From Texas Public Radio:
Nearly 20 years ago, a Boerne woman pulled up stakes and moved to northern Italy, eventually writing books and creating video content in both English and Italian.
Laurel Evans is a seventh generation Texan and spent her first 20 years in Boerne. She didn’t learn to speak Italian in school. She learned by moving to northern Italy with her Italian husband. She thrived on the move’s challenges.
“It was fun for me to be somewhere where I had no roots,” Evans said. “And not only that, I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t share the culture.”
She said given the way she was raised, that move to Italy shouldn’t come as a shock.
“My parents were very freethinking, kind of hippie types that really encouraged us as kids to explore creativity and spend a lot of time outside, our feet in the mud, doing a lot of unstructured playtime,” she said. “And creativity was really sort of the guiding principle of my childhood.”
She thinks that kind of rearing made her an independent thinker and doer.
“I did grow up on a on a large ranch in the Hill Country — we had the right circumstances to have that kind of freedom,” she said. “I could walk up to my grandmother’s house by myself at nine years old, even though it was a big adventure across the ranch alone. I could do that because it was a relatively safe environment.”
Evans’ parents didn’t send her to school with baloney-on-white-bread-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.
“I grew up thinking that we were kind of black sheep. I was the kid that was bringing tofu loaf in my lunchbox to school. And I was getting the organic juices and the carob ice cream,” she added.
Even though as a child she fretted over what friends might think, her parents’ efforts may have set her adventurous course in life.
“I felt a little weird about it at the time but I feel like it also helped develop in me a strong thinking about food and also developing tastes that were more intricate than I could usually at that age,” Evans said.
After high school, her wanderlust took her to Antioch College in Ohio because they allowed students to study abroad every other semester.
“But what happened is I was on summer break from that college, and I came home and I met my husband — who is Italian — who was also here on a on a temporary work visa,” Evans said. “And so I dropped out of that college, moved to Italy.”
Even though husband Emilio was taking her far away to Italy, her parents supported the move.
“My parents loved Emilio. He’s very lovable,” she said. “I went thinking it was going to be temporary. I would just study for a year, but then I really loved it and I really loved being there. And I loved also being the foreigner somewhere.”
Still wanting a degree, she decided to study graphic design at a University in Milan.
“It was really difficult because it was an Italian school. They did not teach classes in English, and so I went with my baby Italian, as I call it,” Evans said. “I barely knew how to ask where the bathroom was in Italian, and suddenly I was taking color theory and semiotics in Italian.”
Learning Italian in the immersive way worked for Evans, especially after she came to an agreement with Emilio.
“My husband has always been incredibly interested in language. He speaks English very well, but when we moved to Italy, I asked him to start speaking to me in Italian and to correct me in Italian, and he took that job very seriously,” Evans said. “But this is something that now I thank him for because I did learn Italian very well. And I continue to learn.”
They’ve got their Milan home, but he was raised in the Italian Riviera — in Liguria. “We live in Milan, which is sort of the fashion and commerce city of Italy. And it’s more similar to New York, I would say, rather than any other Italian city,” she said.
They divide their time between Milan and Liguria, which is the mountainous coastal area between Nice, France — almost to Pisa.
“I spent a lot of time in their family home with his mother and two aunts. So the three ‘nannas,’ as we call them, would be in the kitchen everyday cooking,” Evans said. “And I was always in there peeking over their shoulders and trying their sauces and asking them questions. So that’s why my cooking style in Italian is very closely linked to the Ligurian region rather than from the region around Milan.”
She soon came to find that Italy’s diverse regional cuisines are a byproduct of each region’s attributes and shortcomings.
“In Liguria, there are many recipes that have pine nuts, basil, fresh herbs. There’s a lot of vegetables,” she said. “Liguria is a very hilly country. There wasn’t any cattle farming. So there are no beef recipes, very little meat. But you’ll find a lot of fresh vegetables, a lot of use of aromatic herbs, nuts, anchovies.”
All the cooking spurred on her interest in writing about it. And so she wrote her first cookbook.
“I’ve been writing cookbooks since 2010, and I opened my blog Un American in Cucina, which means an American in the kitchen around that same year,” she said.
It might seem counterintuitive to find an American embraced as a chef in Italy.
“I expected to find a lot more resistance to An American in the Kitchen, but Italians are incredibly open and they love America,” she said. “They love the music, they love the movies, they love the pop culture. And so I wrote my first cookbook in Italy about American cuisine for Italians.”
As all this was happening, Evans began doing video as well.
“I am very lucky because my husband is a photographer and videographer and so he has been able to help me with all of the AV aspects of all of my books,” she said. “He’s been the photographer for all my books, and he’s been the director for all my videos.”
Her reputation grew, and she was asked to be part of a Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” program. In the video shot at a breakfast bistro, she told Tucci that locals dipped their focaccia bread into cappuccino at breakfast. He looked reluctant.
“Are you skeptical?” Evans asked.
“Totally!” he said.
Evans ordered him a cappuccino. The cappuccino arrived, he dipped the focaccia and took a bite.
“It’s delicious!” Tucci said. “I love that. I love that.”
And as if she weren’t busy enough already, Evans had a couple of children. One of her favorite things to do is bring her kids to Texas.
“They absolutely love the ranch. They love the animals,” she said. “It’s just such a different reality than the everyday reality we have in Milan. We live in a flat in the middle of a big city.”
Here they’re given fairly free rein that they’d never get in Milan.
“Here they can run around barefoot in the mud all day. It’s fun for me to see how easily they do both things,” Evans said.
There’s another activity that the kids have both mastered.
“They are bilingual and it is really fun and funny. I require them to speak only English to me. And they speak Italian to their dad,” she said.
When the two children speak to one another, Evans said they flit back-n-forth between languages.
“They’ll start a sentence in Italian and finish it in English. It’s adorable. And I find it so interesting how easy they also slip between the two cultures,” she said.
Now all these years later she can’t say if she’ll ever come back to Texas to stay.
“I’ll always have one foot in each country. And I really love also serving sort of as a bridge between the two countries like I did for a long time in Italy, kind of bringing American recipes over there and teaching about American culture and American food,” Evans said. “I also really love teaching Americans about authentic Italian cuisine. And so I think that my happy space is that uncomfortable space between the two worlds.”
All four of her books, including latest book, Liguria: The Cookbook are available on Amazon.