WESTERLY — Close to 50 food lovers made their way to the Westerly Library on a recent muggy August evening to sample homemade treats made from cherished family recipes and to meet cookbook author Anna Francese Gass.
Gass, a Westerly High School and New York University graduate, has written her first cookbook, "Heirloom Kitchen, Heritage Recipes & Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women," and was back in town to chat about the book and its origins. Former classmates and neighbors; friends, relatives and members of the library's cookbook club gathered around to listen.
Steve Morrone, the principal of Dunn's Corners Elementary School, sat beside his longtime friend and served as moderator. Afterward, as Gass signed copies of her book, guests sampled Gina's Arancini, Nonni's Brodo di Mamma e Polpette, Ukranian Deviled Eggs, and Belgian chocolate bon bons, all made by Amanda Sperry.
The dishes were all made from recipes in the book, said Sperry, who hosts the cookbook club. Two of the recipes came from Gass' mom, Gina Francese, who, like her daughter, was born in Acri, a town in the Southern Italian province of Cozenza in the Calabria region.
"My mother is a very skilled cook and made delicious meals for my family for my entire life," Gass said. "I realized, five years ago, that we did not have any of her cherished recipes written down. I began shadowing my mother in the kitchen on Sundays to get all of the family recipes written down. I then began cooking with immigrant women all over the country to get their recipes written down for their families."
"Heirloom Kitchen," she said, "was born out of the recipes of 40 women from 35 different countries, all immigrants here in America. It all started however, with my mother’s meatballs."
For the past five years, Gass said, she "has been learning the stories and recipes of all these dynamic, strong women who came to the United States for a better life for themselves and their families, just like my mother."
Rosemary Federico of Westerly, a former neighbor of Gass, said the talk was inspiring and very sentimental.
"I was crying," said Federico as she flipped through the pages of the book and stopped to look at the photographs. "My son, Vinnie, used to love Anna's cooking when he was little."
"It struck a chord with me," added Federico, whose roots are also in Southern Italy. "It really struck a chord."
Nicholas Pendola, a teacher at State Street Elementary School, said, "She was one of my best friends growing up, and she was my date at the senior prom." Pendola called the book "an amazing, back to our roots" cookbook.
"I bought several copies," said Pendola, describing Gass as "a great writer and the salt of the earth."
"The book is beautiful," put in Judy Toscano, a member of the Friends of the Westerly Library, the fundraising and volunteer organization. "I don't need another cookbook but I love this ... especially the interview aspect."
Sperry said the cookbook club meets on the third Monday of the month for about an hour and a half, and is open to everyone.
"I pick a book, and we each pick a different recipe" from the book and bring it to the meeting, she said. "Then we share a meal and discuss it and review it."
Sperry posts the reviews on the group's blog, westerlycooks.wordpress.com.
"Everyone is welcome to join," she added, and participants are asked to sign up in advance, either through the website or at the library.
Cookbook club members Susan Webb of Westerly and Alice Hathaway of Richmond, who both attended Gass' talk, talked about the club, their cooking skills and the event with Webb's husband, Ken Webb, after the talk, which was held in the upstairs auditorium.
"The cookbook is beautiful," said Webb, one of the original members of the club, who called herself "more of a baker than a cooker."
Hathaway, too, said she was a baker by choice, and that New York style cheesecake was her specialty.
"I just eat," said Ken Webb with a laugh. "They are both good cooks. I can testify to that."
"This was perfect," said Gass, as she signed copies of the cookbook downstairs following the talk, while her husband, Phil, and children Alessandra, 12, Veronica, 10, and Dante, 6 (all "recipe tasters"), looked on. "The library hosted a perfect event."