Jessica Theroux is the author of an incredible new food book Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Italy, just named Best Italian Cookbook of 2010 by Publishers Weekly. It has been flying off the shelves of bookstores across the country. Chefs, food bloggers and home cooks from Coast-to-Coast are falling in love with this beautiful book – part travelogue, part cookbook and part photo essay. I was lucky enough to spend five days on the road in the Pacific Northwest with Jessica. I traveled to Seattle and Portland in order to support Jessica and to experience the book in a completely new way.
Welcome to Seattle
Book tour lesson #1 – A book tour requires caffeine. Seattle and Portland are chock full o’ places to get your morning, afternoon and evening cup of coffee. There are even a latte great places with organic options. Yum.
Our first stop in Seattle (after the requisite coffee at Odd Fellows www.oddfellowscafe.com ) was Elliott Bay Bookstore. This place is absolutely gorgeous. It feels massive and cozy all at the same time. You walk in and feel like you’re in a log cabin in the woods with every book you’ve ever dreamed of at your fingertips.
The events coordinator at Elliott Bay is Karen Maeda Allman and she was incredibly helpful to us and gave us everything we needed to sell books at our event.
Here’s Jessica with Karen Allman right before our tour of Elliott Bay Book Company. We loved seeing Cooking with Italian Grandmothers in the front window of the bookstore, right next to The Joy of Cooking.
Jessica signed books at bookstores in the area and we peeked into used bookstores like Mercer Books and Twice Sold Tales just to say hello and chat about her upcoming events. Our next stop was Sitka and Spruce, one of the two restaurants owned by chef and restaurateur Matt Dillon. We ordered delicious chanterelles, lentils, & delicata squash, took them to go, and made our way to our first event. We arrived at the home of Myra Kohn (Seattle Bon Vivant http://twitter.com/bonnevivante), with boxes of books and started to prepare for the festivities. We had been in Seattle for nearly 24 hours and still no rain. We thanked the grandmothers.
Myra Kohn’s event, Tastes and Tales, was terrific. Jessica and I arrived early so we would have time to bake paste di meliga with Myra. These delicious Piedmontese cornmeal biscuits (p. 66) from the book were inspired by nonna Irene. According to Jessica, “the traditional way to form the biscuits is to pipe the dough through a star-shaped pastry bag into a double S shape. However, I also find them very appealing as chubby little coins.”
We were introduced to wonderful food writers, bloggers, chefs and food enthusiasts with varying degrees of experience with Italian food, but all very excited to hear about Jessica’s experiences with Italian food and especially her stories about the grandmothers.
Above: Chef Mike Easton from new Seattle hot spot, Lecosho (www.lecosho.com)
& Jessica holding a tray of her newly baked cornmeal cookies.
Jessica asked everyone to go around and talk about an elder that influenced his or her cooking.
The answers were intimate, surprising and authentic. One food writer said that she was not influenced by her own family, but instead was completely influenced by Asian grandmothers with whom she spent time during her years in Japan. In fact, it became quite obvious that many of these foodies were not taught by a family member, but instead went outside of their own families in order to garner culinary know-how. “I think every culture has their nonna character and sometimes their kids and grand-kids aren’t interested in their stories, but I am,” – Judy, a food writer based in Seattle. Some of these men and women were influenced at home and shared stories about their own grandmothers and mothers. We heard about the best latkas from one woman’s Jewish grandmother, meatballs from an Italian grandmother, there were recipes and stories from the kitchens of Persian grandmothers, Mexican grandmothers, Asian grandmothers and Portuguese grandmothers, just to name a few. I thought of my own grandma Sylvia’s matzah ball soup.
The room felt warm with the fire crackling. We drank tea and spoke of family, love, the importance of preserving food traditions and the wisdom of the elders in our neighborhoods, families and communities. We ate and laughed and Jessica read aloud from Irene’s chapter of Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. We sat in silence, a room full of chatty men and women who thrive on sharing; we were hushed by Irene. Our interest in the nonnas and Jessica’s experience was clear and palpable. We were people in love with food, cooking, sharing and stories, but the nonnas told us to listen and so we did. Listen to the food, to the individual ingredients and to each other. As we listened, I scanned the faces of the people in the room. We were all imagining the vivid scenes Jessica described, and the closer we listened the further we traveled with Jessica into Piemonte region of Italy and into Bra and into nonna Irene’s kitchen.
Book tour lesson #2 from nonna Irene and Jessica:
“To understand something, you must look at it’s roots” – Irene, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers
To understand the nature of something, you have to understand how it was born.”
– Jessica describing what she learned from Irene
After Jessica read there was a Q&A. A few of the questions posed: “What was the most surprising ingredient used in the book?” ” What was the most memorable moment?” “What made you choose Italy?”
“Do you still keep in touch with the grandmothers?”
Next stop: The Mark Restaurant in Olympia, WA
Book tour lesson #3 –
When planning events remember to consider what day and time you are leaving one event to get to another, so as to avoid leaving when there is traffic. However, if planning events in Seattle, forget about the first part of this lesson and just assume there will be traffic. Always. At any time of day. Everywhere in Seattle.
We were going to Olympia for a special dinner at one of the restaurants that Welcome Books invited to take part in “A Slow Taste of Italy,” a culinary event wherein we asked chefs from NYC to Napa Valley who source locally, use sustainable practices and focus on Italian cuisine to host special dinners (and a few brunches) at their restaurants in celebration of the farm-to-fork movement and Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. On Jessica’s book tour she was able to attend many of these dinners, and on the this particular portion of her book tour there were four of these events. Tonight we were heading to the Mark Restaurant in Olympia, WA.
Welcome to Olympia, WA. Home of the Olympian newspaper, Evergreen State College, an incredible view of the Cascades and the Olympic Mountains, and the fantastic Mark Olympia Restaurant
owned and run by Lisa Owen.
Orca books was the bookseller at this event and Jon came to do the selling and to chat with Jessica about the book…
Above: Jon from Orca Books
…along with the wonderful people from Olympia who came out to the event. Jessica and I moved around to the different tables and spoke with incredible people, many of whom had been to Italy or still had relatives there.
We met one particular group who were all neighbors in Olympia and had recently taken a trip to Italy together. These people were literally buzzing with excitement about Jessica and her journey. I watched as they pointed out pictures that reminded them of their travels and asked questions about this beautiful book, and all at once I remembered everything this book is about – love, connection, relationships, traditions and listening. It was finally the next stage of the life of this book. It was out there in the world. These were the people we were thinking about at every stage of the process. These were the home cooks who create and cherish community, friendship and food. These people understood. They felt all of these things when they were in Italy themselves and create it here at home. Now they would be able to bring the grandmothers into their own kitchens and cook by the side of these cherished nonnas. Jessica had given them a wonderful gift – a tome of wisdom brought to them from the “keepers of the craft, ” as Ms. Theroux liked to say. She would sign each book with the fortune of the nonnas – “May you eat and love with great pleasure.” It was with great pleasure that I watched Jessica pass along her treasured stories, recipes, photographs and lessons from Italy to the people she had hoped to share it with all along.
Above: Chef Lisa Owen of the Mark Olympia and Jessica
A proud new owner of Cooking with Italian Grandmothers
Jessica signed books and told stories about her journey to Italy.
Lisa Owen was incredible. The food was inspired by the book and the dishes were completely organic. Almost every ingredient Lisa uses is 100% certified organic. The three of us ate dinner after everyone left the restaurant and Lisa surprised us at the end of the meal with flourless chocolate cake.
We stayed the night in a beautiful house that a friend of Lisa’s rents out called the Lighthouse Bungalow. We woke up on the Puget Sound with a view of the snow capped mountains.
We jumped into the car (literally – it was freezing!) and made our way back to Seattle for the U-District Farmers Market with Chris Curtis, Founder of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance. I was told that this particular market is one of the top 10 in the country. It was certainly one of the best markets I have ever visited. Any market with fresh oysters, truffles, varieties of mushrooms, rose petal preserves, pumpkin butter and gluten free doughnuts in addition to tables upon tables of fresh, organic vegetables, is always a hit in my book. Jessica signed books and after we had sold nearly all of the copies that University Bookstore had brought to the market, we went over to the University Bookstore to peek around.
Above: Jessica and Chris Curtis, Founder of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance
Book tour lesson #4 – You haven’t really experienced a city until you’ve seen its markets. To experience Seattle you need to taste the oysters and truffles and according to Jessica, you’ll probably want to try the gluten free doughnuts.
A few hours later we were ready for a coffee from Stumptown and our event at Enza Cucina Siciliana. Ronald Holden, a well-known food writer for cornichon.com greeted us and made us feel welcome. Ronald and I had planned this event and it was great to see it come into fruition. The tables at Enza were filled about an hour after our arrival and I sat and chatted with a chemist and a naturopathic doctor who traveled in Italy and loved Calabria and Sicily. Enza served four courses and there were two choices per course. The most interesting dish, inspired by nonna Maddelena’s chapter from the book, was the caponata di melanzane. There were many differences between Jessica Theroux’s dish and Mama Enza’s dish, the most striking being Mama Enza’s use of chocolate chips in place of Jessica’s 1/4 cup of orange juice. This made for many conversations about the nuances of Italian cooking.
After delicious wine and great conversation we went home to get a good night sleep. The next morning we would be heading to The Corson Building in Seattle for brunch.
The Corson Building is an incredible Spanish revival building that stands just underneath a highway overpass in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. Do to it’s location one can’t help but notice the urban location, but the moment you step on the property, with a small farm to the left and a quaint patio with vegetables and gardens to the right, you can’t help but feel like you are in the countryside in 19th century Europe, and this century-old building adds to the appeal and the rustic aesthetic. The building was built in 1910 and is one of a few structures in Seattle known as, “Spanish Eclectic.” Matt Dillon is the mastermind behind this operation, and Emily Crawford was the chef for our Sunday brunch at The Corson Building. Emily recreated many of Jessica’s dishes from the book. They source locally and seasonally and their main focus is creating community around food. They don’t just make a point of knowing their farmer, but they know and often eat dinner with their foragers, wine makers, fishermen, builders, artists and local activities. Just like Jessica and her nonnas, Matt Dillon, Emily Crawford, and the staff of the Corson Building celebrate the way food, when prepared with fresh, local and sustainable ingredients, works to create and nourish communities.
Chef Emily Crawford did an incredible job preparing for this brunch. She labeled each dish with the name, the grandmother who inspired the dish and the page number and the food was entirely delicious.
The fabulous chefs of the Corson Building!
La Miascia (Bread and milk cake with pears and dried plums) p. 54
Bagna Cauda (Piedmontese warm garlic-anchovy dip) p. 69
Chef Emily Crawford preparing brunch
I was amazed at the chicken soup with a poached egg and herbs (p.159) , the gnocchi di semola (p.70) and the polpette di bietola e marmellata di cipolla rossa or the chard-sesame balls and red onion jam (p. 290).
It was great to meet Matt Dillon and hear about some of his favorite restaurants and memories from his own travels.
Jessica and Matt Dillon, Owner of The Corson Building
Book tour lesson #5 – When traveling in Europe remember to stop at Rene Redzepi’s NOMA. With Sitka and Spruce and The Corson Building under his belt, Matt Dillon’s restaurant recommendations are something I’m taking very seriously.
Next stop: Portland, OR
Book tour lesson #6 – Your first stop in Portland, OR must always be Powell’s Books. No exceptions. It’s a mile of books, people. An entire city block.
Jessica in front of Powell’s Books
It was Monday, December 6 and we were gearing up for Jessica’s final event at Nostrana. We received a call letting us know that there were 110 reservations. We dropped Jessica off at a friend’s house to get ready and I went out to get us coffee. We arrived at Nostrana around 5pm and Jessica spoke to the waitstaff about the book. Everyone was leafing through the pages and telling us what dish they had tasted already. Nostrana is chef Cathy Whims’ restaurant. Cathy joined us for dinner later that evening and we had champagne to celebrate. Robert Reynolds, the owner of Robert Reynolds Chefs Studio was there for the event as well (http://thechefstudio.com/CookingSchool/
Cathy chose to offer what she called The Italian Grandmother’s Dinner, which included three courses from the book. The first course was the polpetta of chard & sesame, red onion jam. The second course was the beef involtini di Milano, Ayers Creek polenta & warm cream, gorgonzola and for desert there was the roasted apples with hazelnuts, bittersweet chocolate and lemon zest.
Book tour lesson #8 – Every great meal deserves at least a taste of a great dessert to be complete. Needless to say with Cathy’s version of Jessica’s roasted apples, we couldn’t stop at just a taste.
Every table was filled in the restaurant and the energy was palpable. People were coming up to the table and telling us stories about incredible trips to Italy and a few interesting stories about Italian cooking classes. Everyone wanted a book and I saw one table with their Christmas lists out on the table.
Book tour lesson # 9 – Great local bookstores come in handy when you run out of books during an event. It’s also important to remember to keep your author hydrated and fed when she is signing more than 8 books per person because the customers want to give her book to everyone their Christmas lists. Thank you, Powell’s and thank you, Nostrana!
Book tour lesson #10 – If at all possible, try to stay with friends or locals when you’re on book tour. It might sound appealing to stay in a hotel, but the best nights in Seattle and Portland were with friends and locals who were supporting us and energizing us throughout our travels. Jessica and I tried to stay with people who knew the cities and were willing to be our guides and it made all the difference.
For more information about Jessica’s upcoming events please visit
In bocca al lupo,
Assistant to Lena Tabori, Publisher