Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dinner With Angelo Pellegrini

Lean Years, Happy Years
©Bob Peterson
Over Thanksgiving, Angelo Pellegrini popped into my mind and wouldn't leave.  Pellegrini is the famous food writer, immigrant and teacher -- of English at the University of Washington and of the good life through his gardening, wine making and cooking.

I think he got in there because I started leafing through a book he published in 1983 called "Lean Years, Happy Years."  It's about living the simple life in difficult economic times and how rich and satisfying the simple life is – and how available it is, no matter how chaotic the economic setting.  He started writing the book during the Reagan Recession in 1981, a pretty hard hit but certainly not as rough as today's economy.  His message of simplicity and self-reliance plays even better in the tougher time.

He’s also in there because of the Republican immigration debate and how we have so demonized immigrants and how much we depend on them – people like Pellegrini, who at ten years old moved to McCleary, Grays Harbor County, without a word of English, or like Ark Chin, the very sweet man and civil engineer from the firm Kramer Chin and Mayo.  Chin died last week and also was ten years old when he came to Grays Harbor County with no English.

These faceless and different creatures, rising from as humble a county as we have in Washington state, ultimately became teachers to their fellow Americans, one describing how to assemble the bounty everywhere around us and turn it into healthy food and a simple, satisfying life and the other helping us understand the meaning of community and public generosity. 

How thankful we are to have had these people and to have had the University of Washington to nourish them.  I don't know enough about Chin's early life to write about it now but I've read Pellegrini's books and know that Pellegrini speaks for all immigrants when he tells his stories.  He recounts his growing up, essentially a serf, in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. If he were at dinner over the holiday weekend, we might have coaxed out of him a story about one of his many jobs as a child, collecting manure from goats and sheep with other boys in his village.  It would be mixed with straw and turned into a soil amendment, a critical job in a food system stressed to its edges to produce enough.  The boys recognized the expectations of their families and frequently fought over which turds would go into which bag.

Their solution to this fighting problem would make us laugh, the creation of an allocation system in which individual boys got the output of individual animals.  You could imagine the crowd of boys following a flock to where it was grazing that day, eyes scanning the butts of their chosen animals in front of them. 

We would hear about McCleary when, at 10 years of age, Pellegrini was put in with the first graders to develop his English, and how he quickly rose as the star pupil in his little school, becoming a top debater.

Great Northern Railway workers.  Pellegrini, about 15, is
second from the left of those standing
University of Washington Collection
We'd learn about his amazing discoveries around McCleary -- the mushrooms in the woods he gathered, salmon he caught in the local streams, ducks and pheasant he shot and brought home, the way vegetables popped out of the ground.
How cool it would have been to have Pellegrini to dinner.  When he first got there, I imagined, we likely would have offered Pellegrini a drink -- "A martini, perhaps, Angelo?"  In a kind way, so as not to offend, but firmly, he'd tell you what was wrong with martinis, how they robbed of any coherence the beautifully educated minds of his colleagues at the university, standing as if hit by a hammer, unable to talk, or even further stunned, after a second martini, incapable of tasting the wonderful food he had prepared. 

Still in the small talk phase, we'd chat a bit about his garden and how much it supplied his table and, of course, about this year's wine and what would distinguish it in a year or two.  He'd tell us how he'd get grapes from his California friend Robert Mondavi before many wine grapes were growing in the Northwest.

We'd talk about "The Scamp," what he called his son-in-law, Thomas J.  Owens, one of the great lobbyists in Olympia who loved food and drink and literature and the law and the crazy quilt of talent and neediness that made up the elected legislators of the state of Washington.  It was Owens who made a great contribution to the state when he helped break the protective tariff on out-of-state wines, an accomplishment that led to the development of Washington's wonderful wine industry. 

When State Senator Gordon Walgren of Bremerton finally ascended to Majority Leader in 1976, Tom knew he was a cook, (foodie wasn't used then) because they'd cooked together at Tom's little place in Olympia he rented every session.  So Tom collected a few of Walgren's recipes and made a kind of book of them called "The Majority Leader's Cookbook."   Tom had just the right idea for who would write the introduction, the famous professor, Angelo Pellegrini!  Tom was a hell of a lobbyist.

Pellegrini in about 1965
University of Washington Collection
As America began to lead the fast food world, Pellegrini was becoming the spokesman for slower foods, terrific local ingredients, cooked or processed where you lived, in the right way, simple and clean.  In 1946, he wrote a recipe for Sunset Magazine that was the first recipe for pesto published in the United States.  Years later it caught the eye of a young Ruth Reichl, for many years editor of Gourmet magazine, thumbing through old magazines while a young woman in Berkeley.  "Who is this guy?" Reichl thought.  At the time, basil was almost unknown in the US.  She found his book, Pellegrini's 1948 book "An Unprejudiced Palette," in the library.  It was so affecting to her, making the good and ethical life built around food, the life she craved so much, seem within reach.  It was also affecting to Alice Waters, MFK Fisher and many others who had specific ideas about the meaning of food.  Reichl re-published it a few years ago with a forward by Mario Batali.  Batali is a Northwest kid who grew up in Seattle and Yakima while his dad, Armandino, second generation Italian, worked for Boeing and founded the amazing Salumi's in Seattle.

Many of Pellegrini's other books -- "Wine and the Good Life," "A Food Lover's Garden," "Lean Years, Happy Years," expand with greater depth on the idea of a life well-lived that so resonated to later generations after 1948.

Canwell Holding Card
University of Washington
While that year made Pellegrini in the food world, it nearly took him down in the political and academic spheres.  Senator Albert Canwell, a state legislator from Spokane, began investigating what he believed to be a hornets' nest of communism at the University of Washington.  He and his staff began assembling note cards detailing names and relationships of UW staff who belonged to the party or were sympathetic to communism.  While not illegal, many people ran for state legislative and other positions as communists, Canwell believed it should be illegal and was not in the interests of a great university.

Canwell's investigations produced subpoenas to eleven professors, Pellegrini among them.  In the Summer of 1948, in a room in what is now the Seattle Center House, Pellegrini, among others, testified and were questioned by the Canwell Committee.  Pellegrini said he went to some meetings in 1935, he was then 31, and attended meetings infrequently for a year.  His principal memory was a book he reviewed that others thought was not communistic enough.  Pellegrini said that he had enough of their zealotry and stopped going to meetings after a year.

While it was old news to him, it was a challenging time.  Pellegrini was among the most popular professors at the university and his photo in front of the committee was on the front page of the Seattle Times.  He said he could remember the names of just two professors, both long dead in 1948, and no other names.

The committee wanted more names, something he found repugnant, but he said he could remember no others.  Ominously, Canwell insisted that Pellegrini remain under subpoena, the better to jog his memory, but the very next day, a handful of lives in tatters, the committee disbanded and the subpoena disappeared.

Dinner over, Pellegrini would happily put aside those mean days and sit with cognac and turn the conversation to better things -- how to find a morel hiding under the forest duff, the techniques he found best for keeping the fruit forward when making wine, how best to compliment the winemaker for a fine bottle.

"Don't smack your lips and wave your arms!  Look them square in the eye, offer a big smile and give them a wink!"

KUOW interview with Pellegrini's grandson, Brent

1 comment:

  1. Bob,
    Armendino is retired (for good?) and his daughter Gina and her husband Brian run Salumi.