About five years ago, filmmaker Douglas Gayeton began recording foodway traditions in the town of Pistoia, Italy for a project he was doing with PBS. While most Pistorians had never heard of Slow Food, Gayeton observed that they were in fact exemplars of the movement's basic principles. So he focused his camera on his friends and neighbors, discovering many stories along the way.
I first saw Dougals Gayeton's sepia-toned photographs exhibited at the Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco last year. Intending to only pop into the gallery in between tastings, I soon found myself held captive by the intoxicating blend of image and narrative, each photograph pulling me deeper into the life of a small Tuscan village. An hour later, I stumbled out of the gallery, blinked at the San Francisco fog and headed straight to the Cheese Pavilion, my body, heart and mind craving something simple and authentic to match that full-on immersion into Tuscan life.
Title & Publisher: Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, by Douglas Gayeton. Published by Welcome Books, 2009.
First impressions: This is a large book, really more of an art book than a cookbook. The cover is very sturdy and printed with a beautiful image of a pair of interlaced hands holding eggs. It is covered with a thick sheet of Mylar printed in white and brown that carries the text.
The recipes: The recipes are hidden throughout the photographs, usually written around the borders. It is a lot of fun and part of the charm of the book to discover them. Look for 'dolce alle yougurt' (yogurt cake) or 'coppa di testa' (head sausage).
The angle: Each photograph is actually a montage of several photographs taken over many hours. Back in his studio, Gayeton reassembled the scene from hundreds of photographs, a method he invented to introduce the idea of time into a still photograph. The photograph therefore becomes a story of a whole afternoon or an entire lifetime of family relations.
On top of the photo in white ink, Gayeton draws arrows and lines that connect people, writes histories and recipes and methods of production. Many photographs bear an Italian saying with both the literal and figurative meaning scrawled underneath.
The other stuff: The book is anointed by Slow Food royalty with an introduction by Alice Waters and a preface by Carlo Petrini. There are several gatefold spreads as well as Mylar insets allowing the writing portion to be lifted off the photograph.
Strengths: Intimate, beautiful and funny, the book is strung together with stories of Douglas Gayeton's many years spent immersed in Italian culture. He searches for his roots in an old cemetery, helps to butcher a pig, and struggles (a little) with eating a plateful of tiny birds, leaving behind a mound of tiny beaks.
Recently I heard Gayeton say that we were just about to lose much of our pre-industrial knowledge of how to grow, produce, preserve and care for our food. Just one more generation and it would have for the most part been gone. Books like Slow help pull these methods and skills back from the brink of extinction by reminding us of the honor and dignity of a simple life. Many of the people in the book are old, but many are young, too, choosing to return to their small town to carry on the traditions of their grandparents.
Recommended? Absolutely, especially if you are looking for a gift for someone who loves Tuscan culture or if you are interested in the preservation of pre-industrial foodways. This book will also appeal to lovers of food, art and photography, Italy or anyone who enjoys a good story about one person's journey to discover himself in a place both achingly familiar and completely foreign.
Fun fact: Douglas Gayeton now lives in Sonoma County, CA and runs, along with his wife Laura, a company called Laloo's Goat's Milk Ice Cream. If you haven't tried their Black Mission Fig flavor, you just haven't lived.
• Citizens and visitors to San Francisco can see several of Gayeton's Slow photographs at the amazing 18 Reasons gallery in the Mission, through November 18. Be sure to check their website for hours.
• Buy the book: Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town by Douglas Gayeton, $31.50 (Amazon)
• Check out the Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town website, where you can scroll though many pages of the book and find the dates and locations of Douglas Gayeton's Fall 2009 book tour. If you have a chance to catch him in person, it's really worth it to hear his stories first hand!
(Image: Welcome Books)
More 2009 Book Reviews
• The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook by Michelle and Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson
• The New Portuguese Table by David Leite
• Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero