© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Family's Move To Tuscany Shapes Daughter's Menu

For Sara Jenkins and her mother, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, food is a family affair -- and a family business. Sara has just opened Porsena, an Italian restaurant in New York's East Village, and runs the popular Italian pork carryout Porchetta. Much of the inspiration for her menus comes from her childhood experiences in Rome and Tuscany, where she visited with her family. Her mother is the author of several cookbooks and an expert on the Mediterranean diet.

When Sara was a child, the family lived all over the world -- England, Spain, France, Lebanon -- and finally Italy. In Tuscany, they bought an ancient farmhouse in a steep mountain valley. The year was 1971, but Nancy says that in many ways, it felt like the 1800s. Their neighbors had no running water, and it would take nearly a decade before Nancy could outfit the farmhouse with a telephone.

But it was in that Italian valley where Sara shaped her first formative memories of food. Every summer, after the valley residents had threshed the wheat, they threw a harvest festival. "Everybody sat down under a grape arbor," Sara recalls, "and this incredible feast came out. Very simple, all food made by them: olive oil from their trees, bread from their grain, prosciutto from their pigs, cantaloupe melons that came out of their garden, pasta with the eggs from their chickens."

And, of course, there was wine from their vineyards, but that didn't make much of an impression at the time -- "I was 8," Sara says.

But the appreciation for uncomplicated cooking and flavorful, fresh ingredients stayed with her. Sara was an acclaimed chef in several of New York's Italian restaurants, and in 2008, she and co-author Mindy Fox published the cookbook Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond. That same year, she and her cousin, Matt Lindemulder, opened Porchetta -- a sandwich shop focused on a traditional, Italian pork dish.

Sara says her mother warned her against going into the restaurant business -- "She said don't just become a cook," Sara recalls. But Nancy good-naturedly protests: "I never said anything of the kind. Never ever!"

These days, Sara and her mother don't cook together much; they're both far too controlling for that, they explain. But recently they made an exception. In Sara's New York, postage-stamp-sized kitchen, they joined culinary forces to make an Italian-inspired pasta -- long, fat, Bucatini noodles tossed with walnuts and caramelized red cabbage. (You can find the recipe for that dish below.)

"I'm very proud of Sara," says Nancy. "I don't get to say this very often, but I really think she's done a fantastic thing. She's a much better cook than I am."

But even now, mother knows best. Adds Nancy: "I probably know a lot more about food than she does."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Jenkins is the daughter of NPR Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.