SEATTLE — It takes an act of imagination to look at the old man at work in his garden and see the young boy who trod through Tuscan fields with mallet in hand, smashing clods of earth pushed up by a horse-drawn plough. His features have sharpened with age, his nose hooking like a bull salmon at the end of its spawning run. Working in his garden with a stick in one hand to shore up a sense of balance gone awry, Angelo Pellegrini today no longer embraces the world around him with his body, but with his eyes--old, wise, piercing, laughing, loving, fiery eyes. Eyes of a Tuscan eagle. Eyes of a man who has seen 87 years of life for what it is and stated that vision for the rest of us in the best of living prose.
Of all the thousands of books written and published in America in the last 50 years about the pleasures of the table--about food, cooking, wine, and food gardening, about the value of a life lived close to the soil, about the companionship that comes with sharing a well- conceived and well-cooked meal with friends and family, about the pride inherent in uncorking a hand-crafted wine of superior quality that a friend or stranger might lift a glass in unison and sip in the magic--two stand above all the rest, both of them written in Seattle by Angelo Pellegrini.
Arguments can be made that A.J. Liebling and M.F.K. Fisher, when writing with their full powers brought to bear, set an unimpeachable standard for food writing in this country during this century. But theirs is a food literature of conviction through discovery: the thrill inherent in leaving behind the mundane foods of their own culture to encounter, for the most part, the grand tradition of French cuisine.
Liebling and Fisher, as true gourmands, make the flavors they encountered in city restaurant and country auberge explode in the reader's mouth. Pellegrini, on the other hand, writes about the food that is in his blood, the food that is his birthright. He writes not from discovered experience, but from the spirit. As a result, the flavors he describes explode in the reader's heart. No credible cook's library should be without dogeared copies of "The Unprejudiced Palate," first published in 1948, and "The Food Lover's Garden," published originally in 1970.
Pellegrini was 11 when he arrived at McCleary, a Mason County logging and lumber town, from his native Tuscany in 1913. "The first decade of my life had been crowded with a variety of experience," he writes in "The Unprejudiced Palate." "I had already worked for wages and as an independent enterpriser. I had known the sting of the peasant's whip and the horror of being chased by men who guarded their orchards with pruning hook and scythe. I had seen a maniac slit the throat of the village cobbler as he sat at his last in the August sun eating watermelon. A neighbor had dropped dead at my feet as we worked together breaking clods of earth in the plowed field. . . . I had known the meaning, if not the words that express it, of the struggle for survival. . . . I had seen, too early in life, the terrible meaning of black despair."
His mother was illiterate. His father was the peasant son of a peasant farmer, a sharecropper eking out a miserable living on a miserable little plot of farmed-out Tuscan soil. When Pellegrini's father had the opportunity to come to America and establish a home against the day he might send for his wife and five children, he seized the moment. For a peasant, Tuscany held no future beyond bitterness. America encouraged hope.
Young Pellegrini left behind a life of carefully defined social boundaries in a village where the mayor, the priest and the schoolmaster held themselves above all others. In passing any of these three on the street, it was expected of young Pellegrini that he would stop, remove his cap and bow to his betters, out of respect and tradition. When he arrived at McCleary on the small logging rail line his father had helped build, he arrived in a town and a land where no man bowed to another; a land, he soon discovered, where anything was possible.
He spoke no English, so he started school in first grade despite having finished third grade in a far superior Italian school system. Within eight years Pellegrini graduated high school among the best scholars of his class. His grasp of his new language was so dynamic that he graduated as an undefeated champion on the high school debate circuit. He continued a long and brilliant career in debate at the University of Washington, graduated there, then pursued an academic career within its halls.
He remains today a professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington, maintaining an office with walls lined with the books that have enriched his life. On a shelf above his desk can be found the third-grade Italian reading primer he brought with him on the boat to Ellis Island.