on Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation by Massimo Montanari (Columbia Univ. Press)

Before traveling to Perugia this past summer to attend a wedding, I did some research on the region of Umbria. Regarding food, the guides and magazines extol the virtues of the region’s signature cuisine – strangozzi pasta with black truffle sauce, squash and farro soup, penne with Norcia sausage, and Gobbi alla perugina or cardoons (cousins of artichokes) fried and served in a meaty tomato sauce.

MontanariCover.jpgOn the flight to Europe, I began reading Massimo Montanari’s Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation to whet my appetite for Umbrian dishes, only to find this:

“‘Regional’ cooking is an invention that fulfills political, commercial, and tourist requirements. Not cultural … The mosaic of local (rural and urban) cuisines had been incorporated into regional unities that function perfectly on the commercial level, but far less so if we look at history and geography … It pains me to see how the ‘screen’ of regions runs the risk of concealing the truly identifying characteristics of Italian cuisine, its absolutely ‘local’ nature that is at the same time profoundly 'national.’ ”

Some foodstuffs are produced within campanalismo -- literally, within the sound of a town’s campanile bell; these are needed for sustenance. Then, there are foodstuffs able to travel distances; these are desired for pleasure. Although “Italy” has existed for a very brief time as a country, the Italians have excelled at an integrated gastronomy, blending the near and far. It’s just that, per Montanari, the “regional” jargon of tour guides is irrelevant. To privilege it is to disregard cultural and social history.

MontanariColor.jpgA professor of medieval history and the history of food at the University of Bologna, Montanari writes without pedantry, while Beth Archer Brombert’s fluid translation captures the ardor of his interests and the sureness of his arguments. Furthermore, he enhanced the flavors of the Chitarrini con pancetta, pecorino, pomodoro e basilico I enjoyed at Ristorante La Taverna in Perugia. The Arabs introduced pasta to Italy in its dried form. The tomato arrived from the New World via Spain. Pecorino originated in Sicily. Balsamic vinegar was first made in Modena in the Middle Ages. Pancetta in its rolled form hails from northern Italy.

Montanari shows how food created Italians before there was an Italy, whose emergence as a unified political state did not occur until the nineteenth century, long after England, France and Spain had established their nationhoods. In Italy, culture was transmitted between and combined within cities – which is why he emphasizes “local” cuisine at street level. He writes:

“The Italian gastronomic tradition resulted from the integration of a popular culture and an elite culture that took hold in Italy as in no other European country. A clue to understanding this phenomenon is the singular relationship in Italy between city and country. The ideal locus for economic, cultural, and social exchanges, the city by its nature was a perfect breeding ground for hybridization and contamination. Popular and elite cultures confronted one another there every day, imitating each other and blending together in turn. The cooks who worked at court or for great families … were perhaps central figures in this mechanism. The peasant, ideologically despised by the city dweller, was nonetheless often encountered in the day-to-day reality of the market or domestic service. It is evident that Italian cookbooks, and the alimentary models proposed by them, express a broad social culture.”

MontanariOnions.jpgHis other main theme concerns the evolving roles and values of specific foods, especially between social components of individual components (lower/ruling class, bourgeoisie/nobility). For instance, corn first appeared as an ingredient in sixteenth century Venice and was cooked exclusively as polenta for the city elite. (Peasants grew corn surreptitiously in kitchen gardens.) Two hundred years later, facing population growth and widespread hunger, landlords encouraged the planting of wheat for export and tenant farmers planted corn for their own protein-lacking subsistence, leading to outbreaks of pellagra, an illness caused by vitamin deficiencies. The persistence of poverty led to massive emigration. In America, spaghetti and meatballs became a signature dish, the introduction of meat to pasta reflecting a rising standard of living for Italian-Americans.

Montanari writes, “With the codification of the primo as an opening dish (which at least theoretically presumes a “second”) an Italian meal model was established that is grammatically different from meals north of the Alps, organized around a single principal dish (the French plat, the English main dish) preceded by a first course of lesser importance.” The model reflects “the cultures of the entire society … in which everyone could recognize fragments of his own identity.” He deftly dices his way through the centuries to explain why the menu at your local Italian restaurant is organized by l’antipasto, primi piatti e secondi piatti.

In so many words, Montanari tells us to forget Umbria, forget regional ideas. In truth, to visit is to discover that Umbria does not have a cohesive history – or rather, it has a consistent history of incursions: Etruscan, Roman, barbarian, Byzantine, papal, dictatorial, Napoleonic, and Risorgimento. After Fascists bombed Perugia’s mayoralty offices in 1922, Mussolini chose the city as his headquarters for the march on Rome. A rapid Nazi retreat to the Apennines in 1944 spared the region from damage.

MontanariChef.jpgWe made an instant friend in Claudio Brugalossi, the owner and chef of at Ristorante La Taverna in Perugia, when he heard we live in the Boston area. Claudio had once run the kitchen at the Hyatt Hotel in Cambridge. “It was the Fascists who made a big deal about regionalism,” Claudio said. “It was how to think as a nationalist, state by state. Ma in realtà, chi se ne fraga?”

[Published July 23, 2013. Translated by Beth Archer Brombert. 106 pages, $26.50 hardcover]

You may also enjoy hearing about Massimo Montanari’s delightful sleuthing on the origins of a Italian proverb Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere. “Do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears.” Click here to read more.