A Dinner with Pelle

This extended appreciation of Angelo Pellegrini was originally published in the February 17th, 1982 issue of Seattle Weekly. Ouside Pelle’s own writings, it remains the best portrait we have of the man and his influence.

THE FIRST TIME I had dinner at Virginia and Angelo Pellegrini’s house, Virginia wore a red dress and good shoes. “Pelle” wore a red flannel shirt, gray sweat pants, white socks, and sturdy brown slippers.

Virginia met my companion and me at the door with surpassing warmth and welcome. There were hugs and kisses in the doorway, the chill of a winter evening behind us, the heat of a bountiful fire in the living-room fireplace ahead. Pelle, I reckoned, was in the kitchen, and I  went there immediately.

I found him well balanced in front of the stove, feet wide apart, both hands gripping the handle of a long wood paddle that he was using to stir a tall pot of polenta. There were two smaller pots, both covered, on the stove. In answer to my inquiry, he lifted the lids and explained the contents. One contained greens—mustard, chard, chicory—simimering in broth. The other contained the sauce for the polenta: tomato conserve, sweetbreads, sausage, chicken, boletus mushrooms.

In Michigan. where I was reared in farm country we ate cornmeal mush occasionally. . . . Where Pelle lived until he was nine, the peasants ate cornmeal mush, or polenta, almost daily. Coarse fare, polenta was so often on the table because it was plentiful and filled the belly. Pelle remembers it, he has written, as “that insipid and bloating yellow nightmare.” The peasant women of Tuscany flavored it as best they could. Too often, Pelle said, the flavoring—or, rather, “stench”—was provided by the lowly pilchard, an ugly little fish from the Mediterranean that came cured foully in barrels. The pilchards, two or three per meal in the Pellegrini household, were broiled, sprinkled with olive oil, and placed on a plate in the middle of the table. Family members took turns dabbing slices of polenta on them. When thepolenta was gone, the pilchards were divided and swallowed.

Pelle gave the polenta another stir, releasing corn-scented steam, lifted the paddle to judge the condition of the mush clinging to it, and then told how his grandfather, as grandfathers do, attempted to convince the peasant lad, Angelo, how relatively well off he was. When he was a boy, Pelle’s grandfather related, a single pilchard was suspended by a string above the table and the family knocked it back and forth with slices of polenta. Then the pilchard was taken down, carefully wrapped, and put away until the next meal.

At the Pellegrinis’ that night, the polenta, flavored not by pilchards but by the hearty sauce, was superb. The wine, a 1976 cabernet sauvignon, was excellent. There was good talk and much laughter. Pelle raised toasts on his and Virginia’s behalf to their guests. And he also gave thanks, by way of a toast, to the return to the family dinner table of their son, Brent, a man in his 30s who had been commercially fishing in Alaska.

Afterward, in the living room over brandy, there was more good talk, more laughter. Pelle read a funny poem in Italian, translating for his monolingual guests.

Looking back. now that I know the Pellegrinis much better and we are friends, I see that evening as encompassing much that is most important about the Pellegrinis, much that is most important to them.

Virginia’s kindliness and gaiety were evident at the door. Pelle’s utter indifference to superficialities—in this case, clothing fashion—was on display in the kitchen. The greens were from their garden. The tomato conserve for the sauce, dried and concentrated in the autumn sun, was of their making. The mushrooms had been picked in the woods by their hands. The wine had been made in their cellar.

Like the food and drink, the hospitality, the sentiments expressed in the toasts, the talk, the laughter were basic, honest, straightforward. Nothing was forced or mannered. There was no pretentiousness. The values manifest in the Pellegrini household, where nothing is more important than family and friends, were certain and humane. It was an evening profoundly cultured, deeply civilized.

After 48 years of marriage, Virginia and Pelle are one, a complete human unit. Angelo, or “Pelle,” as nearly everyone who knows him well calls him, is the more public personality, however. Forty years a teacher of English at the University of Washington, author, public speaker, authority on food, wine, gardening, and the Italian immigrants’ experience in America, Pelle is widely known in Washington State and elsewhere. This story, then, will be principally about him.

Read on . . .