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Bookstores, Italian Food & Italy
Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore? ~ Henry Ward Beecher ~
I would add to that, “as in front of Italian food.”
Most people will probably arrive at Brunetti’s Cookbook because they are already fans of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti mysteries series. As a reader who is not a huge fan of the mystery genre, I discovered the cookbook first. How it came into my hands is no mystery: The volume, with it’s a tantalizing and moody cover, practically jumped off the shelf and into my hands at Barnes and Noble the other day.
Leon, an American and longtime resident of Venice, decided to create a cookbook in response to her readers. She noted that her non-Italian fans, in particular, were quite taken with her lavish descriptions of the food adventures of her fictional protagonist, police Commissario Guido Brunetti. She recruited a friend and native Venetian, Roberta “Biba” Pianaro, to write the recipes, while she, herself, contributes six original “culinary stories” on Venice and Italian food culture.
She laments the slow but steady encroachment of tourist dependency she has witnessed in Venice over the years, where storefronts that formerly housed cheese, pasta, and butcher shops, now sell little but postcards, Murano glass and Venetian masks. Through her eyes, we learn how to make orecchiette from her friend, Margharita. In one particularly humorous piece, she compares the shopping tactics of older Italian women at the Rialto market to those of a Prussian general.
In one essay Italy is barely mentioned. Wedged among recipes featuring sumptuous and simple Italian meat dishes, Leon takes on the American holiday turkey. She explains how in deference to the U.S. preference for white meat, the birds are bred with breasts so large they actually topple over. She puts herself, the American outsider of Irish and German descent, quietly into the picture, in a way that is both informative and relatable.
The remarkably simple recipes beg to be tried tonight, as opposed to sometime in the future. Covering antipasti, primi, secondi, and dolci, they feature a wide variety of dishes that will please both hardcore vegetarians and carnivores.
Fictional passages from the series are interspersed among the 91 recipes, featuring, most memorably, exchanges and multicourse meals at home with the Brunetti family. These excerpts give a feel for the integration of the food experience in daily Italian life. After reading several, it’s easy to understand why the series inspired demand for a cookbook from her loyal readers.
I’ve got big plans this summer. Unfortunately going to Venice isn’t one of them, but if my neighbor’s garden cooperates we plan on trying more than a few of these recipes. I imagine us serving them up Brunetti style, with muti courses, hours and generations. The only problem will be deciding what to try first: Risotto di fiori di Zucca e zenzero (rice with squash blossoms and ginger) or Gamberetti, melone e rucola (shrimp, melon, and arugula)?
I’m sure I’ll be a big fan of Brunetti’s food. Perhaps I could even become a fan of Leon’s mysteries. I read Dressed for Death and intend to read a few more selections from the series. It’s hard not to love the tough and moral Guido Brunetti, and his family, and of course, Leon’s rich descriptions of the multifaceted characters, culture and landscape of Venice.
Still, my aim is to stay away from bookstores.
Bookstores, Italian food and Italy: hopelessly doomed before I even walked through the door.