PASS THE POLENTA BY TERESA LUST

“PASS THE POLENTA” by Teresa Lust is a wonderful, small volume of essays, the result—says the author—of what she originally intended to be a cookbook. She discovered that each recipe evoked a remembrance, each ingredient carried with it an anecdote.

The publishers explain that Teresa “drew upon her experiences as a professional cook and her interest in culinary history to create a book that provides glimpses under the stewpots present and past; one that venerates old fashioned simplicity—from stove top coffee in a rustic Italian cucina to antique varieties of apples in a New Hampshire orchard…”

When I first began reading “PASS THE POLENTA” I thought it somewhat similar in style to that of author Laurie Colwin, so I was not surprised to discover that the publishers also describe Teresa’s first book as “In the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin…” And yet – distinctively, “PASS THE POLENTA” stands on its own merit.

“You need eat only an occasional good meal, or spend a very long stint eating nothing but bad meals,” says the author in the Introduction, “To develop an appreciation for food. Appreciate enough food and sooner or later you will find yourself up to your elbows in preparation. From there,” she explains, “It is just a short step to realizing food is not merely about calories and minimum daily requirements and metabolic pathways. At its very heart, food is about people. It is an integral part of our social history that has affected our lives since long before Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of lentils…”

Teresa’s passion for food was born, she says, at the dinner table of her parents’ home in Washington State. “I soon gravitated,” she recalls, “to the kitchen counter where along with my three sisters, I learned to make raspberry jam, to roll out sugar cookies, to use the tines of a fork to seal the edges of ravioli…”

Teresa’s story of the origin of her interest in food is similar to that of so many of us; I, too, began learning about cooking in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens.  We start with the seed of interest but in order for that seed to germinate, there has to be a mother or a grandmother willing to allow a child into the kitchen to learn and explore and experiment. What I learned years later, as I, too, began learning about cooking in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, we start with the seed of interest but in order for that seed to germinate, there has to be a mother or a grandmother willing to allow a child into the kitchen to learn and explore and experiment.  What I also learned years later, as a young adult, is that many mothers don’t want their daughters               In the kitchens, making messes. (When my high school girlfriends and I began marrying, I was often bombarded with phone calls from girlfriends whose mothers never allowed them to be in the kitchen—asking simple questions—such as how to peel potatoes or the best way to cook a pot roast. I was the only one in my group who had grown up in the kitchen and had a mother who had turned me loose in the kitchen when I was nine or ten years old).

Teresa says that after she decided the biology degree she had received in college had no practical application, she took up cooking as a profession. “After several years now in the restaurant trade,” she writes, “from my home state of Washington to California to New England, I have mixed martinis, bussed tables, drawn espressos, mopped floors, sharpened knives, cleaned calamari, glazed tortes, grilled rib eyes, and plated countless meals…”

Through it all she came to appreciate home cooking. “For dining at the home table creates an intimacy and a communion that no restaurant can ever capture,” Teresa states. [Marion Cunningham would have agreed].

Teresa tells the story of how her husband, Bart, bought a little black book and began recording in it all of the special meals they cooked together. And though it embarrassed her, in the beginning to have him bring out the black book to describe meals to guests, –she says she enjoys as much as he does going through the book and recalling meals they have prepared at home.

Teresa also says that she always wanted to write a cookbook and share her enthusiasm for cooking with others but what started out as a collection of recipes turned out somewhat different, and although there are recipes to be found in “PASS THE POLENTA” , this is not what you would consider primarily a cookbook.

From the publishers: “PASS THE POLENTA” offers up kitchen secrets, tricks of the trade, and lessons in life learned at the stoves of the many seasoned cooks in Teresa’s world: an Italian immigrant grandmother who plucked chickens in the backyard, an introverted mushroom forager who accompanied her to the woods to collect Chanterelles, a German auntie who learned to knead bread dough in a wooden bucket. These mentors are ordinary folk, all of them, going about their daily business of baking bread and pouring hearty wine. These stories eloquently demonstrate that cooking is an expression of art and of love, of family and self, of soul and the seasons.

What has non-plussed me as much as anything else about “PASS THE POLENTA”, is that, although our culinary heritages are absolutely poles apart, Teresa has written about subjects that I, too, have tackled on the pages of the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, then on the pages of Inky Trail News (both newsletters for which I have written columns) as well as my blog, Sandychatter, from sauerkraut to apples, from soup to pie. Nonetheless it fascinates me to discover what other foodies have to say about a particular food, or dish. However, Teresa Lust’s background is Italian whereas the closest I came to Italian was an Italian brother-in-law, whose family lived in a section of Cincinnati referred by locals as “Little Italy”. I would like to tell Teresa that yes, I have made my own sauerkraut and canned it as well. When I was entering the LA County Fair, my sauerkraut won a blue ribbon. My background is German/Hungarian.

“PASS THE POLENTA”, which gets its title from the first chapter, also called “Pass the Polenta”, is, says Teresa, actually her mother’s story and one you should read for yourself. The essays contained within the pages of “PASS THE POLENTA” are charming and heart-warming, bringing back memories of my own childhood and the kitchens of my mother and paternal grandmother. Whether reading her chapter on sauerkraut (Of “Cabbages and Kings”) or the making of bread, (“Yesterday’s Bread”), each essay is certain to stir up memories of your own childhood and life’s experiences with food, cooking, and the soul-satisfying preparation of meals for family and friends.

You will discover that all of the titles of the chapters are enticing:  The Same Old Stuffing…Yesterday’s Bread…When Fathers cook…Wine by Numbers..A Secret Well Kept…Enough Room for Strawberry Shortcake…all will tempt you to “read me first!”

“PASS THE POLENTA” by Teresa Lust was published by Steerforth Press is a nice-sized book, the kind you can stick into your purse or tote bag to carry around with you if you – like me – always take a book along to run errands, just in case there’s  a line at the bank or post office. Each of the essays stands on its own. It’s been a decade since I first reviewed “PASS THE POLENTA” for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, and I was so charmed, all over again, that I have decided to re-read it (that’s the glory of keeping all the books you love—you can always read them a second time).

You can find dozens of recipes for Italian Stew and polenta and you probably, as do I, have your own favorite recipe for making stew. Mine is almost always the second day leftover meat from a pot roast. Making it with a 7-bone roast is my daughter in law’s favorite. Here, however, is Teresa’s recipe for making polenta:

1 cup polenta (coarsely ground cornmeal)

4 cups cold water (you can substitute 1 cup stock or milk for part of the water)

Salt & pepper

A few handfuls freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Stir water, polenta, and 1 tsp salt together in a heavy saucepan. Place over a low flame and stir slowly with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot to keep the polenta from sticking. Cook until the mixture thickens and pulls cleanly away from the sides of the pot and the cornmeal feels tender on the tongue, 30-40 minutes. Stir in the cheese. Add freshly ground pepper and more salt, if needed, to taste.

TO ASSEMBLE AND SERVE AT TABLE:

Put thin slices of mozzarella, provolone, and Gorgonzola cheeses on a serving plate – 8 ounces of cheese, total, is ample.  Gruyere, fontina or Roquefort work well in this dish too. Place the cheese plate on the table, along with the pot of stew and the dish of polenta.  Diners serve themselves by spooning a mound of polenta onto their plate, followed by slices of assorted cheeses, and spoonfuls of stew.  Yum!

Copies of “PAST THE POLENTA” are available on Amazon.com and Alibris.com. Apparently – I was unaware that a yellow-covered paperback copy was issued in 1999. The original red-dust jacket copy shown on both sites is the original 1998 edition. There is a huge range of prices on Amazon from one cent and up.  On Alibris.com I found copies for 99c and up for either the hardcover edition with the red dust jacket or the yellow paperback edition. I can’t tell if the paperback edition is as compact as the original.

Happy reading and cookbook collecting!

Sandy

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