In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
Film buffs will know the Italian modernist writer Cesare Pavese (1908–50) because his novel Among Women (Tra donne sole) was the source for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Le Amiche. But I came across his work in the unlikely location of a cookbook, English food writer Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach. Pavese, Henry writes in a chapter entitled, “The Moon and the Bonfires (and the Hazelnuts),” was born in Piedmont in Northern Italy, and his native landscape was “almost a character” in his work. She quotes him as saying that, if you live there, you “have the place in your bones like the wine and polenta.” How to Eat a Peach is formatted as menus drawn from Henry’s travels and interests, and her Pavese-Piedmont menu, inspired by the 1949 novel The Moon and the Bonfires, offers an ox cheek stew, white truffle pasta, and a hazelnut-strewn chocolate cake. She suggests an accompaniment of the local Barolo or Dolcetto wine.
This was intriguing to me, and more so because Henry’s book had already been something of a journey. It falls into a category that’s strangely frequent in my life: cookbooks that at first I don’t use, but then I do. The book is beautiful, broody, and atmospheric. I certainly imagined myself cooking from it, but in practice the menus felt obscure and the titles too specific and unalluring—“Darkness and Light: the Soul of Spain” or “I Can Never Resist Pumpkins.” Is that really what I want for dinner? Do I have to cook the whole menu? How to Eat a Peach ended up on the shelf where it remained, mocked occasionally by my children for having a stupid title, until months later I did what I should have done in the first place and read the introductory essays. Henry’s writing is vivid, personal, and seductive, and contains gems like the introduction to Pavese. Now that I know the backstory, I do want “the Moon and the Bonfires (and the Hazlenuts)” for dinner. And now that I’ve read Pavese, I’m delighted by Henry’s idiosyncrasy in choosing him as inspiration for a meal. She acknowledges that his writing is “not cheerful”—and this turned out to be an understatement. Read More