Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: April 30, 2019
I usually feel apprehensive when beginning a memoir. There are hundreds of memoirs written, usually ghostwritten, often from those in the entertainment business. Tembi Locke is an actress and I wondered if I was in for a poorly written, vanity book. From the first sentence, I knew this was not going to be the case. “In Sicily, every story begins with a marriage or a death.” I was already hooked.
The author is an African American from Texas. Besides being a mom and an actress, she is also an activist. She meets her future Sicilian husband, Saro when she is in college and doing a semester in Italy. He is a chef who was born, lives, and works in a part of the world that holds onto their traditions with a firm grasp. Even though the couple has their wedding reception in Italy, his parents do not attend. His father has forbidden anyone in his family from attending because his son is marrying a black, non-catholic woman. Her parents gladly attended, arriving in full Texan gear while dancing the Harlem Shuffle at the reception. The author gives you enough information to make you wonder, how could this cross-cultural couple make it? Yet, “He soothed the places I hadn’t known needed soothing… Together we had engaged life as two forks eating off one plate.” Tembi writes as if her marriage was a great love affair. “Our undoing was cancer…Pain is part of life. That much I knew.” However, she makes it clear that nothing could prepare her for the years of caretaking and the crippling grief once Saro dies from the disease. The entire book might have been an exercise in catharsis. If so, she made it work.
When Tembi returns to Sicily to bury Saro’s ashes, she develops a new bond with her mother-in-law through the Sicilian food they prepare in Saro’s parents’ tiny kitchen. She writes, “Cooking is about surrender.” In the tradition of “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Scratch” is a recipe book and love story that is told through cooking a meal. Tembi and her daughter come to spend their summers in Sicily and she embraces the slow-paced lifestyle. One of her favorite chores is after a meal, joining the other village women to shake out their tablecloths—in the middle of the road—so not to attract ants into their home. The author comes to know and understand her late husband’s family. Okay, there are some “Godfather” jokes, but in the end, a Sicilian neighbor, who does not understand a syllable of English, tells her family that their daughter, Tembi, “is one of us.” As Tembi says, “Sicily was the water and sun that fortified me to stand stronger in my life after loss.”
Locke’s memoir immediately reveals to the reader that she is a powerful storyteller. She fills her book with sensory experiences of Sicily. “The hot air was pregnant with jasmine and eucalyptus.” Although the lyrical prose is glorious, I sometimes found that the vivid imagery throughout the memoir took over her story. I would have enjoyed reading less poetry on the wonders of Sicily (to be fair she also educates her readers on its history) and learned more about the details of her married life in America, which seems to have been skipped over. I’m guessing this was done on purpose since the author’s tale is really about the salve that she found in Sicily. Also, sometimes, the connection between food and kitchen wisdom was a bit too overplayed. But, who am I to contradict her memories and healing process? I devoured this book. Once finished, I could not wait to celebrate life by going into my own kitchen to boil water for pasta. The author’s soul-searching words make for a heartfelt memoir that is part devastating, part uplifting, and always a beautiful tribute to life and love.
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