through both World Wars I and II, so food was really precious to them, and hardiness and self-reliance was incredibly important. It's what had allowed them to eat during wartime. There was a sense of pride in knowing how to cook well from very little, like how Grandmother Carluccia, who lives in Calabria in southern Italy, could make great pasta from flour and water, not even needing eggs or oil.