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Bill Klapp

Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History

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I am busy reading a scholarly treatise on the cultural history of Italian cuisine, and while it is not exactly summer beach reading, I find it absolutely fascinating. The book, Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History, is co-authored by Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari. Montanari, a professor at the University of Bologna, is perhaps the preeminent Italian food historian, and the author or co-editor of other works dealing with the history of food in general and in Europe in particular. This volume, originally written in Italian, became available in English translation last month. A forewarning: this is a serious work, and while it will occasionally bring a smile to your face (the opening quote from the series editor's preface: "What is the glory of Dante compared to spaghetti?"), it can also be a little dry for the reader who does not share my obsession with all things culinary and Italian. On balance, it is highly readable (the footnotes are all buried in the back of the book, and thankfully, not at all necessary for the illumination of the text) and extremely informative. I may post again after I have finished it, but I wanted to share with you a couple of the tidbits asserted in this book. The shocker, although not documented to an historical certainty, is the authors' belief that the Arabs gave the gift of pasta to BOTH the Italians and the Chinese! (The logic is impressive, since there is a school of historical thought that claims that Marco Polo's notes of his travels may be fictional, and there is also evidence that the Chinese and Italians may have had pasta at the same time, as far back as can be traced. The authors suggest that the Arabs, being a nomadic people, made the first dried pasta, the ultimate roadfood!) It also appears that the Italians invented the tossed green salad, and were the first European people to use herbs in cooking (although I personally believe that the Greeks probably started the trend and the Italians merely grew it). Also, the authors note repeatedly that many of the late-arriving raw ingredients upon which Italy's most famous dishes are based (corn, potatoes and tomatoes, to name a few) were presumed to be dangerous and inedible by the aristocracy, who, with a flourish of generosity, threw them to the peasantry, who in turn cultivated them and went on to give us a superior corn-based polenta, gnocchi, ragu and pizza. To hear the authors describe that process recalled the Life cereal television commercial of many years ago. You remember it: "Let Mikey try it. He'll eat anything! He LIKES it! He LIKES it!" More importantly, the book explains the history of some of Italy's most healthy eating habits, which does much to explain why they are so damn thin and good-looking! I assume that this book will not be in print for long in the U.S., so if you are as hard-core as I am, get while the getting is good.

(I post this with an apology to whoever sent Craig and I a private message some months ago, looking for primary source materials on Italian food history. This book, although not footnoted with the rigors of a doctoral dissertation in the U.S., is a great source for such materials.)


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Thanks for the rec, Bill. Adding it to my Amazon wish list now.


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The shocker, although not documented to an historical certainty, is the authors' belief that the Arabs gave the gift of pasta to BOTH the Italians and the Chinese! (The logic is impressive, since there is a school of historical thought that claims that Marco Polo's notes of his travels may be fictional, and there is also evidence that the Chinese and Italians may have had pasta at the same time, as far back as can be traced. The authors suggest that the Arabs, being a nomadic people, made the first dried pasta, the ultimate roadfood!)

I doubt that the Arabs 'gave' the Chinese pasta, I would think that there is plenty of documentation of soft wheat pasta in China pre-Arab contact. The may have introduced durum wheat pasta to the East (comments made by the Chinese version of Marco Polo in Muslim Spain, indicate that the Chinese did not have durum wheat) , but the consumption of this type of pasta in the East s still relatively low. "Laska" noodles (Persian orgin) on the other hand was most likely a type of noodle/dish introduced into SE-Asia by Muslims.

It is unlikely that Marco Polo brought back pasta to Europe (it was already there), but most food historians think it likely that most of Polo's stories are true, if gussied up some what.

To find more about pasta you will have to see my pasta course in the eGCI next week.

:wink:

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Adam, I was just paraphrasing the book. I defer to you completely. I only eat the stuff in copious quantities, rather than studying it! And a question for the crowd-has anybody read the volume entitled "Pasta" in the series containing this book, as referenced by MatthewB above? I just bought it, and if it is going to hurt my feelings, I would just as soon know that now.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I read the pasta book last year as part of my research for a story. It was fairly interesting, though there is something about a certain kind of academic writing that tends to be both dry and seemingly unreliable. I found no errors, or differences from other texts, it just seemed shakier than necessary. I do believe Clifford Wright has some material on the origins of pasta in his Mediterranean Feast.

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