Raven Raves, Rants, Reviews and Listings
Review of Mary Lou Sanelli’s The Immigrant’s Table (La Tavola Dell’ Immigrante) Poems and Heirloom Recipes (2002 Pleasure Boat Press)
By Jeannine Hall Gailey
There is an old cliché that in some families, food represents passion. A handful of recent movies about family and food spring to mind – Like Water for Chocolate, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Big Night, etc. Mary Lou Sanelli’s newest book, The Immigrant’s Table: Poems and Heirloom Recipes is another attempt to express this relationship between what a family eats and what they feel. The opening poem, “The Return,” announces the intention of the book:
“I intend to trace each recipe by the book,…To hear what is said…
another voice dislodged
from the crumbly dark…”
I found the idea of combining a book of poetry with recipes was fresh and entertaining, a mix of two sensual writing genres. In the layout of the book, poems appear on the right-hand page, recipes on the left, so that, if you read consecutive pages, you can easily get a chunk of recipe in the middle of a multi-page poem – which can be a little bit confusing at first. While the recipes themselves, for dishes like antipasti, cannoli and minestrone, won’t surprise you (unless it’s with the amazing amount of oil, cheese and carbohydrates used - God bless old-fashioned recipes!), they do add a dash of the concrete and a sensory aspect to the poetry. The most fun recipe was for “Easter Egg Bread,” which I am definitely going to attempt at home.
The speaker, throughout the book, is the daughter of hard-working Italian immigrants, who simultaneously struggles against and embraces her family and ethnic heritages as she charters the years between childhood and adulthood. The tone is confessional but matter-of-fact, compassionate towards the different characters in the family – a beauty queen sister, a strict, old-fashioned father, and subservient mothers and aunts producing endless trays of food. If, like the recipes, you feel as if you’ve met these characters before, that’s okay. Sanelli’s personal poems invite the reader to experience the world the speaker inhabits from a safe and comfortable distance. You feel close enough to hear the interesting conversations, catch a glimpse of the characters conflicts, maybe even peek inside their sometimes inscrutable motivations.
Particularly moving are her descriptions of the father’s motivations and histories, among them these lines from “Sliced Meat and Bread,” which revolves around the father’s experiences during World War II in Italy.
“…In so much cold
and fear, my father trudged the land
for berries and squirrels to skin, his cache
bedded in straw. His mother so thin, so scared.
His sister sleeping on floorboards in a corner of the goat barn,
her breath steaming, rising
to be part of the air.”
The contrast between the middle-class, relative contentment of the speaker’s family and the stark deprivation of her father’s are arresting.
Another pleasant complement to the poems is the inclusion of old photos, presumably of the author’s family (although that is not explicitly stated) that are sprinkled throughout the book, adding to our visual imaginings of the characters on the pages in between. Overall, this book is an enjoyable read; the language leans towards the prosy and conversational, but by and large the writer avoids the accusation and anger one might expect in such a personal account of family, stays detached and amused, even (especially!) about her own foibles. You get the sense that you would not mind spending more time with the speaker or her family. For someone who enjoys reading recipes and poetry with equal enthusiasm, this would be a perfect gift. I am looking forward to reading more of Sanelli’s work.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Seattle-area writer of magazine articles, poetry, and other non-fiction work. She has a Master's Degree in English from the University of Cincinnati and has had work published in the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Melic Review, Northwest Palate Magazine, and other places. She has a poem in the upcoming issue of the Seattle Review and is also the web editor of the Raven Chronicles site. Visit her site at www.webbish6.com or feel free to contact her at email@example.com.