Dear Blog Readers-
My journalist friend Barbie Nadeau (of Daily Beast and CNN fame) wrote to me the other day introducing me to her friend Katherine Wilson, author of the recently published memoir about Naples, “Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law.” Katherine wrote that she was eager to meet me to talk about my blog so we set up an appointment for a coffee.
There never seems to be a slow day working for AP anymore and on that particular day, I had to cover Richard Gere presenting his film “Time Out of My Mind” to homeless people at the Sant’Egidio soup kitchen in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. I was battling a bad cold. My ears were clogged and my nose was runny. I had been rushing around all morning trying to get everything my daughter Chiara needed before her departure the next day for a summer program in New York. And to be honest, I was also feeling frustrated that Katherine managed to get her book published when I have never published my original manuscript that was the original inspiration and source of material for this blog.
So, let’s just say I was not in the best of moods. However, when I sat down with Katherine at a small table at the back of the Bar Doria, just down the street from the AP Rome office, all my aggravation was swept away (a cappuccino and a cornetto always help too). Katherine is a lovely, generous, kind person and we spent over an hour talking about the difficulties of getting a book published and the pros and cons of having a blog. She gave me a copy of her book and that night I went home and dove right in.
It took me just a few nights to finish Katherine’s book because I could not put it down. Some of her experiences being an American woman in Italy and trying to raise children here were so similar to mine and others extremely different. As I was reading the book I sent her a couple of emails with links to my blog posts pointing out my silly experiences with the Italian beach scene, Italian traffic and Italian food.
What makes her book exceptional is the focus on Naples and the unusual figure of Raffaela Avallone, Katherine’s marvelous mother-in-law.
“Only in Naples” is a charming tale of Katherine’s experience coming to Naples to work as an intern in the US Consulate. She is immediately adopted by the lively, energetic Raffaela Avallone who finds her a place to live and invites her to dinner. Katherine is engulfed by the energy and affection of this remarkable Italian woman who makes a mission of teaching Katherine to cook. But quickly the cooking lessons lead to a love story between Katherine and Raffaela’s son Salvatore.
Katherine has a delightful, bubbly style and manages to draw the reader into the city and culture of Naples with all its chaotic, throbbing intensity and its quirky traditions.
Food and family are the big themes of the book, but being a little weary of the whole Italian foodie scene, I will leave that part for others and talk about some of the family.
First, the famous mother-in-law Raffaella: here is how Katherine introduces us to her.
“I was led into the kitchen, where Raffaella was getting off the phone as she took the homemade pizza out of the oven and closed the refrigerator door with her heel. It was all movement, all action, all graceful ….. Her white jeans were tight and cinched at the waist with a rhinestone-studded leather belt. She was fully made up: lip liner melded into gloss, eyeliner smudged naturally into charcoal eye shadow. Her hair was short and blond, highlighted expertly…when Raffaela moved, whiffs of Chanel perfume cut through the aroma of baked dough and basil.”
Raffaella’s boundless energy and enthusiasm is in sharp contrast with her son Salvatore—who Katherine describes as the classic Italian Mama’s boy who lives at home and enjoys his mother’s good cooking.
“He was in his third year at the University of Naples, studying law….He studied in his room all day, every day, and went every few months to take an exam. No listening to lectures, no comparing notes with fellow students, no interaction with professors. Just memorizing law texts in his boyhood room, which was adorned with teddy bears and third-grade soccer trophies.”
In one of the many hilarious moments in this book Salvatore decides to make a move on this young American intern and takes Katherine to a popular makeout spot in Naples.
“Salvatore parked the little tin-can car in a row of similar cars perched on the high promontory of Posillipo, where during the day we could have seen the sea and the islands of Nisida, Procida and Ischia. The car next to us had newspapers covering all the windows and windshield and was rocking slightly back and forth. I later learned that coming to this spot to have sex in the car is a necessity for Neapolitan ragazzi, or young adults, who live in small apartments with their families and don’t have any privacy. (The very word privacy does not exist in the Italian language, so the English word is used. It is pronounced with a rolled r and a long, languorous, luxurious eye.) There was even a man who stood behind a little table selling condoms, year-old newspapers, Kleenex, and Scotch tape. (It took me a while, but I eventually figured out the uses for all of these accoutrements.). I never figured out, however, why all these ragazzi chose a place with a gorgeous view. I guess a romantic context helped to set the mood, even if the women ended up staring at newspaper print.”
Amid all the engaging tales of life in Naples, Katherine slowly reveals her background which is less amusing but provides some depth to her story and makes her passion for Naples understandable. She grew up in a WASPy Washington, D.C. family and is the great-granddaughter of the founder of Wilson Sporting Goods – the ones who make footballs and tennis racquets. This is how Katherine describes her father Ed. “Little Ed was the first grandson, and he had everything he could ever want: his own horse, a chauffeur, tickets on luxury liners to Europe at the age of nine.”
When Katherine brings her new boyfriend Salvatore to the United States, her mother organizes a whirlwind three weeks of travel which Katherine defines as the “Show Salva the USA Tour”. The tour, of course, included a cruise to the Caribbean for which, Katherine writes, his mother packed Armani suits.
Katherine explains that, as a girl, she came under a lot of pressure to perform– she studied acting and took private voice lessons– and her mother wanted her to be perfectly skinny.
This is how she describes her mother: “Bonnie Salango stopped eating breakfast and lunch in the early 1960s, and hasn’t partkaen in those daytime meals since. She has never weighed more than 120 pounds, and looks, still, like Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.”
Apparently her mother wanted her daughters to be similarly slim. According to Katherine:
“My mother first put me on a diet when I was in kindergarten. I was never called fat: the words that were thrown around our household in reference to my weight were chunky, heavy and plump. As a child, I was probably never more than eight pounds overweight. But for my mother, that was enough to call for drastic measures.”
Those measures included her mother insisting that she always get the blue milk carton when they handed out the little cartons at snack time at school. The blue cartons had the skim milk while the red cartons had the whole milk, and she was the only one who had to drink the skim stuff. She explains that all this pressure eventually led her to become a binge eater, an eating disorder that she overcame during her time in Naples.
She writes that growing up, “I could not complete with my Claudia Schiffer sister (no amounts of lemons at the beach could get my hair so blond; no diet could make my thighs as skinny), so I excelled at school and played the clown at home.”
Katherine excelled academically and eventually she was accepted at Princeton University, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, uncle and father. But the academic preparation she got at Princeton did not help her with the challenges of keeping up with Raffaella in a Neapolitan kitchen. Here is Katherine’s description of that.
“Her dance was perfectly choreographed: she simultaneously stirred the ragu’, fried the meatballs, sautéed the peas. I ducked and dodged. I was at times behind her, at times beside her. … “Ketrin, assagia.” Katherine, taste. Her wooden spoon was suddenly coming at me, full to overflowing with ragu’, her hand cupped underneath to catch any spills. She stuck the whole huge spoon into my mouth, and I almost gagged on the wood. “Come’e’?” How is it? I answered that it was buonissimo, and she dipped the same spoon back into the pot and tasted it herself.
“I was told to cut the hard-boiled eggs into quarters. Raffaella laid the fried meatballs, spitting and sizzling, on freshly ironed dishrags. My Italian had improved enough to be able to ask, “How much egg? How many cheese? How many much peas?” Okay, my quantifying adjectives weren’t perfect, but I got my point across. In response, she put her arm around my waist and whispered conspiratorially, “Piu ci metti, piu ci trovi!” – the more you put in the more you get out. In other words: That analytical, precise, quantifying brain has no place in my kitchen, girl.”
So much for Princeton.
But what is fascinating is how Naples and the Italian obsession with food cured her eating disorder. Here is how Katherine describes it:
“I am five feet, three inches tall, and in September of 1996 I weighed 155 pounds….During my first six weeks in Naples, I stopped bingeing and lost twenty pounds. I did not go on a diet; in fact, I’ve never enjoyed food as much as I did than. What happened was in part a practical consequence of living in Italy, and at the same time something deeper.
Naples in an antibinge city. In Neapolitan culture, mealtimes are sacred- food is freshly prepared and consumed in compagnia. There is no rushing, and you will hear the Neapolitan Statte cuieto –Keep your pants on –if you look anxious or pressed for time at the table. You eat when you are seated without distraction and preferably with a glass of wine. You eat when it is breakfast time, lunchtime, and dinnertime, period. Punto e basta.”
Raffaella is definitely the star of this story (or eventual film, can Meryl Streep do a Neapolitan accent?) and as a result the male protagonist, the love of Katherine’s life, Salvatore, gets a bit of a bad rap. If you take Marcello Mastroianni out of the Trevi Fountain and stick him in a bedroom in a Neapolitan apartment with flannel jammies on, you’ve got Salvatore.
Throughout the book, Salvatore – who eventually becomes Katherine’s husband – makes various appearances in sleepwear. On a visit with her family to an estate in South Beach Florida, Salvatore slips into her bed wearing “Pajamas printed with flying soccer balls.” Later, she describes him as an anxious husband in Rome busily going around the apartment with the remote control of the air conditioner in hand always turning it down. Katherine – typically American- has insisted on air conditioning while Salvatore – typically Italian—fears that it might make their children sick.
“Recent sightings of Quick Draw Sal have revealed that, even in summer, he dresses in layers. The Italian expression is a cipolla, an onion. His loungewear begins with a white short-sleeved undershirt. Then come the pajamas – long-sleeved gray pajamas printed with little white curly-tailed cats interspersed with fluffy clouds. The legs of the pajamas are tucked into his very long navy-blue knee socks, so that no chilly air will come up his pajama legs. The undershirt and pajama top are tucked into the pants tightly so that, once again, no air will make its way to his exposed belly. As a general rule, air is not to touch exposed flesh unless one is at the beach in Sardinia and it is 101 degrees. Salvatore’s dressing gown, worn over his pajamas, is soft velour and is tied (tightly) around the waist.”
Katherine regales us with some hilarious tales like her disastrous experiences insisting on having a garbage disposal on her kitchen sink in Rome, the drama of trying to get her underwear (roba intima) washed in Naples, and the unwritten rules on the Positano beach. But I will let my blog readers buy the book and read those stories.
Her adoration and affection for her mother-in-law arrives at a rather astonishing crescendo towards the end of the book when she compares her mother-in-law to the Virgin Mary. I am sure that will go down well in Naples where the Virgin Mary probably takes a close second to San Gennaro, but as an American with an Italian Mother-in-law it was a bit hard for me to swallow. Instead, I would rather try Raffaella’s cooking.
The book concludes with four recipes from Raffaella’s kitchen:
Ragu’, Insalata di Polipo, Parmigiana Melanzane and Sartu’ di Riso.
This book is a delightful, easy summer read and I recommend it to all of you!
Katherine asked me to include the below links where you can buy it.
http://amzn.to/1YYnnXf in the US and http://amzn.to/1XxqQvF in the U.K.