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Dave Wood's Book Report, Nov. 25, 2009

Years ago, my wife and I traveled to Assisi, Italy, for a few days in the town St. Francis made famous.

When we wore out St. Francis, we made our way to St. Clare's church to see the reliquary in its catacomb.

As we waited in a long line, an aged nun swept by me, elbowed me in the groin and took my spot before St. Clare's skull. As I groaned in agony, my wife heard a local tourist tell his wife in Italian "No wonder Americans think we're crazy."

He was wrong. We don't think Italians are crazy, but I'll have to admit we sometimes wonder.

So does author Eric Dregni. Dregni is an English prof at Concordia University in St. Paul. He has a habit of leaving campus for lengthy periods.

Two years back he went to Norway and came back with a book called "In Cod We Trust." It's obvious that Dregni likes to eat because now he's back from a long stay in Italy, where he and his girlfriend Katy, whom he met at Minneapolis's Leaning Tower of Pizza, lived for a time in Modena and got to know the way Italians live and how they eat.

He tells the story in "Never Trust a Thin Cook" (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95)

How do they live? Somewhat differently than the Italians portrayed in Frances Mayes' bestseller "Under the Tuscan Sun." Dregni takes a job working for a Modena weekly, rents a tiny apartment in an ancient alley with his girlfriend Katy and lives like an Italian. He learns fast:

"I'm terrified of little old Italian women. In the crowds at the market, they jab their elbows into my gut as they push their way to the front of the line. These aged tycoons can easily barge through a squadron of large men waiting in line, and no one says a word. Old women can give the evil eye like nobody's business.

Surveys in Italy reveal more than half the populations believe in this curse. I'm hardly superstitious, but why tempt fate?"

That's just a sample of his commentary on the Italian way of life. He soon learns that his writing job won't pay the bills so he takes a job teaching English at a private school, where the headmaster is more interested in bedding students and teachers than he is in pedagogy.

He speaks of Vespas of ancient bicycles, but mostly of food. His title comes from Signor Ermes, the chef-owner at Dregni's favorite neighborhood restaurant:

"Never trust a thin cook is an old Italian proverb, and Signor Ermes is anything but underfed. Ermes's arms are as wide as my waist, and his hands are like flailing meat hooks.

He's a potbellied Santa Claus carrying platters of pork. Not to say that he's lazy by any means. Ermes moves around his tiny restaurant with winged feet like the god for whom he's named ... Today, I'm with Katy -- who is notoriously indecisive with menus ... Ermes shifts impatiently from foot to foot. When she looks up, Ermes's huge fist is inches from her face as if he's going to hit her.

He laughs, retracts his fist and tells us that he'll choose something for us....

"When a break in the action allows Ermes a few seconds, he's back reading off the second course like a submachine gun, 'Guanciale-alla-Chianti-lo-zampone-ill-bollito-le-costine-alla-cacciatora-scaloppini-all'aceto-galsamico-o-al-limone-coniglio-al-forno-obisteca-fiorentina."

If you don't understand something, Ermes will indicate the cut of meat simply by pointing to it on his own body."

Dregni and Katy have a ball in Modena, home of Ferrari and Pavoratti. If my wife and I were 40 years younger we'd like to do the same. But I suppose we'll just have to settle for Dregni's new book.

Ever since the PBS series about John Adams aired last year, I've been enamored of his wife Abigail, played so beautifully by actress Laura Linney. Much has already been written about Abigail Adams and even though she wanted her letters destroyed, they fortunately were preserved and they now show up in a new book from Harvard University Press, "The Quotable Abigail Adams," edited by John P. Kaminsky ($26.95).

She was a feminist long before her time, forward looking and thinking. Here's a sample that Kaminsky has culled from her various writings:

On Women: "If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women."

On Wealth: "Wealth suddenly acquired is seldom balanced with discretion." (Perhaps Denny Hecker could profit from a perusal of this wise lady.)

On Marriage: "A woman may forgive the man she loves an indiscretion, but never a neglect."

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.