Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History

Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History

Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History

Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History


Italy, the country with a hundred cities and a thousand bell towers, is also the country with a hundred cuisines and a thousand recipes. Its great variety of culinary practices reflects a history long dominated by regionalism and political division, and has led to the common conception of Italian food as a mosaic of regional customs rather than a single tradition. Nonetheless, this magnificent new book demonstrates the development of a distinctive, unified culinary tradition throughout the Italian peninsula.

Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari uncover a network of culinary customs, food lore, and cooking practices, dating back as far as the Middle Ages, that are identifiably Italian:

o Italians used forks 300 years before other Europeans, possibly because they were needed to handle pasta, which is slippery and dangerously hot.

o Italians invented the practice of chilling drinks and may have invented ice cream.

o Italian culinary practice influenced the rest of Europe to place more emphasis on vegetables and less on meat.

o Salad was a distinctive aspect of the Italian meal as early as the sixteenth century.

The authors focus on culinary developments in the late medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, aided by a wealth of cookbooks produced throughout the early modern period. They show how Italy's culinary identities emerged over the course of the centuries through an exchange of information and techniques among geographical regions and social classes. Though temporally, spatially, and socially diverse, these cuisines refer to a common experience that can be described as Italian. Thematically organized around key issues in culinary history and beautifully illustrated, Italian Cuisine is a rich history of the ingredients, dishes, techniques, and social customs behind the Italian food we know and love today.


“What is the glory of Dante compared to spaghetti?” is among the memorable lines in this prodigiously learned yet always readable and entertaining book. The authors have in fact written a veritable diachronic encyclopedia, and how refreshing it is for once to read a chronologically grounded exposition. A chapter devoted to “science and technology in the kitchen” traces cooking techniques, utensils, and devices as they progressed from Roman antiquity through the Middle Ages to the present. In so doing, Capatti and Montanari connect various forms of government, regional topographies, and economies (since Italy's well-documented regionalism leads at times to a specifically local culinary vocabulary and technology).

But what emerges from this book is that, regionalisms aside, there is a national Italian culinary culture. In a compelling study of the linguistic resources of cookbooks and menus, the authors demonstrate how the amazing number of “Italian” cookbooks published from the Middle Ages onward evolved from Latin, at the outset, through the courtly seventeenth-century French (and its on-going snob appeal), into a Tuscan-Italian still burdened by a thick web of gastronomic Gallicisms. In this richly documented chapter (really a history unto itself) recipes from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries are adduced to trace the Orphic naming of new products unknown to the early Romans. All this, with a full authorial awareness of political and social developments, makes for a fascinating narrative.

Equally intriguing is the history of military diets: how availability of products in specific locales of conflict and the need to feed troops on the battlefield led to new technologies and tested the limits of culinary availability. At the same time, the military regime, especially during World War I, forged a “national diet” that led to the unity of what we now know as la cucina italiana.

Linked to the military is the evolution of chefs', cooks', and servers' attire in restaurants. The absurdity of highly formal tails for headwaiters, say, maintained in our own era of vestimentary informality, reflects the same military hierarchical order found in the emblem of the toque itself. Only the “officers” (maitres d', executive chefs, et al.) were allowed beards and mustaches; as immediate inferiors, underlings and servers had to be clean-shaven in deference.

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