Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I've been reading a number of books that I didn't know about when the manuscript for my Tuscany and Umbria book was due, and they've each been great, so I'll devote the next few posts to these very worthwhile tomes. I enthusiastically recommend them for companion reading while traveling, armchair reading if you're daydreaming about going to Italy (or have recently come back), or, in the case of a few, culinary reading if you're inspired to get in the cucina and start cooking! Here are the first two below:

How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani (foreword by Lidia Bastianich, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, and the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and, with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. (He's not the John Mariani who founded Banfi Vintners in 1919.) He's also been referred to as "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press," so it will not come as a surprise to know that he tells the story of how, indeed, Italian food has conquered the world with great spirit and wit. As Mariani writes in his Introduction, we can go to a restaurant anywhere in the world today and chances are very good that we'll find Italian dishes listed on the menu. Mariani has witnessed, over the last four decades, how the status of Italian food has gone from a "low-class, coarse ethnic food to the most recognizable, stylish, and influential cuisine in the world." And how this happened "has as much to do with changing ideas of ethnicity and a surging interest in wholesome ingredients as it does with taste and fashion." He shares the stories of a great number of people, restaurants, and products, such as Mamma Leone's, Elaine's, Patsy's, Sirio Maccioni, Mario Batali, Pizzeria Uno, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Alfredo's Ristorante, Mary Ann Esposito, Marcella Hazan, London's River Cafe, Sophia Loren, Rice-a-Roni, and Chef Boyardee -- did you know the name derives from Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi? He worked as a chef in Cleveland and then opened his own restaurant, called the Italian Immigrant, and began canning his own sauces and then spaghetti. He provided the U. S. military with canned spaghetti with tomato sauce during World War II, and after the war he made new labels for the cans featuring his photo. He also changed the name to a phonetic spelling so Americans could pronounce it easier -- Chef Boy-AR-Dee (but most Americans still mispronounced it as Chef Boy-Ar-DEE, as they do today).

"Italian food," says Bastianich in her Foreword, "is simply gratifying, effortlessly delicious, and nutritionally sound...It is safe to say that Americans have a love affair with Italy and its food and that they aspire to live the Italian style and eat the Italian way." This is absolutely true, but it wasn't very long ago that Italian food was considered inferior, especially to French cuisine. Mariani notes that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was "regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and "dago red" wines. I highly recommend his enjoyable chronicle of a now nearly universally loved cuisine. (One small quibble: this book would have benefited from the services of a good copyeditor as there are a number of annoying typos.)

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (Gotham Books, 2006). This is one of those Tuscan memoirs that I was prepared to dislike simply because I didn't like the title. And, as I note in my book, do we really need another Tuscan memoir? Like others I didn't think I'd like, this one, too, proved me wrong, so yes, I've added it to my (sagging) shelves and I'm recommending it to you.

Doran was, as you may know (I admit I didn't recognize his name), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose wife, Nancy, a sculptor, saw their life together heading in a dead-end direction so she went to Italy and bought a crumbling farmhouse for them to fix up. She didn't consult Doran first, so right off the bat you can imagine how at least some of this story goes. But you can't imagine how truly hilarious their straniere in Paradiso story is, and how lovely, and beautiful, and memorable.

In the telling of the story, Doran also enlightens readers to numerous Italian traditions, customs, and vocabulary, which I particularly love. So for the word cantina he explains that this is the "heart and soul of every Tuscan home," and if we think it's the equivalent to the American den, the English drawing room, or the French parlor we're wrong. "Every Tuscan home, no matter how humble, is guaranteed two things by law: a forno for baking bread and a cantina where the family can make wine. No one is guaranteed a bathroom, but every citizen must have their pane e vino."

Initially, Doran really has no intention of actually living in Tuscany, let alone fix up a house and deal with all the local bureaucracy and the village personalities. But eventually, he warms to Tuscany, writing that "there is a fabric of life here, a texture that enfolds you in a way that as a young man I might have found smothering." He also comes to understand how much a sense of place can shape a person, and he believes there is no greater difference between Italy and America than the relationship to our natural surroundings. Though Tuscany is much older than America, it is actually more unspoiled, Doran writes, and "Tuscany is the reality, where our suburbia is the re-creation of that reality." So our neighborhood parks are really just re-creations of meadows, our malls are re-creations of villages, and swimming pools are re-creations of ponds. All of which has the effect of making our experiences one step removed from the immediate impact of life. "Our lives in the 'burbs are clean, efficient, well organized, and essentially soulless. And I would have never understood that if I hadn't come to live in Italy."

There is one tale I won't spoil here but will only say that it involves one of the workmen, Umberto, and 'The Sopranos,' and when I read it I was practically gasping for breath I was laughing so hard (and when I read it aloud to friends they were laughing, too).

Yes, you really do need to read one more Tuscan memoir.

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