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Clara Sereni. Keeping House: A Novel in Recipes.

Clara Sereni. Keeping House: A Novel in Recipes. Trans. Giovanna Miceli Jeffries and Susan Briziarelli. Introduction by Giovanna Miceli Jeffries. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005.

This unusual "novel" is flavored with Clara Sereni's especially selected, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, memories as well as the satisfying food experiences that accompany those memories. As Giovanna Miceli Jeffries says in her Introduction, "There is at least one recipe for every significant character that takes hold of the memory and the imagination of both the narrator and reader, forming a temporary bond with the ingredients" (13). Such time-honored Italian recipes as Pasta e fagiol and Stracciatella, as well as the more unlikely Gin Fizz, are linked to important events and people in her life.

Sereni's self-analyses and personal revelations are followed by rituals of food preparation that do not respect a chronological order of events. The titles of the eight chapters add up to a complete menu, with the exception of the first: "For a Baby," "Appetizers," "First Courses," "Eggs," "Vegetables," "Sweets," Preserving." The first chapter deals with a constant preoccupation, her son, a subject she treated at greater length in Passami il sale (2002), and which also inspired her to found an organization to aid "developmentally disabled people" (3). It was imperative to find the right kind of nourishment to placate her constantly crying baby. Such solutions were gruels made up of cheese, fruit, vegetable and meat flavors.

Considerations of the various roles Sereni took upon herself or that were forced upon her--daughter of an unbending father of national political importance, companion, wife, political activist in the '60s, politician, mother--are momentarily refracted into the comforting food zone. A telling example is her father's approval of her stuffed zucchini. He usually awarded her culinary attempts with an approbation that ended with a "but." This time no "but" followed his praise; such an unusual conclusion so shocked Sereni that she tells us she went to her room and cried (73). Then comes the recipe for stuffed zucchini.

Sereni's need to be independent made her relations with her sisters and often-absent father, and later her mother-in-law, very problematic. All of which she openly explores, with the accompanying recipe.

Jeffries' informative Introduction focuses on Sereni's life and her position in contemporary Italian literature. She maintains that "Sereni's writings escape clear codefication." "[Sereni] considers herself a 'scrittrice di frontiera,' a border writer, who ultimately avoids the dualistic distinction between fiction and nonfiction. In her works, fiction, autobiography, history, and essay blend, and women's extra-verbal codes find space--the languages of food, of home spaces, of clothing" (7).

Jeffries points out that Sereni's Keeping House, [Casalinghitudine, 1987] with its mixture of genres, was a pioneer among works of its kind, preceding Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, Nora Ephron's Heartburn, and others.

These are "humble" recipes Sereni offers her readers, to be prepared with love to bring comfort to her diners. On the other hand, Sereni is aware that not everyone is so kindly disposed to the effort and attention such concentration on food requires. Not all her friends are sympathetic with her cooking rituals, nor do they have her discerning palate. In her home, a meeting point of her politically-minded friends, "the profound difference between my cooking and their playing with food, or their refusal to accept it as something to be reckoned with, was already a conflict. The pizza mediated between our different ways, but Aldo either didn't care or simply found it acceptable" (60). Thus a less enthusiastic attitude toward food is given its just due.

This hybrid novel-memoir-recipe book, which has been in print since its first publication, remains a cultural and literary achievement that has earned its author a firm place among contemporary Italian women's writing.


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Author:King, Martha
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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