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Americans have always loved Italy: Primi, secondi, long tables, wine-buzzed afternoons -- it's not only a pleasant place to live, it dovetails nicely with a marketing plan. The ochre gestalt of a Tuscan sunset can help move everything from Cadillacs to IRAs; it can certainly move books.
American books about Italy used to be in the style of the civilized guide. Samuel Chamberlain's Italian Bouquet (1958) intersperses recipes among pictures of ruins and monuments, fishermen and shepherds. The author knows his audience. The reader is clearly understood to be an interested outsider driving through in a sleek black Citroen 11 L on his or her way to the next listing in the Baedeker Guide. In today's books, the car stops. The writer falls in love with a farmhouse that invariably needs remodeling. But it isn't just home improvement; it's a quest. There are plenty of old-time truths (delivered by a wily local straight out of central casting) mixed with a lot of New Age mumbo-jumbo culled from the author's journal. In Frances Mayes' surprise bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun, it takes a scant few lines of transition to get from "Bella casa, signora" to "Old places exist on sine waves of time and space that bend in some logarithmic motion I'm beginning to ride." The inference, I take it, is that the author is a highly sensitive refugee.
Which is why a book that manages to be both about food and history and written by a real refugee -- political not psychic -- is so refreshing to read. George Lang's Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen is the story of a man who has lived a life and not just a lifestyle. A Hungarian Jew who came out of the cauldron of Central Europe after World War II, he was a good enough violinist to be "the last stand of the second violins of the Dallas Symphony." However, after hearing Jascha Heifetz play Mendelssohn's violin concerto and realizing he would never reach that level of virtuosity, he decided to pursue another career. That other career was food.
Eating "kosher bacon" one day (thick slabs of paprika-crusted goose meat) and sipping egg-cream sodas the next, Lang cheerfully traces the many stages of his American life. Busboy at Reuben's 24-hour restaurant, manager of a wedding reception "factory" in the Bowery, poker-faced banquet manager at the Waldorf-Astoria, lieutenant of Restaurant Associates (rising to manage their crown jewel, the Four Seasons restaurant), inventor of the profession of restaurant consultant, today he is the owner of both New York's Cafe des Artistes and, in a nice poetic twist, Budapest's most famous restaurant, Gundel. His is not just a culinary Horatio Alger tale, it is a fascinating real-life story about finding a place in the world.
Meanwhile, back at Mayes' bella casa, life continues on its merry pace. The well gets dug, the moldings painted, the gems of wisdom keep coming: "Restoration, I like the word. The house, the land, perhaps ourselves. But restored to what? Our lives are full." Her self-satisfied tone is grating, but something larger comes into focus only when it's compared to Lang's appetite for the rough-and-tumble of everyday life in America -- something about the difference between being an expatriate and an immigrant. Americans in Europe have decades to experience deeper and deeper levels of being outsiders; newcomers to this country can turn that into new levels of being insiders (among Lang's generation are Henry Grunwald, editor in chief of Time Inc., and Henry Kissinger). When Americans decide to leave, to use Byron's phrase when he left England for the last time, they "quit the country"; but when foreigners get here, as Lang did on July 15, 1946, they arrive. -- Salon