Thursday, March 8, 2012

The reissue of Carol Field's The Italian Baker is cause for celebration (see my previous post) but I am equally delighted about the publication of a few other Italian culinary books. One was published three years ago but I only just got around to reading it: Why Italians Love to Talk About Food by Elena Kostioukovitch (forewords by Umberto Eco and Carol Field, translated by Anne Milano Appel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I admit upfront my ignorance about the author --I did not recognize Kostioukovitch's name, but it turns out she is Umberto Eco's translator in Russian and she is an essayist, literary agent, and editor and she has been living in Italy (Milan) for over twenty years. The Italian edition of this book appeared in 2006, the same year she was the recipient of the Welcome Prize, given by the Russian National Association of Restaurateurs. So as Faith Heller Willinger says, this book is "essential reading for all Italophiles." Chef Tom Colicchio calls it "part reference encyclopedia, part social history, part love letter to Italy." I call it required reading as well, but also of the most joyful kind (I love that the final chapter of the book is entitled 'Joy').

In her foreword, Carol Field writes that "of course Italians like to talk about food. Italy is food, and the food is Italy...Italians talk constantly about food even when food isn't the subject. Bring up almost anything -- painting, trees, literature, landscape, history, people, religion, even taxes or politics -- and the vocabulary of food somehow finds its way in." Kostioukovitch already suspected this but after her years-long journey to every region of Italy it was soundly proven. She also discovered that "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." So in each chapter Kostioukovitch outlines the history and food traditions of each region and ends with lists of typical dishes and products. Throughout the book are other, more in-depth chapters on such topics as the sagra, olive oil, pilgrims, Slow Food, Jews, democracy, the Mediterranean diet, gifts from America, pizza, etc. There are no recipes, but there are cooking methods for meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables, as well as sauces and gravies for pasta and pairings of pasta shapes and sauces.

At the end of her Preface, Kostioukovitch writes that discovering and analyzing the Italian culinary code "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." Indeed, many of us do.


A different book because it does have recipes, about 250 of them, is The Country Cooking of Italy by Colman Andrews (foreword by Mario Batali, Chronicle Books, 2010). But right there on the first page of the Introduction is a quotation that brings the subject of Italian cuisine back to Elena Kostioukovitch's circle: "As they ate, they spoke of eating, as always happens in Italy" (Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water)

Andrews has been one of my most favorite food writers and cookbook authors for many years, but this lovely hardcover (featuring photographs by the renowned team of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, who also author a great paperback series of seasonal cookbooks that I love, Canal House Cooking) might be his best book yet. (In fairness, he also wrote a book in this series on Ireland, which I haven't yet seen, so it may be equally as good.)

Like Kostioukovitch, Andrews, too, has traveled to every region of Italy, and he learned that "many of the most famous "real Italian" dishes I had encountered, even in Italy, were twentieth-century creations -- and that even so definitive a food as pasta was not a daily part of the Italian diet until about a hundred years ago." He also learned a lot about the Mediterranean Diet, mostly while researching his terrific book, Flavors of the Riviera, in which he concluded that this Diet is more romanticized than real, and that it was "more the way people eat at Chez Panisse than the way they eat, and have traditionally eaten, around the Mediterranean"). I was pleased to read that Andrews also addressed something that I've been railing about for years to any of my friends and family who will listen, which is that "for the most part, Italian cooking in its homeland, I began to figure out on my trips there, was far simpler than the gussied-up Italian American interpretations of it." As Andrews also notes, American chefs and Italian chefs who come to the States "don't seem to be able to leave well enough alone." I have found this to be particularly true in California, where so many chefs (and home cooks) can't resist gilding the lily.

Andrews was impressed by the intensity of local and regional pride for food products and dishes no matter where he traveled in Italy. "They love eating -- is it an accident that in the language of their predecessors, the Romans, the words for "eat" (edo) and "be" (sum) share an infinitive form, esse? (Edo ergo sum?) -- and they love talking about eating."

But, on to the recipes! They are just so excellent, and of course the introductory notes Andrews provides for each one are always interesting to read. Recipes from Milan, Naples, Venice, and other large cities are not the focus here, but there are plenty from the countryside around them. Andrews notes he has tried to strike a balance between including familiar dishes (done right) and more obscure ones. But no matter where the recipe is from, Andrews was always mindful that "in Italy, at least in principle, the farm is never far away from the table." He also writes that though so many culinary innovations in Italy can be traced to ancient Rome or to wealthy noblemen and merchants, he believes that "all Italian cooking is in some sense from the country, from the region, from the land. This is the key to its identity. This is what makes it great."

Recently, I made the spiced cheese spread called Liptauer that, Andrews explains, comes from Trieste. It was such a refreshing change from the usual dips and spreads and everyone commented on it (the recipe has butter, fresh ricotta, paprika, mustard seeds, cumin, anchovy filets, chives, and scallions). But the others I've tried have also been winners: Rigatoni with Cauliflower, Polenta with White Beans and Kale, White Beans Tuscan Style, and Olive Oil Cake. But I've only just begun...friends are coming for dinner on Saturday and I already have so many pages marked with sticky notes.

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