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Authors: Elena Kostioukovitch

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BOOK: Why Italians Love to Talk About Food
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The last chapter of the book is called Joy.


I have been living in Italy for twenty years now, yet I can still recall very clearly the first months I lived in Milan. I understood and spoke Italian without any problem, but every so often my self-esteem suffered a harsh blow. I might be at dinner with friends, talking about a film we had just seen or about some item in the news, when suddenly I was no longer able to follow the conversation. What was it that had escaped me? In the blink of an eye, without any warning, everyone at the table had unexpectedly begun to discuss passionately the ways in which mushrooms could be cooked, or to describe a truly fantastic extra-virgin olive oil that an acquaintance had produced. It was exceedingly frustrating.

Talking with other foreigners, I later realized that they were all equally amazed by the fact that people in Italy talk about food a great deal, much more so than in other parts of the world. Whereas a British or Russian intellectual feels that an exaggerated attention to food may lower the caliber of the conversation and will primly skip over the subject, the Italian lingers over it with visible pleasure, dwelling at length on the details. Why? The expression “
Parla come mangi!
”—“Speak the language of your food”—embraces all-encompassing themes in Italy. What kinds of things do conversationalists evoke in memory or imagination when they recount past dinners, plan menus, or debate the quality of ingredients, in many cases not even mentioning their enjoyment of the meal?

I myself have often felt disoriented before this passion, so profound and pervasive as to extend to areas, such as the lexicon, that apparently have nothing to do with food.

Over time, I've become accustomed to it, partially by assimilating this lexicon, but I have not stopped badgering friends and acquaintances with a thousand questions: Why do all of you—your writers and journalists and politicians—love to talk about food so much? And why is it that you identify particular historic moments with references to food? What does chicory have to do with class struggle? Why did the Fascist regime try to abolish
during the twenty-year period known as the Ventennio? What does the poet Tonino Guerra have in mind when he mentions
caffè sospeso
, a coffee held “in suspense,” that is, paid for in advance by a customer who's feeling well-off and held for a future customer who may be down on his luck, in a radio interview? And if other peoples' bread tasted salty to Dante Alighieri, was it because of the tears he shed over it, as translators believe, or for some less romantic reason?

Little by little I, like all students of Italian culture, discovered hundreds of poetic and narrative works full of “culinary” references that disguised much more serious affirmations and ideas. This is because the abundance of metaphors linked to food is truly staggering:
andare a fagiolo
cacio sui maccheroni
buono come il pane
rendere pan per focaccia
troppa carne sul fuoco
mangiare il porro dalla coda
. These recall such English expressions as “icing on the cake”; “life is but a bowl of cherries”; “spill the beans”; “sour grapes”; “worth one's salt”; “cool as a cucumber”; “a piece of cake”; and many more. The collective imagination is expressed through numerous references to food.

This phenomenon is well-known, and the philosopher Andrea Tagliapietra, one of many experts who have studied it, summarized it quite well in his article “La gola del filosofo. Il mangiare come metafora del pensare” (The philosopher's temptation: eating as a metaphor for thinking): “We have an ‘appetite' for knowledge, a ‘thirst' to know, or a ‘hunger' for information. We ‘devour' a book, ‘gorge' on data to the point of ‘indigestion,' read or write ‘ad nauseam,' never get our ‘fill' of stories, ‘chew over' some project, find it hard to ‘digest' some concepts, and we ‘absorb' some ideas better than others. We ‘swallow' a story, particularly when it is told to us with ‘sweet' words rather than a sprinkling of ‘bitter' deliberations, ‘acidic' or ‘disgusting' witticisms, or worse yet, ‘tasteless,' ‘bland' allocutions. It is not by chance that the most ‘appetizing' stories are those filled with ‘peppery' anecdotes and ‘spicy' descriptions, as well as ‘savory' analogies, if you will.”


I think the answer to why Italians love to talk about food so much is this: in Italian culture, a person who shares a recipe is referring us to the region of his origins and, very often, proclaiming his own sense of belonging. Italian history evolved in such a way that every village or
was self-sufficient; no one city prevailed over another, and no provincial capital over the province nor the nation's capital over the surrounding cities. Foreigners from all over the world came to Italy on religious pilgrimages, or to get to know its artistic patrimony on a Grand Tour; thus even a village could feel that it was a central, important place. There could be no solitary backwaters in areas where there was such an uninterrupted flow of humanity! Nor could inferiority complexes toward large cities be manifested in villages and towns that boasted their own magnificent cathedrals, monastic schools, and libraries. “It's city and countryside all in one,”
Gogol wrote of Italy, choosing it as his adopted country and writing his best works there. And another Russian exile, Aleksandr Herzen, observed: “Every town has its own physiognomy.”

This book was born specifically to assemble in a single volume stories about the symbolic foods of each Italian region and their “ideological” meanings. Who serves Parmesan cheese with his pasta? Who prefers pecorino? Why should pizza be thin and not greasy, unlike the way it's made in fast-food places throughout the world? Why is
richer and more opulent than the Venetian
? What are the disturbing poetic legends surrounding Sicilian

The more you know Italy, the more it becomes evident that each community has its “gastronomic emblem,” namely, a dish or product that has been developed to perfection in that place: steak Florentine, risotto Milanese, radicchio Trevisano, Caprese salad. And the inhabitants are proud of this specialty.

The book is structured as an imaginary journey from region to region, north to south down the peninsula. For each region I attempt to identify which foods are immediately associated with which territory in the Italian collective imagination and why. Also included is a broad review of the lexicon along with its most prevalent expressions. I also allude briefly to typical dishes and products for each region, summarizing their characteristics without any pretext of being exhaustive (heaven forbid!); and, in an arbitrary, totally personal way, I cite the type of beverage that I ascribe to that zone through some free association of memory. In any case, I should point out that this is a book about food, and absolutely not about wine. How could it be, without at least doubling its size?

In writing this book I became fascinated with examining the culinary code that pervades all of Italy. This code is a language to be studied both by foreigners and by Italians themselves, a language that must be analyzed in depth in order to fully grasp all its nuances.

I say this with admiration: For Italians, more than for any other people in the world, talking about food does not mean simply naming an ingredient. It means celebrating a rite, uttering a magic formula, reciting like a litany the list of fish suitable for salting, or that of the spring herbs that make up the Ligurian
bouquet. Pronouncing the names of the various dishes, the connoisseur of Italian cuisine mentally savors an entire restaurant menu, from the first entry to the last. And the menu is like a rosary, or like Don Giovanni's catalog of conquests. I have tried to create little personal catalogs of cooking methods, sauces and gravies for pasta, and pairings of pasta shapes and sauces. I have added them at the end of the book.

I touch upon completely different topics in “intermezzi”: intervals randomly inserted between one region and another. Between one food and another, there will be occasion to speak about history, sociology, democracy, and totalitarianism. From one dish to another, Italian history and its various ties with the histories of other countries come to the forefront. I then emphasize how individual cultures that evolved within the peninsula had a great influence on the formation of the culinary code.

Exploring the culinary code is also a linguistic study. This is the secret behind Italians' joy in talking about food. It is a theme that allows them (and us) to discover the riches of memory, enjoy the curiosities of language, and share insights with friends. Since the culinary code is a kind of encyclopedia, we will enjoy exploring our gastronomic knowledge as in a catalog. The topic of cooking will also provide an occasion to talk about romantic essay writing and an explicit philosophy of living well and living soundly. Other digressions will focus on the self-esteem of those who like to display their knowledge of basic ingredients and their skill in navigating among saucepans and cooking stoves in conversation. We will discover how the culinary code represents, with the most compelling possible passion, a kind of glue, a unifying element of national identity, more so than other common values and ideals.

Examining the culture of food, we also come to understand its unique ability to inspire joy and create harmony. Whether at table with family, in a restaurant with friends, or at a scientific conference—wherever and however—food is talked about in a language that is accessible to all, exciting to everyone, democratic and positive. Those who chat about food may hail from all walks of life, yet whatever their origin
and income level, they readily find a common language. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement (which defends traditional, civilized cuisine), explains the unique, unifying language in these words: “There are some who describe it as a language: it has words (the products, the ingredients), which are organized according to rules of grammar (the recipes), syntax (the menu), and rhetoric (convivial behavior). Like language, cooking embraces and expresses the culture of those who practice it; it is a depository of the traditions and identity of a group. It self-portrays and communicates in a manner even stronger than language, because food is able to be directly assimilated by our organism: eating someone's food is easier and more immediate than speaking his language.”

In this way the language of a culture is born, resistant to consumerist infection. Consumerism and its vehicle, advertising, are obsessed with the here and now—the ephemeral. They are stubbornly aimed at devaluing what already exists and increasing the value of what is new. The language of culture, on the other hand, upholds history and dismisses trendy gimmicks as mere kitsch. The Italian culinary code is imbued with dignity, democratic feeling, and erudition.

By now you have gathered that the code is both the means and the end of this book. As a foreign student of Italian culture, I confess that discovering it and analyzing it have absorbed me completely, drawing me under its spell—just as I was drawn in so many years ago by the country that created this code, the Italy that I will never have my fill of discovering, and that each day increases my hunger for beauty and thirst for art. I know you will understand.

Why Italians Love
to Talk About Food

Friuli Venezia Giulia

BOOK: Why Italians Love to Talk About Food
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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