Why Italians Love To Talk About Food
by Elena Kostioukovitch (Picador $39.99)
Russian-born Milan-based Elena Kostioukovitch is a highly regarded translator whose work on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose earned top awards. Eco returns the favour by writing the foreword for this dense culinary exploration of Italy, top-to-toe. This is a full-immersion read with an almost total emphasis on words, rather than pictures, although the book is peppered with some black and white images.
Eco explains that to explore Italy through Kostioukovitch's eyes is to venture through a country with "infinite gradations" in terms of geography, history, dialect, class and political struggles - all connected to cuisine. Her journey starts in the north-eastern region of Fruili Venezia Giula and the "sagra", the celebration of a dish or ingredient specific to an area. She includes a discussion of a fierce split in the Communist Party in the 1990s in which insults were hurled using a culinary code involving tortellini.
To travel around Italy as a tourist is wonderful yet frustrating, because you will only scratch the surface. This book - which won Italy's Bancarella Award and Chiavari Literary Prize - goes deep, far and wide. Kostioukovitch writes about Sicily and the role of cassata (ricotta dessert) in the dark world of the mafia. She quotes from a prosecutor, who describes a dinner in which the cassata is brought to the table to be shared by an "unsuspecting designated victim." His mafia friends, "acting affectionately, without rancour, nothing personal for heaven's sake, choke off the last mouthful in his throat by tightening the noose around his neck".
The chapter on totalitarianism and Mussolini's war on pasta, is just as fascinating. The Fascists believed pasta caused "lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity". Look where that got them.