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About the Author
Lidia Bastianich is an American chef and restaurateur. Specializing in Italian and Croatian cuisine, she has been a regular contributor to the PBS cooking show lineup since 1998. In 2007, she launched her third TV series, Lidia's Italy. She also owns four Italian restaurants in the U.S.: Felidia and Becco in Manhattan; Lidia's Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Lidia's Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri.
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How Italian Food Conquered the World
By John F. Mariani
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2011 John Mariani
All rights reserved.
A Plate of Soup Surrounded by Too Many Spoons
Simply put, there was no Italian food before there was an Italy. There was Tuscan food and Ligurian food and Sicilian food and Sardinian food, but for two thousand years there was no Italian food. Not until 1861, when most of its 20 regions were unified as a kingdom under Victor Emmanuel II, was there a country called Italy. Even then, city-states such as Venice and Rome (which was declared the new capital) and some of the papal states remained separate from the new country. Before 1861 and for a century afterward, what people ate in Rome had little to do with what they ate in Bari, and when Florentines dined, it was not on the same food and wine enjoyed by Neapolitans or Venetians. There was regional food, but for two thousand years there was no Italian food. Then as now, and especially in the kitchen, Italians resisted being thought of merely as Italians.
The name Italy had of course been used for millennia, referring to the dozens of highly diverse regions on the long finger of mountainous land that divides the Mediterranean in two. "I call Italy all that peninsula which is bounded by the Ionian Gulf and the Tyrrhenian Sea and, thirdly, by the Alps on the landward side," wrote the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BC in his Roman Antiquities. But he was speaking of Italy as he might of Asia or Africa rather than as a territory of indigenous people who regarded themselves as Italians. The Italian language, derived from Latin, is not even found in print earlier than the tenth century, and most people spoke only their local dialect, unintelligible to people in the next region, sometimes even in the next town, well into the twentieth century.
The story of Italy's myriad food cultures begins within the much wider context of the Mediterranean Basin and with the people who so relentlessly invaded the peninsula for more than two thousand years. With its rippling, ragged coastlines jutting out into the seas, its broad, fertile valleys, and hillsides ideal for viticulture, Italy was always ripe for trade and conquest. The Greeks settled in southern Italy and Sicily around 800 BC; the Gauls came to the northern Po Valley in the fifth century BC; soon afterward, Rome consolidated its power and began its march to empire, expanding its dominance over most of the known western world as far as Britain.
Then, beginning in the fifth century AD, successive barbarian tribes drove southward into Italy. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, and when the German general Odoacer declared himself King of Italy in 476, the Western Roman Empire came to its end. For the next thousand years every inch of Italy was fought over, divided, and restructured by successive invaders—Ostrogoths, Lombards, Byzantines, Franks, Normans, and Arabs, well into the fourteenth century, when the new northern Italian city-states struggled for hegemony, often through alliances with the papacy.
Sicily, valued as the bread basket of the Mediterranean because of its vast wheat fields, was controlled by the Greeks, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and the Holy Roman Emperor in succession, before going into decline in the thirteenth century under inept French and Aragonese control. In 1713, Naples and Sardinia came under the rule of Austria, which also gained control over Tuscany and Venice; Corsica was sold by Genoa to France; finally, Napoleon invaded Italy in 1800, crowning his brother Joseph King of Naples.
It is little wonder, then, that Italy has been compared colloquially to a plate of soup surrounded by too many spoons. This varied political history is reflected in its culinary history, which reflects so many culinary influences. By the third century BC, Roman food culture had absorbed Greek cookery—a very simple diet of grains, vegetables, and fish—in only the most ancillary ways. The appetites of both wealthy Greeks and Romans favored sweet and sour flavors of honey and vinegar; one of the principle flavorings was fermented fish sauce, along with spices like coriander, cumin, and oregano. And well-to-do Romans valued the sweet wines of Greece over Italy's own wines.
The world's first known cookbook is Roman, entitled Apicius, after nobleman Marcus Gavius Apicius, or De Re Coquinaria (On the subject of cooking), which appeared during the first century AD. Probably compiled by Apicius's slave cooks for the slave cooks of other wealthy families, the recipes, nearly five hundred of them, provided little indication of measurements but gave a good idea of the lavish banquets mounted by men like Apicius. Dinners described by Apicius and early chroniclers like Cato, Pliny, Plautus, Plutarch, and especially Petronius in the "Trimalchio's Feast" section of his picaresque Satyricon, were as extravagant as any in history. There were tables piled high with exotica such as porpoise, dormice, coxcombs, ostriches, sows' wombs, cranes, flamingoes, and camels, all washed down with sweet, scented wine. The third-century emperor Heliogabalus once ordered six hundred ostriches to be slaughtered for pies to be served to his banquet guests and supposedly fattened vats of eels with the meat of Christians slain in the Coliseum. In most cases such gluttonous meals would be interrupted for guests to visit vomitoria in order to expel what they had eaten; then they would go back to the table and gorge for hours more.
In the cities there were taverns and food stalls, and in Rome, the attractions of the Coliseum, theater, prostitution, and thievery went hand in hand with gluttony, as fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote, describing the vices of the Romans: "Attracted by the smell of cooking and the shrill voices of the women, who scream from cockcrow like a flock of starving peacocks, they stand about the courts on tiptoe, biting their fingers and waiting for the dishes to cool. Others keep their gaze fixed on some revolting mess of meat till it is ready."
But the common man of Rome and the rest of Italy lived on little more than bread, olives, a few vegetables such as chickpeas and broccoli, and, when available, meat. Landowning farmers enjoyed an additional bounty, especially eggs and fruits, perhaps even some animals for slaughter. The Roman legions marched down paved Roman roads on a diet of grains of oats, wheat, barley, and spelt, in the form of porridge and bread, along with a little meat. Everyone drank wine, usually cut with water. (By the end of the first century, aqueducts were providing Rome with 50 gallons of water per capita per day.)
Trade also brought different elements to the cuisine of the Italian peninsula. The seaside cities like Genoa, Venice, Naples, and Palermo grew wealthy both from importing and exporting food, especially spices. Wine and olive oil was shipped around the Mediterranean from Italian vineyards. In the interior of Italy inns lined the roads that were built throughout Italy to ensure the easy movement of merchants. By the time Rome had grown into an omnivorous empire, the universal taxation of conquered people and the import of spices from as far away as India brought untold wealth to the capital. Still, given their expense, such exotica as cinnamon, saffron, ginger, and coriander was available only to Rome's wealthiest citizens.
* * *
The disintegration of the empire in the fifth century led to the corruption of Roman law, the reversal of great advances in Roman agriculture and irrigation, and the closing off of well-established trade routes. Further, with the onset of the Dark Ages, most Europeans would endure five hundred years of food shortages and a diet that was barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, consisting mostly of grains and vegetables. Famines were frequent and long; chronic wars interrupted trade routes, and starving one's enemies by destroying foodstuffs or blockading whole cities was standard military policy.
The Black Death, or the bubonic plague, which probably began in China in the 1330s, reached Florence in 1348 and spread from there throughout the Western world, killing between one-third and two-thirds of the population. The vestiges of this epidemic did not entirely disappear from Europe until the nineteenth century. Towns were breeding grounds for disease, and food was also scarce in urban settings; for while they provided protection of food stores and granaries for its citizens, food was not produced there and merchants in town could sell only what was brought in from the country, and that was usually scarce. Almost all food, especially vegetables, was expensive for the peasants, with the exception of bread. Vegetable crops were dependent upon local farmers' ancient agricultural practices, which were unimproved for millennia, and crops were prone to failure.
Central markets were established within the city walls and became, after the church, the social center of the populace. Feast days, akin to the Roman idea of tamping down popular discontents with "bread and circuses" (minus the slaughter of Christians), were established by the church as a way both to maintain the people's link to their religion and to allow for a display of excess now and then, so that the extra expenditure on a little frying oil or honey was geared to a saint's holy day, and the killing of a pig was license to drink a little more wine than normal, as long as every part of the pig was eaten or preserved.
Otherwise, the church preached frugality in extremis. In the monasteries, monks had vegetable and herb gardens, but largely they depended on the local farms and towns to provide their sustenance, except for the mendicant orders, which depended entirely on begging. Not until the sixth century, when the Benedictines changed the rules for monks' diets, were they allowed to eat two meals a day; prior to that, monks subsisted on a single meal of porridge, dried biscuits, and little else. Still, only one meal was allowed on fast days, which could number at least two hundred per year.
As ever, the aristocratic courts had access to the best food and wine, and, except for the absence of slave girls, medieval banquets were not much less extravagant than those of ancient Rome. The rich, called the popolo grasso (fat people), ate meat in great quantities, eschewed fish except on fast days, and adored game dishes, so that the nursery rhyme about four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie was not far from the kind of dainty dishes actually set before the king.
The popolo grasso were also the main consumers in the lucrative spice trade. Spices, though extremely expensive, still made their way to European cities and made the merchants who sold them rich. Venice and other Italian port cities were strategically important at the onset of the Crusades in 1095, the original aim of which was to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. The church's success in rousing the populace of Europe to arms was based on religion, but the wars also offered cities, nobles, and merchants new opportunities for territorial and mercantile expansion, while liberating the poor from their wretched state in life. By the time the Crusades ended, with the Christians' abandonment of Acre in 1291, Europe had gained access to Arab culture, science, and trade; and since the papacy and Byzantine Empire had been weakened as the nobility and merchant class grew stronger, Italian city-states emerged as the new great powers in the Mediterranean. Venice was the ultimate victor because the city was under the protection of Byzantium and so well situated on the Adriatic. It also was closest to the spice sources and grew rich from its fishing trade and held a monopoly on salt drawn from its own lagoons.
Into this late medieval world sailed Marco Polo, a Venetian who began a remarkable journey in 1271 to reach Kublai Khan's court in China. During his travels, Polo conducted business with and for Khan, visited Southeast Asia and India, ruled the city of Yangchow for three years, and acted as an escort for the Khan of Persia's wife. After fifteen thousand miles of travel over fourteen years, he returned to Venice in 1295 and immediately joined his city's struggle against the port city of Genoa. After being captured, while he was imprisoned for two years, he dictated a memoir of all he had seen on his travels to Asia, a narrative that was to remain the principal account of the Orient for a Western audience until well into the nineteenth century.
Despite its exaggerations and probable falsification of some events, Polo's descriptions of the magnificence of Chinese cities showed Europe still to be in the shadows of the Dark Ages in art, science, architecture, warfare, and gastronomy. He described vast fleets of trading ships bringing spices from the East Indies, and the array of foods and aspects of cuisine that he encountered: exotic and familiar fruits, like bananas, vegetables, different cooking methods, tastes, refined sugar, eating places and three-story wine halls. He was astonished at the size and scope of the fish markets in Hangzhou, which brought seafood 25 miles upriver. Marco Polo could not believe that so much seafood could be sold in a single day.
He also described the passion the Chinese had for noodles, which he compared to the kind of vermicelli already enjoyed back in Italy. The long-discredited myth of Marco Polo's discovering noodles and bringing the idea back to Italy seems to have come from a misreading of one of the myriad corrupted texts that made up what came to be called The Travels of Marco Polo. By the same token, he also commented on the important role of rice in Chinese cuisine, a revelation that would have been far more surprising to Italians, because there was none being cultivated in Italy at that time.
Marco Polo's achievements were spectacular at a time when the world known to Europeans did not extend much beyond Persia in the east and certainly not beyond Portugal in the west. But far beyond dazzling his readers with his tales of adventure and challenging Europeans to learn from the Orient, Marco Polo stoked a raging appetite for foods and spices that could be found only in China, India, and the Indies. Indeed, the high price of spices such as cinnamon, saffron, and turmeric gives the lie to the absurd contention that medieval cooks doused their food with spices because the meat and fish were poor in quality. No one could afford to waste spices on bad meat or fish.
The prospect of unfathomable wealth—not political power, not the extending of the Christian religion—drove that appetite eastward. After Venice vanquished Genoa in the War of Chioggia in 1380, the way east would go through Venice, which acquired the name "La Serenissima." That is, until someone could somehow find a route sailing west.
Even before Marco Polo's return from the Orient in 1295, the project of finding a sea route to India for the sole purpose of obtaining spices had been undertaken by other determined merchants. Brothers Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi left Genoa in 1291 with a ten-year plan to reach India by sailing westward and down the African coast. They never returned, and their fate is unknown.
In 1488, Portuguese nobleman Bartholomew Diaz actually rounded the tip of Africa but was prevented by a mutinous crew from pushing on to India. Finally, in 1498, Vasco da Gama, sailing from Lisbon, reached Calcutta, returning a year later, his hold heavy with Indian spices. His achievement paid off tremendously well for Portugal: within 25 years of his voyage, it had become Europe's principal conduit for Eastern spices and charged exorbitantly for them, effectively loosening Venice's hold on the spice trade.
Six years earlier, however, a Genoese sea captain named Christopher Columbus had sailed under the Spanish flag straight westward in search of the Indies but instead found a New World of unimaginable wealth—not rich with the soughtafter spices of the Orient but far, far richer in foods that led to what became known as the Columbian Exchange. This reciprocity of trade, from Europe to the Americas and back, was truly a revolution. Food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has called it "a long-term structural shift in history [and] one of the biggest modifications ever inflicted by man on the rest of nature" as plants and animals that had developed in isolation for over two hundred million years were suddenly, as of the sixteenth century, "shifted around the world in a convergent pattern." From the New World to the Old came amaranth grain, avocadoes, various beans, bell peppers, blueberries, cashews, chile peppers, cocoa, vanilla, corn, papayas, peanuts, pecans, pineapples, white and sweet potatoes, pumpkins, quinoa, and tomatoes. In turn, the Old World sent to the New apples, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, barley, black pepper, cabbage, carrots, coffee, lemons and limes, garlic, lettuce, oats, millet, olives, peaches, peas, rice, rye, soybeans, sugarcane, tea, and, perhaps most important, wheat.
Europeans also brought bees, chickens, cows, geese, horses, pigs, sheep, and water buffalo to the Americas. Spaniard Ponce de Léon introduced beef cattle to Florida in 1521 and his countryman Francesco Vásquez de Coronado brought them into southwestern America; the Spanish brought hogs to Florida in 1539. Within decades, the gastronomies of both hemispheres were mightily enriched and drastically altered; within three centuries many of the imported foods had become staples in areas where they had been completely unknown.
Excerpted from How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani. Copyright © 2011 John Mariani. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Foreword by Lidia Bastianich
A Plate of Soup Surrounded by Too Many Spoons
The Great Escape
Feeding the Americani
The New Way of the Old World
The Good, the Bad, and the Delicious
Il Boom and La Dolce Vita
From Dago Red to Super Tuscan
Coming to a Boil
A New Respect
No More Excuses
Flash in the Pan