The Food of Life—Italian Style

You would be very foolhardy to begin browsing through The Milk of Almonds— and it is the perfect book for aestival browsing—on an empty stomach. In no time at all, you will likely begin to crave something to eat involving ravioli, artichokes and figs or maybe mortadella, finocchio, or baked ziti…and rush out to the nearest trattoria or ristorante.

 
This is because the full title of this new anthology from the CUNY’s own Feminist Press, whose editorial offices are at the Graduate Center, is The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture. Each one of the foods just mentioned—and many more, like polenta, pomodori, basile, tripe—appears in a title in this collection, which was compiled by Louise DeSalvo, newly appointed Jenny Hunter Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Hunter College, and Edvige Giunta, a native of western Sicily and professor of English at New Jersey City University.

But don’t expect many recipes in the volume. It is instead a banchetto of poems, essays, stories, and memoirs about every aspect of Italian culture, with food the ever- present, insinuating ingredient. Among the 50 writers included are many whose names roll off the tongue like the titles of operatic arias: Rosanna Colasurdo, Gioia Timpanelli, Rosette Capotorto, and Annie Lanzillotto. Some authors are well-established (Sandra Gilbert, Carole Maso, Nancy Savoca, Lucia Perillo), others just emerging.

Nor is The Milk of Almonds a mere light-hearted adventure in buon gusto. The editors have more serious intentions, as their explanation of the title hints: “In Sicily, where spring comes in February, as the almond trees blossom, they signal change, renewal, a rebirth…In the island’s distant, mythical past, Persephone comes back in spring, although temporarily, to her mother, Demeter, goddess of Sicily, goddess of harvest and fertility. A daughter lost, found, then lost again: an endless series of departures and returns, the cycle of seasons, the rhythms of grieving and healing.”

DeSalvo and Giunta strike the serious note when they conclude their introduction’s highly informative set-piece on almonds: “Though it takes hard work to shell almonds, it takes even harder work to extract milk from them. Crushed almonds, sugar, water: the simple, delicious combination used to make pasta reale, almond paste—literally, royal paste—and used to make the milk of almonds, latte di mandorle, the ambrosia of the Italian south.”

The “hard work” of living is what many pieces in the book are really about. Donna Masini’s urgent poem “Hunger” has nothing to do with anything you might pick up at Gristede’s. In DeSalvo’s own memoir “Cutting the Bread,” which serves as the volume’s exit aria, she confesses hatred of her mother’s cooking and recalls her grandmother bitterly muttering merda at the awful store-bought white bread her daughter brought home.

Nancy Caronia tells of a family’s refusal to acknowledge the years of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated by its patriarch. Finally catching him molesting his grand-daughter, her grandmother’s automatic comforting response is to make her something to eat. Nancy Savoca’s “Ravioli, Artichokes, and Figs” tells of the author’s dying mother, who, after refusing food for days, agrees to share a fig.

Religion, inevitably, figures in several entries. Sandra Gilbert’s poem “Kissing the Bread” takes flight from the image of the priestly hand offering a crust:


Kissing the bread was kissing
the carrion that was the body
of every body, the wrist
of daughter and husband, the crook’d
arm of the mother, the stone
fist of the father
.


On a more exuberant note is Mary Beth Caschetta’s “The Seven Sacraments,” which reports on her cooking up, with a friend on one very busy day in the kitchen, a septet of fish recipes to honor the sacraments. Baptism was linguine in clam sauce; the Eucharist was garlic filet of sole over lemon risotto.

Cris Mazza writes wryly about being raised in suburban California by a first-generation father who believed food should be grown, raised, hunted or foraged rather than simply collected from a supermarket. Carole Maso opens the book, fittingly, with a meditation-memoir on breast-feeding titled “Rose and Pink and Round.”

The Milk of Almonds is organized in several sections: Beginnings, Ceremonies, Awakenings, Encounters, Transformations, Communities, Passings, Legacies. Library Journal has called it “highly recommended” for “readers seeking meditations on the reality of women’s lives.”

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