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Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family

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With this stunning memoir of growing up in Italian-American New Jersey, Louise DeSalvo proves that your family's past is baked right into the bread you eat. In Louise DeSalvo's family, in 1950s New Jersey, the kitchen becomes the site for fierce generational battle. As Louise's step-grandmother stubbornly recreates the domestic habits of her Southern Italian peasant upbring With this stunning memoir of growing up in Italian-American New Jersey, Louise DeSalvo proves that your family's past is baked right into the bread you eat. In Louise DeSalvo's family, in 1950s New Jersey, the kitchen becomes the site for fierce generational battle. As Louise's step-grandmother stubbornly recreates the domestic habits of her Southern Italian peasant upbringing, she clashes painfully with Louise's convenience-food-loving mother, who is set on total Americanization. Louise, meanwhile, dreams of the day when in her own kitchen she'll produce perfect fresh pasta or pan-seared pork chops with fennel. But as Louise grows up to indulge in the kind of amazing food her impoverished ancestors could never have imagined and travels to Italy herself, her adult discoveries give her new insight into the tensions of her childhood. In unearthing the oppressive conditions that led Southern Italians to emigrate en masse to the United States, gaining a subtler understanding of the struggles between her parents and their parents, and starting a more happily food-obsessed family of her own, Louise DeSalvo arrives at a fuller and more compassionate picture of her own roots. And, in the process, she reveals that our image of the festive and bounteous Italian-American kitchen may exist in part to mask a sometimes painful history.


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With this stunning memoir of growing up in Italian-American New Jersey, Louise DeSalvo proves that your family's past is baked right into the bread you eat. In Louise DeSalvo's family, in 1950s New Jersey, the kitchen becomes the site for fierce generational battle. As Louise's step-grandmother stubbornly recreates the domestic habits of her Southern Italian peasant upbring With this stunning memoir of growing up in Italian-American New Jersey, Louise DeSalvo proves that your family's past is baked right into the bread you eat. In Louise DeSalvo's family, in 1950s New Jersey, the kitchen becomes the site for fierce generational battle. As Louise's step-grandmother stubbornly recreates the domestic habits of her Southern Italian peasant upbringing, she clashes painfully with Louise's convenience-food-loving mother, who is set on total Americanization. Louise, meanwhile, dreams of the day when in her own kitchen she'll produce perfect fresh pasta or pan-seared pork chops with fennel. But as Louise grows up to indulge in the kind of amazing food her impoverished ancestors could never have imagined and travels to Italy herself, her adult discoveries give her new insight into the tensions of her childhood. In unearthing the oppressive conditions that led Southern Italians to emigrate en masse to the United States, gaining a subtler understanding of the struggles between her parents and their parents, and starting a more happily food-obsessed family of her own, Louise DeSalvo arrives at a fuller and more compassionate picture of her own roots. And, in the process, she reveals that our image of the festive and bounteous Italian-American kitchen may exist in part to mask a sometimes painful history.

30 review for Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family

  1. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    Louise DeSalvo writes about her complex relationships with food and family in “Crazy in the Kitchen.” At first glance, the book’s description: growing up Italian-American in New Jersey, appealed to me since it seemed to fit my own life. But her background is Southern Italy, North Jersey, while I’m the opposite. I’m also about thirty years younger than DeSalvo. Those factors, and a number of others, create a significant difference in our life stories. DeSalvo grew up with a depressed mom, an abus Louise DeSalvo writes about her complex relationships with food and family in “Crazy in the Kitchen.” At first glance, the book’s description: growing up Italian-American in New Jersey, appealed to me since it seemed to fit my own life. But her background is Southern Italy, North Jersey, while I’m the opposite. I’m also about thirty years younger than DeSalvo. Those factors, and a number of others, create a significant difference in our life stories. DeSalvo grew up with a depressed mom, an abusive father, a dysfunctional extended family always in conflict with one another. They came from the poorest parts of Italy where they lived desolate lives of hunger and oppression as peasant workers. Their stories parallel those I have read of sharecroppers in the American South, held down by unfair laws and by the greed of affluent landowners who cared more about their own profits than the welfare of their employees. DeSalvo’s family members carried their despair and their rage into their new country, where they expressed it both internally and externally. Her story is a far distance from the typical ones of abundance and exuberance associated with Italy and Italian Americans. No fat nonnas bestowing kisses on their grandchildren while stirring giant pots of red sauce in DeSalvo’s kitchen. There was a grandmother, but she was neither fat nor affectionate, though she did love DeSalvo with a fierce sort of protectiveness. No doting mother plying her children with delectable treats, either. DeSalvo’s mother cooked poorly, and relied mostly on convenience foods to feed her family. DeSalvo grew into an adult with a passion for Italy and for fine food, a surprise considering her childhood deprived of both physical and psychological nourishment. The latter parts of the book, where DeSalvo makes peace with her family and her upbringing, resonated most with me.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    All my aunts and uncles (6 of them, 9 if you count the steps) spoke with heavy accents, but growing up I never questioned why I never heard them speak either Sicilian or Italian, nor did anyone ever talk about their lives in Sicily or when they first came to Brooklyn. This book is not the story of my family, except in certain similarities of situation, yet in many ways it has helped me to understand the silence I grew up with. The silence I didn’t know was silence until long after I was an adult All my aunts and uncles (6 of them, 9 if you count the steps) spoke with heavy accents, but growing up I never questioned why I never heard them speak either Sicilian or Italian, nor did anyone ever talk about their lives in Sicily or when they first came to Brooklyn. This book is not the story of my family, except in certain similarities of situation, yet in many ways it has helped me to understand the silence I grew up with. The silence I didn’t know was silence until long after I was an adult.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    Well, I don't think Ms. DeSalvo's life was quite as bad as she thought it was. There were rumblings of a latent drama queen under the different segments in the book. So, her mother was a clean freak who didn't like to cook. And her grandmother was an eccentric Italian grandmother who did like to cook. Her mother had issues having her strong-willed, critical STEP-mother living with her. I suspect I would have also - Grandma didn't seem to have much respect for boundaries in her step-daughter's ho Well, I don't think Ms. DeSalvo's life was quite as bad as she thought it was. There were rumblings of a latent drama queen under the different segments in the book. So, her mother was a clean freak who didn't like to cook. And her grandmother was an eccentric Italian grandmother who did like to cook. Her mother had issues having her strong-willed, critical STEP-mother living with her. I suspect I would have also - Grandma didn't seem to have much respect for boundaries in her step-daughter's house. Who knows what DeSalvo's mother went through being raised by her step-mother? That being said, would I recommend this book to anyone? No. Reading it, I had the feeling that stories were bolstered in an attempt to make them entertaining. I may have woken my husband up last night when I said out loud, "Oh, stop whining." Maybe the book gets better, but I will never know. I picked it up (it was a freebie from Amazon) to read at 2:00 in the morning when "Winter of the World" (which is a GOOD book) was to intense to read while I was unable to sleep.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

    Every time we take our fall trip to the Hudson Valley, we stop by the Culinary Institute of America. This trip we visited the gift shop and I felt inspired to check out this book from the sale rack. It's about a woman who grew up in the 50s and 60s in suburban NJ with a mother who loved anything canned or processed and a grandmother from Italy who made "peasant food" and disdained the evils of Wonder bread and all the other food products of the time. :: I wanted to love this book, but I found it d Every time we take our fall trip to the Hudson Valley, we stop by the Culinary Institute of America. This trip we visited the gift shop and I felt inspired to check out this book from the sale rack. It's about a woman who grew up in the 50s and 60s in suburban NJ with a mother who loved anything canned or processed and a grandmother from Italy who made "peasant food" and disdained the evils of Wonder bread and all the other food products of the time. :: I wanted to love this book, but I found it didn't hold my attention. I didn't find any of the characters particularly engaging (they're real life people, so I guess that's not their fault...) and I also felt that there were lots of loose ends and undeveloped story lines. The author would refer to things multiple times throughout the book, but it was as if the reader was supposed to already know things about her family as the details were never provided. Major shifts happened in family dynamics, but they were never explained. I liked the idea of the book a lot, but felt that the execution left a lot to be desired.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mary Lou

    Having grown up in a large Italian family, I found this book easy to relate to. It was also very funny even though I realized the protagonist with her frequent bouts of anger at her father mananged to use that anger to become an excellent cook. She also went on to college, worked in a university, became a novelist, married and had a family. When so much anger envelopes a person at such a young age it is difficult to understand or even make an effort at trying to understand until you move up and Having grown up in a large Italian family, I found this book easy to relate to. It was also very funny even though I realized the protagonist with her frequent bouts of anger at her father mananged to use that anger to become an excellent cook. She also went on to college, worked in a university, became a novelist, married and had a family. When so much anger envelopes a person at such a young age it is difficult to understand or even make an effort at trying to understand until you move up and out of the house and away from the perpetrator. At some point you even learn to forgive. The book was sad, joyful, loving yet at other times not so much. You’ll find a warmth reading it that is hard to ignore let alone explain. Perhaps that was because of my approach (trying to take bad and make it good) helped me to understand that my immigrant parents had tried very hard to improve their lives so that our lives could be better.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    As I usually do when I read a book that affects me so much I searched for this author to write and tell her how much I enjoyed her book. (My family thinks I am crazy when I do this). I actually gasped out loud when I found that she had passed away on October 31, 2018. I kick myself for having this book on my shelf for so long and missing the opportunity to tell her how much I enjoyed her writing. One of many sentences that stood out to me was, "...I was a writer, a breaker of the silences, not a As I usually do when I read a book that affects me so much I searched for this author to write and tell her how much I enjoyed her book. (My family thinks I am crazy when I do this). I actually gasped out loud when I found that she had passed away on October 31, 2018. I kick myself for having this book on my shelf for so long and missing the opportunity to tell her how much I enjoyed her writing. One of many sentences that stood out to me was, "...I was a writer, a breaker of the silences, not a keeper of the secrets." This book laid bare her Southern Italian immigrant family. Her writing made me think I was there and I was exhausted by the raw, bitter, anger and survival of it all. Her descriptions of the meals she made were beautifully described but they came later in the book because in the beginning and middle it deals with the little or lousy food she grew up on. *****

  7. 4 out of 5

    Suellyn

    This was not the story I expected because it didn’t reflect the Italian American family I knew or thought I knew. On the other hand, her historical perspective and personal insights were terrific and taught me a lot about my heritage. It also made me interested in studying more about why my great-grandparents left Italy for the U.S. Very glad I read it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Francesca Ochoa

    Great book about the Italian immigrant experience.....humorously sad and touching

  9. 5 out of 5

    Marlene

    This was an interesting book about an Italian immigrant family in America, written by Louise DeSalvo about her grandparents and her parents and the differences of the old world and new world. She writes a lot about the importance of food in her family. Many of the things Louise did not understand until she grew up and visited the homelands of her parents and grandparents. For example, she thought Italians were Italians and therefore she and her husband tried to match up her grandmother and his g This was an interesting book about an Italian immigrant family in America, written by Louise DeSalvo about her grandparents and her parents and the differences of the old world and new world. She writes a lot about the importance of food in her family. Many of the things Louise did not understand until she grew up and visited the homelands of her parents and grandparents. For example, she thought Italians were Italians and therefore she and her husband tried to match up her grandmother and his grandfather. Disaster. Italians are northern and southern. They are Tuscano, Sicilian, Napolitano, etc. And even within those provinces, they are from Puglia, or Palermo, or........ They are different. I recall my own father telling of the differences of Italians from different areas, and he was born in the U.S. This was a book about an Italian family, but I believe the frustrations, the carry over of traditions, the problems that come with being an immigrant would hold true to any immigrant group that has come to this country.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marilyn

    The only book by Louise DeSalvo I'd read (and still own) is one on writing as a healing process. It's wonderful, and I've recommended it to, and used it in, writing workshops I've facilitated over the years. So I saw this book and wanted to check out DeSalvo's own memoir writing. It became obvious, reading this book, how writing aided in her own personal healing processes. Lotsa clashes at home between an Italian immigrant grandmother who cooks the Old Country recipes and a mother who has fallen The only book by Louise DeSalvo I'd read (and still own) is one on writing as a healing process. It's wonderful, and I've recommended it to, and used it in, writing workshops I've facilitated over the years. So I saw this book and wanted to check out DeSalvo's own memoir writing. It became obvious, reading this book, how writing aided in her own personal healing processes. Lotsa clashes at home between an Italian immigrant grandmother who cooks the Old Country recipes and a mother who has fallen for the convenience food generation's offerings. A story about family roots and struggles, and growing into her own foodie experience. I enjoyed it. My copy is an "uncorrected proof" that I bought in a used book store but I expect it could be found on Amazon. A worthwhile read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    I quit reading this one about forty pages into it. The author grew up in an Italian-American family in the US in the fifties with her Italian grandmother living with them. I sort of expected a heartwarming story that would definitely have it's bittersweet moments but this one is pretty dark. Mom hides all the kitchen knives every night because she fears that any or all of the family members might wake up at night and stab everyone to death. Little sister eventually commits suicide. (I decided no I quit reading this one about forty pages into it. The author grew up in an Italian-American family in the US in the fifties with her Italian grandmother living with them. I sort of expected a heartwarming story that would definitely have it's bittersweet moments but this one is pretty dark. Mom hides all the kitchen knives every night because she fears that any or all of the family members might wake up at night and stab everyone to death. Little sister eventually commits suicide. (I decided not to read that far!) Grandma and Mom live in constant bitter conflict. Not my cup of tea.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cathy Aquila

    3 1/2 stars. Not exactly what I was expecting. This memoir has more pain than pasta. DeSalvo grew up in a home without much love and there wasn't any affection displayed and the kitchen was often their battleground. Although there is no resemblance to my Italian American upbringing, I enjoyed some of the descriptions and dialogue that reminded me of my own Sicilian grandparents. 3 1/2 stars. Not exactly what I was expecting. This memoir has more pain than pasta. DeSalvo grew up in a home without much love and there wasn't any affection displayed and the kitchen was often their battleground. Although there is no resemblance to my Italian American upbringing, I enjoyed some of the descriptions and dialogue that reminded me of my own Sicilian grandparents.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Penny Cipolone

    Not an easy read because it is so emotionally draining. This is a must for anyone who has had mother problems influence her life. The author shows how her search for her family's past helped to enlighten the way she viewed her mother and father. Sometimes the reader has to laugh, but many more times the result is tears - tears for the past, the present, the future, and what might have been. Not an easy read because it is so emotionally draining. This is a must for anyone who has had mother problems influence her life. The author shows how her search for her family's past helped to enlighten the way she viewed her mother and father. Sometimes the reader has to laugh, but many more times the result is tears - tears for the past, the present, the future, and what might have been.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Gigi

    While I found this to be somewhat repetitive with DeSalvo's first book _Vertigo: A Memoir_ and other, shorter pieces of hers that I've read in journals and anthologies, midway through I began to feel really caught up in this family history. Especially gratifying were DeSalvo's descriptions of her food obsessions and quirks. I'm going to try to get my mother to read it now. While I found this to be somewhat repetitive with DeSalvo's first book _Vertigo: A Memoir_ and other, shorter pieces of hers that I've read in journals and anthologies, midway through I began to feel really caught up in this family history. Especially gratifying were DeSalvo's descriptions of her food obsessions and quirks. I'm going to try to get my mother to read it now.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Julene

    I love this book. She tells the story of her immigrant family using food as the constant thread. It is a rich book that made me cry. I studied with Louise in NYC years ago (1980s) and it brought her alive as ever to read her memoir, she was right there with me as I read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Haider

    DeSalvo's gritty memoir is full of lots of unhappy memories of growing up as a 2nd generation American in an Italian American home in New Jersey. This is not a happy go-lucky foodie memoir. DeSalvo digs up a lot of pain in her family history. DeSalvo's gritty memoir is full of lots of unhappy memories of growing up as a 2nd generation American in an Italian American home in New Jersey. This is not a happy go-lucky foodie memoir. DeSalvo digs up a lot of pain in her family history.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Vivian

    I really wanted to like this book but I got bored frequently as the author seemed to revisit feelings/experiences already said. It ended up being just another tired report of a girl growing up in a dysfunctional family.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Denise

    Not exactly what I was expecting. I did not find it happy or uplifting as far as family dynamics.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sally Anne

    Very highly recommended. A bit uneven in terms of focus, but an excellent excellent writer. Heartfelt and intense.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rosanne Vogel

  22. 5 out of 5

    Pat

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sasa

  24. 4 out of 5

    Marianne

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lee-Ann Liles

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rob Cole

  27. 5 out of 5

    Hara

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mary

  29. 5 out of 5

    Carinna

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mindy Lewis

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