At first glance, I thought that this was a novel. The cover promises romance and Italy – always a good recipe for a great story. And as far as both of these go, what is inside does not disappoint. And this is more than fiction. This emotional, poetic memoir recalls the relationship of a young African American woman who travels to Italy as a student to study Art History and ends up falling head over heels for a Sicilian chef. Tembi and Saro appear destined to be lovers, partners, husband and wife, parents. Their courtship and subsequent marriage includes angry parents, a secret marriage, reconciliation, a baby daughter. Though the book touches on their early romance, and is indisputedly a love story, it is also a story about grief. Saro’s battle with cancer appears in the earliest pages of the book, tinging happy moments with bittersweetness, as the reader, like Tembi, looks to what is to come. The book is, in fact, structured according to the three summers which Tembi spends in Italy following Saro’s death.
This is a very human, moving tale. I cried twice before I reached the middle of the book. Big, gulping tears. It does not read like the story of an actress – in fact, Tembi barely mentions her career. To a far greater extent, this is the story of her and her husband, and particularly, her life after catastrophe and crisis, and her return to Italy with their young daughter. In Saro’s small village, where Tembi returns to visit his mother for the first, second and third summer after his death, there is a real sense of community. She invites the reader to share in the family tradition of making tomato sauce – which is literally a family affair, with a boiling cauldron that needs to be stirred! She also encourages her daughter to help the village cheese maker to make cheese. We walk alongside Tembi as she becomes a part of this tight knit Sicilian community and wins the grace and favour of her mother-in-law.
Sneaky admission: I especially wanted to read this book because it has a recipe section at the back. An Italian recipe section. Need I say more? Don’t let the fancy names put you off trying these in your own kitchen, either. Good Italian food is traditionally simple, and these recipes, once you get past the names, are that. There is spaghetti con pesto alla trapanese which is pasta with pesto and almonds, caponata classica (a sweet and sour eggplant dish), even salsa pronta (classic tomato sauce). Oops, did I make you hungry? I’m making myself hungry.
Tembi falls in love with Saro’s food almost before she falls in love with the man. From Scratch is an appropriate name for her memoir – as she learns how to survive from scratch, without her husband, she also learns to cook for herself from scratch, in the way that he did. Food is emotion. The descriptions of food and how food is about so much more than just, well, food, is what I loved about this book. Food is taste, texture, smell, experience, location, as well as the hands that prepared it for you, and the time spent preparing it. It’s about tradition, and about living life to the full.
This exploration of Italian life, love and food is full of emotion. Tembi is an excellent writer and story teller, and she reminds us about what it means to love and be human.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Simon & Schuster, RRP $32.99