For the first 18 years of my life, I never strayed far from the Connecticut coast; ever since, it seems I’ve been making up for lost time. I grew up along Long Island Sound, and many summers, thanks to a well-off, lonely cousin of my mother’s, we lived in old-fashioned cottages directly on the beach. We occasionally went camping, in a smelly, canvas tent, not far from the sea in Rhode Island, and one rainy week, we camped on Cape Cod. Otherwise we stayed remarkably close to home; I never crossed the Hudson till I was nearly twenty. But when I started studying Spanish and English at Wellesley College, just west of Boston, I began playing catch-up. I left New England in the middle of a brutal winter in 1977, and, working always as a reporter, spent the next five years in Dallas; I still remember how liberating it felt to learn I could make real winter disappear forever with something as simple as a new address. Since then I’ve lived and worked in London, Madrid, Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris, and saw much of South America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania while spending four years covering the voyages of Pope John Paul II.
I was the kind of kid who read whatever I could get my hands on; my mother complained that I took too long clearing the dinner table because I was always trying to read the articles in the old newspaper onto which I was supposed to be scraping the table scraps. I read and re-read books I loved, and the ones that weren’t cookbooks had plenty of food lore tucked inside. When I read Heidi, as I did every autumn, I would beg my mother to serve my milk in an old ceramic bowl whose brown and green glaze made me think of mountains. When I read The Swiss Family Robinson I wanted to plant cassava in my grandparents’ garden. When I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, I looked in libraries for years for a recipe for apples ’n’ onions, only to find it when I was an adult, in my mother’s kitchen, in her oldest edition of The Joy of Cooking. I tried making it once, but it tasted better in my head, from reading about it, than it did on the plate.
I grew up in the Fifties, in an Italian-American home, back when Italian restaurants seemed to serve the same, heavy, oregano-laden red sauce with every dish on the menu. My father, whose family came from Northern Italy—the home of polenta, risotto, and various brown sauces — couldn’t get the red stuff down, so we rarely ate Italian food out, unless it was cooked by one of my mother’s countless relatives. Our lives didn’t revolve solely around food, but preparing vegetables from my grandparents’ gardens, making wine from my grandfather’s Concord grapes, talking about food, making homemade pasta, reading about food, thinking about food, preparing meals, and eating together as a family day after day, meal after meal, burned a lot of my family’s energy decades before anybody had invented the word “foodie.”
Cooking, for me, was never about fancy ingredients or rich, complicated recipes; it was never a race or contest, never about making impressions or scoring points. Food was always elemental, about hunger and nourishment, love and support. Sharing food remains one of the most fundamental and primordial rituals of the human community, and though our family never talked about it as such, those shared meals, full of talk and laughter, bound us together as a family, gave us strength. We always ate together, around a family table. We still do.