Elena Kostioukovitch is not Italian. She was born in Kiev, Russia. But Kostioukovitch is deeply in touch with her Inner Italian. How do I know? I’ve been reading Why Italians Love to Talk About Food, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux publication of her book.
Kostioukovitch’s day job is to translate the literary works of Umberto Eco and other authors into the Russian language. Also an essayist and literary agent, she has lived in Milan for more than two decades. She explains in the preface to her 400-plus page tome, “This book was born specifically to assemble in a single volume stories about the symbolic foods of each Italian region and their ‘ideological’ meanings.”
She creates an intellectual journey from the north of the peninsula to the south, exploring culinary history, characteristic dishes, and cultural eccentricities of each region. Her research is rigorous — footnotes and bibliography cover more than 30 pages.
We learn, for instance, that the aperitivo Campari was created by Gaspare Campari at the Caffè Zucca in Milan in 1867.
We practically taste the brine on our lips as we discover that the remaining wilderness of Puglia fosters in the locals a preference for unadulterated foods. “The tendency to eat unprocessed food is especially evident in the consumption of raw fish. In fish markets, for example, it is customary to set out plates of raw shrimp, cuttlefish, and mussels for customers who are waiting, to be eaten on the spot with a squirt of lemon.”
And who knew that Nutella, the jarred gianduia paste created by the Ferrero brothers in Piedmont, makes a political statement? Kostioukovitch explains, “Nutella, loved by children (naturally) and adults, was also prized by nonconformists and leftists. As Italy’s answer to [American peanut butter], it is winning, uplifting, and youthful, a sign of democracy and leftist ideals.”
Essays interspersed between the regional food chapters are quirky and informative, covering topics as diverse as the “Jews,” “Early Gifts from the Americas,” “Totalitarianism,” and “Joy.” I particularly appreciated “Preparation Methods,” a roster of dozens of cooking techniques written in sort of a shorthand code. Not much is spelled out for the Italian home cook in printed recipes—presumably the cook learned these methods at an older cook’s elbow.
“Soak prickly pears.”
“Extract the ink from cuttlefish.”
“Shape polenta in a cloth.”
“Crogiolare (bask or laze comfortably): cook a food over a slow fire, with a little liquid, for a long time.”
One word of warning: Perusing this volume can be hazardous on an empty stomach. Hunger ensues. References to Roman coda all vaccinara (oxtail stew), Neopolitan sartù, (a rice mold with giblets, mushrooms, peas and mozzarella), Ferrara’s pumpkin filled tortelli, Calabrian jujume (sea anemone fritters), Sicilian granita with brioche, and more dishes too numerous to recount will surely make you long to be dining at an Italian table.
Kostioukovitch bottom line is this: “Examining the culture of food, we also come to understand its unique ability to inspire joy and create harmony. Whether at table with family, in a restaurant with friends, or at a scientific conference—food is talked about in a language that is accessible to all, exciting to everyone, democratic and positive.”
What conversations have you enjoyed around an Italian table?