At times, Mark Leslie can feel like a vagabond. He works as a professional stage manager in theaters across the country. It can be a hectic life, traveling from town to town oftentimes without knowing anyone or anything there.
The funny thing about theater is that each cast is bound to have at least one great cook. There's something about living such a transient life that makes people want to come together all that much more. And the dinner table makes the perfect setting.
"I'm not entirely sure why that is, but there is some sense of being centered around food," he said.
Leslie's travels recently brought him back to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, where he served as an interim stage manager in "Dreamgirls." It's his first time back since releasing his memoir "Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Languages and Life with an Italian Family." More than just a cookbook, it's a story of a trip to Italy where he immersed himself fully in the culture by staying with an Italian-speaking family. In it, he makes a bit more sense out of how food really is more than just nourishment. It's a means to stay connected.
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"The experience really was beyond my expectations," he said. "I learned more than just recipes. Food is the gateway into our lives. It's something sacred."
His earliest memories of cooking came from his grandmother in Ohio. His family would arrive from Chicago to the sweet smells of cookies. She always had their favorites: chocolate chip cookies for him, lemon cookies for his sister, oatmeal for his mom. Grandma would wake up shortly after dawn to cook for them. She'd bring the family around the table. Happiness was a warm cookie.
"I associated food with love and caring and family," he said.
He first went to Italy in September 2001. He was there on that Tuesday morning when the terrorist attacks rocked his home country. But the love and support he felt from the native Italians was tremendous. After returning home, he knew he had to get back to Italy. But not as a tourist. He wanted to be part of a family.
The best way to learn the food and language is to live it. He enrolled in a program that put him in touch with a family in Viterbo. He lived with them. He learned the cuisine from the grandmother, whom they called Nonna. He learned the language from her daughter, Alessandra.
"I was interested in learning from the inside out," he said.
Leslie grew close to the family. Nonna wasn't the stereotypical Italian cook with her hair pinned up, rolling out pasta and stirring sauce. She was in her 80s and led an activity group and drove her daughter to run errands. She cooked good Italian food, not complex Italian food, but something anyone can do.
All the while, Leslie was sending emails back home about his adventures. He returned to Montgomery, Ala., where he's a regular stage manager at a Shakespeare company. A friend was so enthralled with his emails she pushed him to compile them into a book. He laughed off the idea at first. But then he got a note in the mail from his friend. It had a skull and cross bones on it and said, "Write your book or die." It was time to get to work.
He found a boutique publisher in Washington that agreed to put out the book. His memoir has taken off over the past year. Leslie has held cooking demos across the country and made radio and TV appearances talking up Italian cooking. He's scheduled on NBC's "Today" show Oct. 10 in a Columbus Day-themed segment, and he's working with a manager to develop a TV show.
No matter where his culinary career goes, he'll always draw on that experience where he learned how food can affect a life. At the very least, the next time he's in an unfamiliar town around unfamiliar people, he can be the one to gather them all around a table and say the one word that can make the unfamiliar familiar -- "Eat!"