Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Tomato Grows in Brooklyn

A Tomato Grows in Brooklyn is a cookbook interspersed with warm memoir recollections by David Ruggerio. Due out 12th Oct 2021 from Black Rose Writing, it's 252 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. It's worth noting that the ebook format has a handy interactive table of contents as well as interactive links and references throughout. I've really become enamored of ebooks with interactive formats lately. For Kindle Unlimited subscribers, this book is included in the KU subscription library to borrow and read for free.

This is an unvarnished memoir written in chapters through Chef Ruggerio's childhood and professional life. He talks plainly in a direct voice with the reader about his difficult childhood, trouble with the law, and eventual redemption and professional success as a culinary professional. He is unabashedly plain spoken, brash even, and his recollections and reminiscences are often bittersweet. He doesn't dwell on the tragedies (he was orphaned at 5 years old) or the systemic racism which Southern Italians experienced - they are just facts of life to be gotten around or compensated for. What does come through clearly is his love of and respect for food and family which are inextricably entwined. In fact, the recipes are gathered in each memoir chapter in a sort of stream-of-consciousness manner, and only coded with their uses: a (appetizer), b (breakfast/brunch), m (main course), c (side dish/contorni), and d (dessert). At least in the pre-release ARC I received for review, there was no comprehensive index, which will make the recipes a challenge to find without a systematic read-through of the book. 

I was entranced by the brash style of the memoir and his unapologetic (and presumably) unvarnished reminiscences of growing up in the 70s in Brooklyn. The comforting home life with scents of olive oil, tomatoes simmering with basil, and handmade traditional sausages are there, related on the same page as violence on the doorstep with drug abuse, stabbings, and murder. The dichotomy is dizzying and somehow fascinating at the same time. 

Recipes are written with names in both Italian and English, the aforementioned code (breakfast, appetizer, main dish, dessert), an introduction and recipe ingredients listed bullet-style in a sidebar. Ingredients are given with American standard measures (no metric equivalents given), followed by step by step preparation instructions. Roughly a third of the recipes are accompanied by photographs. The food is not overstyled and looks genuinely appetizing and real. Serving photos are appealing and appropriate. Most recipes are written for family sized portions (generally 4-8 servings, sometimes more). 

There are a number of "fancier" dishes which aren't generally available outside of specialty cookbooks, as well as quite a number of specific holiday recipes (Saints days, Christmas, etc). My major problem with the book was the apparent lack of a table of contents or index. Both of these issues are possibly fixed in the release copy. The memoir itself is quite worthwhile and I compensated for the lack of index by bookmarking recipes I wanted to revisit as I read through the book. Not ideal, but workable.

Three and a half stars, rounded up for the unvarnished and enlightening memoir. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.  

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