Thursday, September 23, 2010

Risotto with Nettles

a Memoir with Food

Anna Del Conte
Random House
London 2009

She was born and grew up in Milan. When war came to Italy, her family had to abandon their apartment and the city for the countryside. Peasants still ate well, but life was dangerous.

This is a memoir of a life seen through food - there are recipes and memories of her native land - from lemon granita to wartime risotto with nettles.

I stumbled across this book quite by accident when I was browsing in our local bookshop. The title caught my eye immediately. Nettles have been important in my life on several occasions and in different places. When we were living at the farm on the island, Glen and I picked the young and tender nettles for dinner. Boiled and served with butter and salt and pepper - delicious with small new potatoes. Later in the season, when they' grown older and tougher, I used them as dye material for spinning and weaving. They produced a gorgeous soft, pale green color.

Anna and her family were evacuated in 1942 to Albinea, a village in the foothills of the Apennines. Life was quiet and peaceful for a year. Then they were moved out of Villa Viani and into the villino next door. It was a cramped and more primitive lodging - there was a lavatory but no bathroom and no heating. Once a week they'd put a large zinc tub in the kitchen and pour hot water from jugs to have a proper, all-over wash.

I went to prison twice during the war, once in February 1944, and the second time in the following December.

After the war in 1946, she moved in with her parents in Milan, and in 1949 moved to London - "a culinary wasteland". She married an Englishman, and while bringing up her children, she wrote books which inspired a new generation of cooks.

I'm not sure which I enjoy most - the stories or the recipes - all sounding quite delicious and unusual.

This one's for you, Nan. I'll miss you

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Edge of the Taos Desert

An Escape to Reality

Mabel Dodge Luhan
University of New Mexico Press
Albuquerque 1937

This is an autobiographical account describing Luhan's first months in New Mexico.

In 1917 Mabel Sterne, patron of the arts and spokeswoman for the New York avant-garde, came to the Southwest seeking a new life. This autobiographical account, long out-of-print, of her first few months in New Mexico is a remarkable description of an Easterner's journey to the American West. It is also a great story of personal and philosophical transformation. The geography of New Mexico and the culture of the Pueblo Indians opened a new world for Mabel. She settled in Taos immediately and lived there the rest of her life. Much of this book describes her growing fascination with Antonio Luhan of Taos Pueblo, whom she subsequently married. Her descriptions of the appeal of primitive New Mexico to a world-weary New Yorker are still fresh and moving.

She put Taos on the map of the international avant-garde, bringing, among her scores of visitors, D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, Willa Cather, and Ansel Adams. In prose, paint, poetry, and photography, all of them celebrated her frontier paradise.

I'm reading this again now because we watched a movie this week about Georgia O'Keefe. It was so beautiful, and the caste was magnificent - Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons; Tyne Daly played Mabel Luhan. Seeing again the lush and colorful landscape of New Mexico made me long for the tiny cabin there where I spent one glorious year at Jemez Springs in Northern New Mexico, not far from Taos.

Winter in Taos
first published in 1935
by Haracourt Brace

"Winter in Taos" unfolds in an entirely different pattern, uncluttered with noteworthy names and ornate details. With no chapters dividing the narrative, Luhan describes her simple life in Taos, New Mexico, this "new world" she called it, from season to season, following a thread that spools out from her consciousness as if she's recording her thoughts in a journal. "My pleasure is in being very still and sensing things," she writes, sharing that pleasure with the reader by describing the joys of adobe rooms warmed in winter by aromatic cedar fires; fragrant in spring with flowers; and scented with homegrown fruits and vegetables being preserved and pickled in summer. Having wandered the world, Luhan found her home at last in Taos. "Winter in Taos" celebrates the spiritual connection she established with the "deep living earth" as well as the bonds she forged with Tony Luhan, her "mountain."

This moving tribute to a land and the people who eked a life from it reminds readers that in northern New Mexico, where the seasons can be harshly beautiful, one can bathe in the sunshine until "'untied are the knots in the heart,' for there is nothing like the sun for smoothing out all difficulties." Born in 1879 to a wealthy Buffalo family, Mabel Dodge Luhan earned fame for herfriendships with American and European artists, writers and intellectuals and for her influential salons held in her Italian villa and Greenwich Village apartments. In 1917, weary of society and wary of a world steeped in war, she set down roots in remote Taos, New Mexico, then publicized the tiny town's inspirational beauty to the world, drawing a steady stream of significant guests to her adobe estate, including artist Georgia O'Keeffe, poet Robinson Jeffers, and authors D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather. Luhan could be difficult, complex and often cruel, yet she was also generous and supportive, establishing a solid reputation as a patron of the arts and as an author of widely read autobiographies. She died in Taos in 1962.