Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

A day out with cookbook writer Pamela Sheldon Johns

We drove up a little road just off the main drag of Sant’Albino, a town between Chianciano Terme and Montepulciano, and arrived at Poggio Etrusco, the B&B and home of cookbook writer Pamela Sheldon Johns, where we were greeted by a large dog, a happy guest, and Pamela herself. I had received a review copy of her book Cucina Povera some weeks before, and felt that I had to meet this woman who has written a cookbook you could actually just read, without going into the kitchen. What is her trick? How does she approach her research? How long must it have taken to put together this genre-crossing book?



Like anyone with a good sense of hospitality, Pamela first offered us cappuccino (made by her artist husband Johnny, and approved by my Italian husband Tommaso) and an olive oil cake made by a particularly talented student at the day before’s cooking class, and we got to talking about many things that were not cookbooks. As with any two expats who meet, one goes over “how we got here.” Pamela moved with her husband and daughter (now 14) when the latter was nearing school age and her many research trips to Italy seemed less practical than just settling down here.

Pamela at home (with her outdoor hearth)

Pamela at home (with her outdoor hearth)

In this big open kitchen made for conviviality, she showed me some of her books. For a woman who has written over a dozen books and runs one of Food & Wine’s top ten culinary workshops in Italy, she’s extremely modest and down to earth. As I flipped through Pamela’s books i found that some aspects that had struck me about Cucina Povera turn out to be present in her earlier books too, especially Italian Food Artisans, though this latest is a real masterpiece.

“Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking” – translated literally as “poor food” – has a printed hard cover, rough edged heavy pages, and warm photography. If you judge a book by its cover, this one’s already a winner. And when I got it, I wondered how I, far from a foodie, would review a cookbook beyond its cover. Yeah, I can cook and bake (I’ve even posted a few recipes on this blog – see Tommaso’s grandma’s crostata for example). But I am not one who can evaluate if one ribollita is more authentic than the next. No problem here; I have been saved by the bell book.

Cucina Povera is a book to have, to read and to look at, even if you have no idea how to make soffritto or skin hazelnuts (the book tells you how to, anyway). It’s not a reference book to use to look up recipes – though you could do that – but rather one that merits a proper read before shelving it in the kitchen or displaying it on the coffee table. The 40-page introduction could be expanded into a whole book, in my opinion, and it’s primarily about this part that I asked Pamela during my visit.

As we sat at the large table that Pamela uses for cooking classes, I asked her my first hard, critical question. Cucina Povera, I said, is this a manifesto? Why should we be eating this way, now? It didn’t seem to me that the book stated that all essential “why”, and as a good scholar I was taught that every essay or book had to do so. “It’s not a manifesto.” responds Pamela. Her own interest in thrifty cooking came from her mother’s Depression-era habits; here in Italy she found a kindred approach in many peoples’ kitchens. Many Tuscan dishes, it turns out, come from humble ingredients and embody a concept of re-use and saving.

Cavolo nero in Pamela’s garden

Rather than a manifesto that says we should all eat this way – which I’d suggest would be pretty impractical for your average American, or for anyone who doesn’t have time to cook a soup for three days – the book is a preservation of an important phase in Italian culinary history that will be lost with the passing of the elder generation. Pamela traveled to every part of Tuscany to gather these tales. You get the sense that she probably ate her way through a lot of country kitchens in the process, so it may not have been terribly arduous.

Jokes aside, Pamela sat down with some of the oldest people in Tuscany, the real preservers of tradition, the best cooks in the land, and asked them what they ate in hard times. It’s not a question you can casually pop to anyone who survived Nazi occupation. She drew out a lot of hard stories; almost every person in front of her was in tears at some point. Writing the book, she had to make some difficult choices about length and content, knowing that the cookbook genre requires recipes after a short introduction, but her heart was so involved in telling these peoples’ stories.

Elena Servi, one of Pitigliano’s last 3 Jewish residents

These grandmas and grandpas generously share their recipes, which have been adapted to American measurements and ingredients when necessary. Each dish is beautifully photographed, displayed in an impressive array of appropriately rustic tableware and settings. Some recipes show the versions cooked by the interviewees. My favourite photos are those of the old people themselves. They’re in typical Tuscan settings and photographed with wonderful natural light.  Although photographer Andrea Wyner was not with Pamela during the whole process of her research, you get the impression that they traveled together for a year, for both people and food are captured in such a natural way.

Ilvana and Diana, Pietrasanta

There’s no doubt that Pamela’s a good talker and a good listener. We quickly wiled away hours and I started to understand how she got all these stories out of people. What’s her modus operandi? “Taxi drivers and bars,” she says. A small town barman might direct her to a patron, to his mother, to someone who will introduce her to the right person to get the story. It takes time and patience. With all this time spent talking, our stomachs are quite ready for lunch.

Lunch in Monticchiello

We went to Enoteca La Porta in nearby Monticchiello, where owner Daria is a somellier and friend; Pamela often takes groups here for a wine tasting experience. I had the most generously dressed tagliatelle al tartufo ever, while Pamela and Tommaso enjoyed the steak “tagliata” with shaved raw porcini mushrooms on top and perfectly matched wine by the glass.

What I ate

Daria, owner of La Porta

The weather was changing that day so we ate inside, missing out on the restaurant’s gorgeous terrace. When the rain stopped after lunch we explored the very cute town and I took a few photos (see the flickr gallery below).

Book giveaway

The publisher has generously offered a copy of this book to give away to one lucky, hungry reader.

How to win? Just comment on this blog post. Sure, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my facebook page and share this blog with your friends, but I can’t force you.

What should you write? Anything. Tell me why you want this book, tell us your best money saving kitchen tip, recount your best tuscan eating or cooking experience, say what recipe you hope to find in this book, or what you’ve learned from Pamela in the past.

A few rules. Comments close at midnight european time on Halloween, October 31 2011. Contest open worldwide. You must register your comment with a valid email address and respond to the winning notification within 48 hours. Winner will be chosen by random draw.

Hey if you don’t win you can always buy the book here!

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Aalott

    I love that so many of the more current cookbooks about Italian food are going back to the basics that our ancestors used.  They didn’t rely on recipes, but rather what was available in their gardens and homes.

  • Allie Terry-Fritsch

    Even if the book is not a manifesto, per se, it still reveals the cultural preoccupation with food that so dominates that part of Italy and is the foundation for social interaction. The ties between the food and the people who make, and eat, it are so well brought out in your review– thanks!

  • Jenna

    This sounds like a book that I would love! I cook a lot of beans and use fresh veggies, either from our garden or what I can buy that’s local.  I really like that the book centers around people’s stories.

  • James B Teague

    Food often times takes us back to our “Heart-Home” a humble, gentle time when fresh from the garden was the norm, in today’s fast paced life few take the time to feed their body and soul with things of the past, Italy has preserved this in such a wonderful way, More and more people are finding their “Heart-Home” through those that pick up the pen and knife and travel backward to capture our future!!

  • celia prosecchino

    There is an old saying that says: the way
    to a man’s heart is through his stomach. This can also be applied to Italian regional
    cooking, enjoy the food and the people will immediately open up. Tuscan food is
    earthy and solid and reflects the character of the region. The chestnut woods
    in my part of Tuscany have been through the centuries the basis of the local
    diet. Here when we casually meet we don’t talk about the weather but food and
    the local herbs or produce that is ripe at the moment. Mushrooms will certainly
    be top of the conversation list today with the rain and then we hope the sun!

  • Chaseburgmama

    Living off the land, I love using what’s on hand and avoiding the grocery store with substitutions if the need arises. Pamela’s  book is for those who love a good story to go with their food. I have been able to try a couple of the book’s recipes and they have been enjoyed by all around the table. I would love to try more and read all the stories. Do sign me up for the drawing. Grazie 

  • Sharonlstreb

    So far what I have seen of this cookbook–it looks lovely–and beautiful!!  Thanks for the blog!!

  • Gloria

    I thought I had already left a comment and shared this article, but apparently I had not! I am very jealous for the day you got to spend with Pamela and I am sure her latest book is as brilliant as the previous ones!

  • Sarah Marder

    Traditional food is an evocative subject. This is especially true in a region such as Tuscany, which sinks its roots into thousands of years of civilization, thanks to its Etruscan history. 

    Talk to an old-timer about the food of their childhood and their eyes will become misty and their memory clear. I saw this happen many times when I was interviewing locals in Cortona while we were filming ‘The Genius of a Place’, a documentary-in-the-making about how modernization is sweeping away a simpler way of life in places all around the world, using Cortona as its example. As they reminisced about their childhood, the food-related stories the gray-haired locals told me were invariably touching. One man confided that his mother would secretly slip him her portion of rabbit, on the rare occasions that the family ate meat, because he was skinny and she wanted to help ‘plump him up’. One woman told me about the little game she and her brother invented as a way to forget that all they had was bread for an after-school snack. They would each cut themselves an extra sliver of bread which they would then pretend was actually cheese. In their game they’d take a bite out of the bread and then a little nibble of the ‘cheese’ and would feel as though they’d had an extra special treat. Others still told me that they felt sorry for their relatives who had left the land and gone to the city, during the great exodus of the 1950s. ‘Sure,’ they said, ‘they started earning a salary but ended up having to pay for tomatoes and basil. What kind of a deal was that?’And all agreed that the food of their youth, while scarce, was far more tasty and nutritious than anything we eat today.All this said, I’d love to read Pamela’s book because I get the feeling that it’s a labor of love in which she has worked incredibly hard to capture the ‘genius’ of the traditional, peasant food that she is lucky enough to have been exposed to. And that seems like something precious to me. 

  • Andrea

    Lovely read!  It is so true that this Italian form of food and heritage will pass away with the older generation.  Kudos to Pamela for helping to pass along and continue the traditions.  There is hardly anything better than simple food cooked by a grandparent.  I try desperately to recreate my grandmother’s (from Alabama) Southern recipes.  I now live in Rome, Italy and long for the tastes of the past.  Simple, basic, rustic recipes are a delicious, yet dying art form of the older generation.  I, myself, am trying hard to hold on to that art form in my own kitchen.  

  • Marla Gulley Roncaglia

    Wonderful post and tribute to the food and people that Pamela has based this cookbook on. Your photos are very nice as well. 

  • Jeanine B.

    Can’t wait to check out Pamela’s new book (and very happy to have found your blog, also!)  We were lucky enough to visit her Poggio a couple of years ago, and learned to make pici pasta with an Italian chef, tour the vegetable garden and relax with a fabulous cup of cappucino made by her husband, Johnny.  Looking forward to returning someday soon, but meanwhile I’d love a copy of the book.

  • Kelly Beach

    Pamela has done what so many of us dream of doing…living a simpler and much more fulfilling life.  I believe for any of us who have been to Italy, once you’ve been, you’re constantly looking for a way to get back. 

    I met Pamela last year during my annual trip with friends, and she is so gracious and warm that when we left  that I had had one of the best moments of my life. 

    I cannot wait to get back to Italy next year, and pay another visit to Poggio Etrusco for a quick hello and to get some of Pamela’s incredible olive oil and wine!

    Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  • arttrav

    What wonderful stories, Sarah. These are similar to the stories Pamela heard and wrote about. It’s (thankfully) hard for those of us lucky to not live through wars to imagine times like those.

  • Linda S.

    This book sounds wonderful.  My 91-year-old mother, whose family came from Piacenza, embodied many of these principles in her cooking.  I lost her last year, but her younger sister, 90, is a guide to their mother’s traditions, from slightly north, near Bobbio: tortellini en brodo, polenta, grappa with wild cherries, etc.  My own first trip to Italy to see the family confirmed the approach to frugal cooking that seems to be takenin this book; an emphasis on the best, simple ingredients, simply presented. Am glad to learn of the book and find this blog.

  • Donna Paul

    I was just lucky enough to find your home on the internet and since we are planning a trip to Italy I would love to come by. I love to cook and my dream for a very long time is to come to Italy and take authentic Italian cooking classes. I also read cookbooks for a past time and love to hear the stories behind the book writers and the historic recollections of family recipes and the families themselves.

  • Donele Cipollini Monte

    I have been longing for this book since I first read about it on the blog Melange. My grandfather and great-grandparents are from Lamporecchio, Monsummano Terme and Montevetollini. My first trip to Tuscany was in 2010 to visit their villages. I fell in love with all of Tuscany and the simple, delicious old way of cooking for a family. I want to cook like this for my family and to feel closer to my family.

  • Cinzia

    I would like to know a different point of view on the “Tuscan recipes” I’m a native, anthropologist, interested in slow life, slow tourism, slow food!!!

  • Nan @ LivingVeniceBlog

    If I don’t win it, I’m buyin’ it. 

    And what a lovely, nurturing Christmas gift…

  • arttrav

    Too funny! I agree, it would be a fab Xmas gift, in fact I already got a copy for my 101 year old great aunt. She doesn’t cook any more but I know she will love the stories of the young ladies in this book…

  • arttrav

    Thank you to the 18 contenders for the book and your very thoughtful comments. We’ll do the draw later today.
    Are you all fans of arttrav on facebook?

  • arttrav

    LINDA you are the lucky winner!! I’m sending you an email now…