August 6, 2019
Photos: Courtesy of http://www.annasheirloomkitchen.com
For author Anna Francese Gass, “Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women” is a book rooted in culture, tradition, and the importance of staying in touch with your roots. After quitting her corporate sales job to go to culinary school, Anna dove into her passion for cooking and food head first. Writing “Heirloom Kitchen” was a first for Gass, as a professional cook in New York’s test kitchens. Because she could not recall her mother’s Italian meatball recipe, Gass wanted to preserve her history for her own children. This sparked the idea for a book detailing the recipes of immigrant mothers and grandmothers that have become a symbol of their culture and identity. The new author shares her excitement, experiences, message, and more about her book in an interview with DC Spotlight writer Alina Pasha.
Alina Pasha: You’ve said not knowing your mother’s meatball recipe, and not wanting to lose it, is what prompted you to write “Heirloom Kitchen”, so why, to you, is it important to preserve and stay in touch with our personal and cultural history?
Anna Francese Gass: Being the child of an immigrant, you are close to where your family originally came from because, you know you, obviously in our home, my mom spoke to my sister and I in Italian. You know, we really preserved the tradition of my mother’s upbringing in Italy. Because it was so prevalent in my home, it’s the reason why I hold it so dear. It was a very big part of my childhood: visiting my grandparents in Italy, eating the foods that my grandmother had prepared for my mother growing up, keeping alive traditions around the holidays. So, food and culture and heritage was a lot of my upbringing. Therefore, when you get older, things from your childhood are very important, things that you want to preserve, because you want to pass them on to the next generation. My children are obviously now one generation removed from where my mother came from, but I do want my kids to understand where my mom is from. I think that knowing where you are and where you came from is incredibly important. Not only just understanding who you are as a person but also having tolerance and understanding for other people. Especially in the United States, we live in a place where there are so many different people from so many different places. So, recognizing that you personally — whether its one, two, three, or even four, or five generations removed — came here from someplace else.
Alina Pasha: So like you just touched on a bit, in today’s climate, what do you hope an immigrant and a woman-focused book like “Heirloom Kitchen” will tell its readers? What message do you hope it sends its readers?
Anna Francese Gass: It’s very important to me that this book is seen as a celebration of diversity, a celebration of inclusiveness. I think it’s incredibly important for us to recognize that our forefathers came here for a better life and that with that they brought with them their traditions, their culture, their foods in order to maintain who they were. So, it was about assimilating into the United States but also remaining who they are. I think that’s what makes America so great and beautiful; we’re all here living together. We’re very different, but because of our differences, we get to learn about so many different places in the world. This project, for me, was so special. Being in the home of an Iranian woman, being in the home of a Greek woman, being in the home of a Chinese woman, I got to learn about China, Greece, Iran. I got to learn about all these places through these women. I just want people to look at the book and feel happy, enjoy the food, and also just have it be a very good reminder that we’re all different, but at our core, we’re all the same.
Alina Pasha: You just mentioned, you met all these women from all these different places. What is the biggest commonality between them that you noticed?
Anna Francese Gass: I would say that the biggest commonality about every one of these immigrant women is that they came to the U.S. for a better life for themselves, but most importantly for their children. Even the women that came here before they had started a family, the impetus for leaving everything that they knew behind. Leaving family behind, leaving friends, a familiar life, their mother tongue, all that behind and coming here was all because they knew the United States of America is an enchanting place that promised them a better life, a brighter future, and also just the chance to give their children more than what they had had. More opportunity, more education, better surroundings, safer surroundings for some. So, I think that’s the common thread, and I think that’s the common thread for everyone that comes here: immigrant, refugee, traveler, whoever it is. You know, this is one of the best countries in the world, and I think we are all very, very lucky to be here.
Alina Pasha: Along with the recipes, you’ve included the stories of these women and their journey to America. What compelled you to share these stories?
Anna Francese Gass: So, that’s a great question. The original aim for the project was simply just to get recipes, to get recipes written down, give them back to the family, make everybody feel like all these important family recipes were recorded. What happened kind of was a happy accident. When I got in the kitchen with these women, and it’s so intimate, the kitchen is really a place where people’s reservations kind of melt away. Their shyness kind of melts away, because when that happens, their inhibitions fade. What happened was the women ended up sharing their stories, because I just simply asked the first woman, “Hey, why did you decide to come to the U.S.?” And the story that tumbled out was so interesting, and so I felt important to the overall project. It captivated me; I was scribbling the story on one side, scribbling the recipe on the other side of my notebook. I said you know what, this is just as important as the recipe. This tells the story behind the recipe. So, when I had my blog, I put up the recipes, but I also put up the story, and I found that people were drawn to both. Because there were similarities in their mothers’ food but also similarities in their mothers’ stories. So, that was really amazing, and when I went to pitch this as a cookbook, I told Harper Collins, “I absolutely am here selling you a cookbook. However, it also needs to be an anthology of these women’s stories.” Because I feel that it’s so important to show the world that these are the women that are living among us. These are the people that are living among us.
Alina Pasha: So would you say the book is just as much about who these women are, and what they stand for, as it is about their recipes?
Anna Francese Gass: 100 percent. I think that the feedback that I’ve gotten from people that have bought the book, even when I kind of just read reviews of the book — even simple reviews on Amazon that make me so happy — it’s a cookbook, but it’s so much more. And I love it when people see that, because that was the point, to make it a cookbook but make it truly different. That people could open it up, even someone that’s not a cook — someone that’s simply just interested in heritage and stories and immigration — they can open up this book and enjoy the food and enjoy the recipes but also just thumb through these stories. Some of these stories are just incredibly dynamic and just courageous and interesting. I think someone opening up is surprised by what they found many of these women went through to get here.
Alina Pasha: So, has the response from your audience been what you’ve expected? You’ve been on a tour since early May. So from the people that you’ve met, have you been surprised by their response at all?
Anna Francese Gass: You know, I think it was better and beyond what I expected. Obviously, when you’re living in the writer’s bubble of just kind of getting your feelings down, getting your thoughts down, editing, and making sure everything looks perfect. I mean I truly wouldn’t change a page of this book. I’m so proud of what it turned into. And I have to tell you, when someone comes up to me at a book signing, or writes a great review, or it gets covered in a magazine or paper, the response is exactly what I was looking for. Happiness, joy, also just the recognition of the fact that our past is…female. I just love that people are getting that, and they’re getting it in a happy, celebratory, and inclusive way.
Alina Pasha: That’s great, so what has the book tour been like in general for you?
Anna Francese Gass: I love it, I love being on tour, because, like I said, it helps you get out of that little vacuum that you’ve created and it gets you on the ground. Even if I have an event and it’s pouring and only four or five people show up, the four or five people that show up are passionate about what I did and proud of what I did. They’re so happy and tell me about who they’ve given the book to, their favorite story from the book, or the recipe that they’ve tried. You know, I think it’s so important to do a tour. I know everyone today really relies on social media and press and things like that. And of course, all those things are important and that’s how things are trending, but nothing can take the place of human contact, getting out there and meeting people and talking and telling my story and representing these women in the best way that I can.
Alina Pasha: So, you did take a big leap with this book. [You] aren’t new to the cooking world, but you are new to cookbook writing. So was there apprehension when making the decision to write this book, and was there anything other than wanting to preserve these recipes that kind of motivated you to take the leap?
Anna Francese Gass: You know, I just got to a point, I had cooked with about 25 women, the project just kept up its momentum. Everyone was excited about it; each new kitchen that I went to, I couldn’t wait to make the appointment for the next. I just thought, you know what, I love doing this. The blog is fantastic, but to create something that, quite frankly, I feel is not only an heirloom for myself, but an heirloom for all the women in my book. When I was able to secure a book agent that believed in me, (David Black Agency in Brooklyn) and they believed in this and they thought this needs to be in print, I jumped in with two feet. I mean the only apprehension I ever had was during the editing process, was making sure that those recipes tasted exactly the way those women had shown them to me, and also making sure that the stories truly represented them in the correct way. Making sure they were happy with how their story was told, how they were represented, their photographs. So, I very much collaborated with the women, getting their sign off on not only the recipes, but their stories…
Alina Pasha: Well, it turned out great at the end. So you tried your hand at corporate sales, but quickly shifted to food. So, is cooking and food something you have always been passionate about and that’s why you decided to switch back?
Anna Francese Gass: I think that food played a very big part in my childhood, but almost in my unconscious, right? When you’re a kid, your mother’s cooking. You’re eating, but you’re not really sitting there appreciating [and]writing four-star reviews of your mother’s meatballs. But as I got older and had my own children, something just kept [pointing]back to the kitchen. I just became very immersed in the Food Network. I was one of the first people watching it, really getting appreciative of what was going on. I was young. I was poor. I was working. To be able to go home and make one of Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meals was just fascinating to me and empowering for me. And then, yeah, it always came back to my mother, because then I’d call my mom and say, “Hey, I’m trying this recipe. What do I do now?” I did follow the corporate path from college, but then after having two kids, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t happy, I really wasn’t fulfilling who I felt I was as a person and my purpose. That’s when I enrolled in culinary school. So, I enrolled in culinary school when I was 30 years old. I had already done the corporate track, but I thought to myself, you know what? I really want to try this.
Alina Pasha: So kind of to tie it all together, in conclusion, along your own journey of writing, publishing, and now touring for this book, what has been the most impactful experience, and [what]would you say you’ve learned in this whole process?
Anna Francese Gass: Well, I definitely learned that it’s a lot more work than it seems. You see all these books on the shelf — cookbook or novel — whatever it may be. You really have no idea the hours that go into editing and proofing and looking over and making sure everything’s perfect. Then after sending it off to the printer, your whole second job begins…publicity and press and touring. So, it’s like this multifaceted job that kind of evolves over time of what part of the process you’re in. So, I don’t think I could ever pick up a book again without appreciating what that author has put down, because there’s just so much that goes into creating any book. Again, I think the most impactful thing for me is the response. There’s just nothing better than pouring your heart and soul into something that you truly believe is your purpose and then seeing the positive resounding resolve. The response of, “Hey, I get what you did, I love it, I appreciate it.” When someone says to me the world really needs more books like this, that’s the biggest compliment. I’m just really proud of it, and I look forward to adding more dates to my tour, meeting more people, and really enjoying the ride.