Lynne Corinne Claudia Theresa Anne Rossetto Kasper is the granddaughter of Italian sharecroppers--from Lucca on her mother's side and Venice on her father's.
But when she married, left her childhood home in northern New Jersey and began cooking seriously, she didn't concentrate on Italian food. Instead, she made lavish Chinese banquets that she and her husband, Frank, an electrical engineer, would spend a month researching.
As she balanced a part-time job as a secretary in Manhattan, gigs teaching Chinese cooking in private homes and her own improvisational children's street theater in Brooklyn (stage name Claudia Randolph), Kasper wasn't sure where her professional future would lead. She certainly didn't think it would be found in her ancestral past.
But she knew she loved to cook and that she was searching for a passion that would guide her life: "Something I would never be bored with," she says.
That was in the late 1960s when Italian food in America still meant spaghetti and lasagna, and when Kasper was rebelling against what she saw as the strictures of American Italian family life. Studying Italian cooking wasn't even on her list of priorities.
Since then, Italian food has become America's favorite, and Kasper has found her passion: Cooking, studying, teaching and writing about food, she has made her name as a primary exponent of Italian cuisine. Her career has found her running a cooking school in Denver (where her husband's job took them) for five years, writing regular articles for food magazines, cooking in restaurants, catering, hosting a weekly syndicated radio program and crisscrossing the Italian countryside to research her books: multi-award-winning "The Splendid Table, Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food" (Morrow, 1992), and just-released "The Italian Country Table" (Scribner, $35).
During a five-year span she and her husband lived in Brussels for his job, she conducted the research for her first book, making trips to Italy as though it were next door. In a way it was. "I would load the car with tapes and a camera and a back seat library and be there in 11 1/2 hours," she says. "It was the most exciting adventure. And in that context I discovered how Italian I was."
She was drawn to Emilia-Romagna because of three marvelous local products: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto and balsamic vinegar. So the question that drove her inquiry was: Why these foods in this place? "Why these extraordinary foods," she says, "and a whole cuisine to back them up?"
That "place," of course, was farmland. "Agriculture was the base of their economy for thousands of years," she says, "the bedrock of their collective consciousness." So the answers to Kasper's questions lay in the details of the farmers' fields, their climate and their daily lives.
For the current book she traveled to farms all over Italy, this time turning her focus to the people on those farms, and how they approached their food, both in times of want and plenty. "Food is part of who you are--an identifier," she says. "And often food was scarce. Most of the people I spent time with had within the memory of their family the time before World War II when most people working on the land had to be sure they'd have food for a year."
But whether or not they had enough to eat, she discovered that farm families approached food with ingenuity, pleasure and pride. No matter if it was the lineup of sauces, soups, pasta and farmyard poultry and pigs for which she provides recipes, or if it was the food of a poor harvest. "The food!" she marvels. "The good food."
The years Lynne Rossetto Kasper spent eating and cooking seasonal foods in Italian country kitchens not only transformed the way she looks at her heritage but also gave her a respect for the interdependence of family members, for the old ways--and how and why they came to be. "I'm very proud of being Italian American," she says, now valuing "the family ways that as a kid I saw as being limiting."
That Italian farmhouse approach is one she thinks American cooks can learn from, by buying food in season (and if possible, organic) and rethinking our attitudes toward serious cooking. To her there's an anxiety-ridden approach in this country, full of worries about our prowess, our sensibilities and our fear of being judged. "Forget gourmet food," she says. "So many requirements have been set up for us to be good at it--to reach a certain level implied by magazines and television and food authorities, no wonder people aren't cooking."
"If I had a magic wand, I'd wave away all that stuff," she says. "We've got to get back to our own common sense, to listening to what we're hungry for, and to knowing we're not inventing the wheel. Then we would be giving ourselves an immense amount of pleasure."
CAPTION: Lynne Kasper, above, took a roundabout route back to her Italian roots.