Professor, lecturer and scholar DeSalvo successfully blends catharsis and storytelling in an affecting story of immigrants in America. DeSalvo (Vertigo
; etc.) grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of first-generation Americans and the granddaughter of Italian émigrés who spent much of their lives without much food—or happiness. Her culinary-centered essays feature the genre's requisite characters: the old widow who dresses in black every day, the drunken grandfather, the young mother who "tries to put her Italian past behind her" and serves her kids toasted cheese on white bread that sticks to the roofs of their mouths. Yet DeSalvo's chronicles are nothing like the many memoirs of growing up Italian-American that more closely resemble slapstick comedies. Rather, these recollections are tinged with pain and beauty. She writes of the depression her mother felt after never knowing her birth mother and being raised by her stepmother, a mail-order bride from Italy. She's frank about the constant bickering ("I'll break your head!" "I'll break your legs!") that dominated much of her childhood. She's up-front about her southern Italian heritage, which classified her grandparents as "dark" people whose "whiteness was provisional." And she addresses the irony of purchasing expensive organic produce when her grandparents sometimes subsisted solely on bread soaked in wine. Still, the memoir isn't all melancholic; dry wit and pride temper DeSalvo's prose, as she attempts to become "a person aware of inequities faced by Italian Americans in a country that has not yet fully equated the Italian American experience with the human experience." (Jan. 17)
With a five-city author tour of the Northeast, local New Jersey readings, a long list of acclaimed books by the author and solid reviews, this erudite but accessible book could have legs.