To Italy with Amore
A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.
I've been busy creating my 2006 Gourmet Gift Guide. Through a couple of coincidences, I discovered a company that specializes in tours of Italy for food and wine enthusiasts. It came on the heels of my watching the new PBS show Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie. (as an aside: if you want to see opinionated food lovers debate the signifcance of the word "Foodie", check out Chow.com - Oy.)
The episode we last caught with TiVo included the Home Food movement in Italy. An article I found on this phenomenon begins "All Italians remember fondly the delicious, comforting dishes of childhood cooked by their mothers, grandmothers, or other relatives." This movement began as a way to preserve the home cooking and regional cooking that Home Food Italy originators feared were disappearing. It's a fascinating and moving portrait of the (mostly) women home cooks, "Cesarine" cook in their traditional, regional fashion for total strangers in their own home kitchens.
The Naked Truth
Another insight into Italians and their passion for their food came from Jamie Oliver. In his new show (and now you think all I do is watch TV, not true!) Jamie's Great Escape, he visits various towns in Italy in an attempt to get him out of a funky, uninspired mood he's been in. First aired in the UK last year, it's now airing on various PBS stations in the States. It's quite fun and entertaining. You are also unable to get away from the absolute truth of the quote above. Jamie comes up against it regularly. Whether he's in Tuscany, a tiny island off the coast of Sardinia, or the monastery in a region called Marche.
He's most dejected when he visits a monastery that's known to have the oldest herb garden in Italy and finds the monks eating tinned veggies and meals that he compares to the school lunches he's worked so hard at eradicating in the UK.
I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the show, but suffice to say I was nearly moved to tears by the power of food, of sharing the preparation and enjoyment of a meal together. It's well worth looking for this episode.
So we say Arrivederci Italy
In April, Gourmet Magazine's editor Ruth Reichl, says "Arrivederci Italy" and shares a fun story of her college days, following boys on Vespas to their home for dinner. And yes, there's a happy ending to the story. She learned that what Americans think of as "Italian" is really thought of in regional terms in Italy. Campania, Basilicata, Sardinia, Emilia-Romagna, Trentino-Alto Aldige, Sardinia and so on. Her story ended, with her request that her host tell his Nonna how grateful Ruth was to have "Finally tasted Italy." And then, with Nonna scolding her to remember it's not Italian food, but food from Campania. It's a beautiful story whose theme is echoed in each of these other stories.
Regina Schrambling, AKA Gastropoda, writes a letter from Italy also on Epicurious.com. While she's enjoying a rapturous plate of gnocchi, all the Italians with whom she is dining are arguing about what's wrong with the dish which they insisted she get. Then one friend laughed and said: "You get three Italians, you get three different versions."
Have a little Faith
The Epicurious site contains a fantastic primer on regional Italian cuisine, called Getting the Boot by Faith Willinger — cookbook author, cooking school instructor, and Florence resident. It is well worth a look.
Home cooking - Underground Movement Afoot Here
I have enjoyed cooking for people in my home and recommend it often, as you might have picked up by now. My Orphans' Refugees' and Procrastinators' Thanksgivings
are also testament to this.
An interesting trend that began in the power of this idea is the so-called "underground restaurants." (See the LA Times Nov. 8) Ghetto Gourmet, Sub-culture dining, Hidden Kitchen are some of the names. The phenomenon includes groups of friends and/or strangers, some are bound by ethics such as "sustainable harvests," some have credos, and call themselves racy names like "pirate factions." Sometimes there are active, ex- or would-be chefs involved. At it's core is the notion that sharing a meal in someone's home, maybe even with strangers, can be so much more of an adventure than dining in a restaurant.
My challenge to you
Why not get a few friends together and say "Arrivederci Italy and Ciao Campania!" (Feel free to fill in the region of your choice.) Enjoy a meal and begin your own culinary, virtual tour of Italy. You could have a regional potluck, with people bringing a dish from their assigned region. How "much of a "pirate faction" you become is up to you.
- Salumeria Italiana in Boston's North End.
- Epicurious - See especially Faith Willinger's column. Or check out her book, Eating in Italy.
- Gourmet Magazine if you have April, in print.
- Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie website, I think Italy is episode three.
- Home Food Italy the site includes links and information.
- A new blog, Delicious Italy.