Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for food. Few things make me happier than when I’m chopping vegetables, stirring a risotto or kneading dough in my kitchen. I’m always looking for new things to make and, as a result of this constant search, I have a ridiculously large cookbook collection. Most people who know me would probably describe me as the archetypal ‘foodie’. Yet I do feel uneasy and unable to use some of the clichés that are often used to describe the food and cuisine of Italy, the land of my ancestry and readoption. The stories my nonni and in-laws often retell of monotonous diets and periods of hunger from their youth are simply too much at odds with the idyllic fantasies that the country’s food industry is fond retelling (and marketing!) about the cucina della nonna (‘Granny food’) and cucina povera (‘peasant’ or ‘poor cuisine’) of yesteryear. In my family’s stories, peasant tables hardly groaned with a bounteous supply of food. Yet, many young Italians now say that returning to the ‘poor cuisine’ of the past is the perfect medicine for combatting their current post-industrial society’s health, economic and environmental problems. Karima Moyer-Nocchi’s new book, Chewing the Fat: an oral history of Italian foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita, is a fascinating and necessary corrective to this romanticised image of Italian foodways before the country’s post-war economic boom. Consisting of interviews the Umbria-based American food historian conducted with women (that is, the very nonne or ‘grannies’ concerned) who lived during Italy’s Fascist era, the book provides us with rare first-hand accounts about a chapter in Italian social and culinary history that is in danger of being forgotten. Moved by the narratives of these nonogenarians, I contacted Moyer-Nocchi for an interview. Here is what she had to say about herself, the discipline of food history and what she learned from her interviewees about Italian foodways during il ventennio fascista.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to live and work in Italy.
I had worked in the Toledo Opera in Ohio, where I grew up and did all my schooling. That was when I thought Italians whistled arias in the street, and biked home with crusty loaves of bread under their arm. I studied Italian as part of my MFA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, after which I went to Italy for what I thought it was going to be a two or three year experience, and I ended up staying. I have now lived in Italy for 27 years, and taught at the University of Siena for 20 years.
What sparked your interest in food and food history?
One of my fondest memories is when I got my first cookbook. I was in first grade in elementary school, and I thought the book was so magical. Food was about alchemy, and love, and feeling safe.
Do you like to cook? Would you describe yourself as a ‘foodie’?
We food scholars have an ongoing debate about that word. Some don’t mind it, others think it’s an abomination. My personal position is not that the word is intrinsically negative, but I don’t find an appropriate descriptor for my relationship with food. I am interested in the implications of food from a sociological, anthropological, political, historical, and practical point of view. I would not call it a passion, an interest, or a hobby. It is where I apply my intellectual industry. Words that end with the phonetic sound “ee” have diminutive connotations, like cookie, brownie, sweetie. It’s the sound we use you imply cuteness, and no, that I don’t identify with.
What was your motivation for writing Chewing the Fat?
The spark for writing this book came to me one day while I was out running. I am a runner and while I run I listen to food podcasts, which may seem like a contradiction in terms. Often, far too often, reporters made reference to older people, to “grandma”, but it seemed to me that no one was actually talking to grandma. Secondly, the Italian version of what is referred to today in Food Studies circles as “Big Food”, was very tightly bound to the Nostalgia Industry, which sold not only industrially manufactured products but also dreams – the dream of yesteryear, of simple abundance, a time when life was good and pure. Anyone who had studied Italian food history knew that this painted an inaccurate picture of Italy’s culinary past. Invented traditions play an important role in binding together a society, in forging a common identity based on historical continuity and national pride. But when there were people still living, whose experiences were swept under the rug wholesale because of the regime under which they lived, and Big Food had step in to fill in the gaps, that is when I felt that something needed to be done to bring the voice of the past into the public forum. Italians today underestimate how important this chapter in culinary history is to the creation of what would later be called Italian cuisine. Everyone wants to look back to Artusi as some sort of golden age of Italian food, but that too is an effort to sidestep the Fascist era.
Your book is made up of interviews with women who lived during the Fascist era. What do you feel readers can learn from oral history that they cannot from a more conventional historical text about the period?
Let’s imagine history as a coin with two sides. The oral historian approaches her subject with a premise: it is the investigation into a social phenomenon or event that seeks to shed light on the past, present, and future. In this case, my quest was to elucidate how the foodways of the fascist era differ from what we like to think we know about Italian food, and to show, by comparison, how food lore has been repackaged. I use oral histories to construct a sort of mosaic. I’ve chosen women from all walks of life, both geographically and socioeconomically speaking. With each narrative the reader watches the reconstruction of the past. Each voice adds to the other another dimension by the reaffirming or contrasting what has already been said. Oral history provides more than dates, names, and events. It brings a history of colour and texture; it recounts not only personal truths of what happened in the past, but also how they feel about that past now, with the benefit of hindsight.
What kind of foods did a mezzadro (the Italian word for sharecropper) subsist on? How did their diet differ from their padroni or noble families in the countryside?
This varied from area to area, and situation to situation. The northern cascina, the central podere and the southern latifondo all operated in different ways. What can be said about situations in which the peasant farmers were more than just field hands is that one intended to sell whatever one could, and to get a good price you sold your best quality product. Peasant farmers were parsimonious to the bone. The pastoral fantasy that we (including Italians) are fiercely attached to is that of the table groaning with a simple but fabulous array of goodness. The most common daily scenario was a starch staple (what we like to call “carbs” now) of pasta, beans, polenta (of various kinds), and/or potatoes accompanied by foraged foods or garden vegetables. But I don’t want to paint the romantic picture here of the much beloved “cucina povera”. This was a repetitious diet of the same food day in, day out. Meals were not abundant; everything was carefully measured so that the family might get through the year.
As well as recounting what their lives and diets were like, the women you interviewed cooked dishes for you and contributed a recipe from the era. What kind of dishes did they prepare?
Whenever it was possible I asked before the interview if we might be able to prepare a dish together from the era, something that reminded them of home from that time. I ate a lot of water and bread based soups, or flour, water and milk concoctions. In the case of Vera, for example, her family in a small town in Tuscany ate mostly beans and cabbage and so she made the famous crostini neri (Tuscan canapés) because there was nothing from her own past that she would have wanted to make for me. Others felt a fond attachment to the dishes, however paltry they might seem to our modern palate. Celestina, for example, made a soup of water, chunks of old bread, a knob of butter (very rich for the time!) and one egg – enough for four people. She said that she still makes that bread for herself every now and again.
One thing that surprised me a lot from your interviews was the widespread use of lard as a cooking fat, even in regions that we generally associate with olive oil production. Could you tell us more about this and the importance of the pig in the domestic economy?
Many if not most families raised a pig, which went entirely into making salumi to last out the winter. People did not eat roast pork like they would rabbit or chicken. And we must remember here that we are talking about pre-refrigeration times, so having a storable protein source was important. Equally important was the fat, which was used not only for cooking, but also for household purposes. When they split open the pig, the first thing they did was look to see how much fat there was.
Why do think lard has fallen into disuse in Italy? I’ve yet to try cooking with it myself, but I’ve heard it’s delicious and makes for excellent bugie and pasta frolla. I even came across an article claiming that it’s healthier than butter.
Anyone reading this blog will have grown up in the age of saturated fat aversion. Any way you slice it, fat is a bad word for anyone born after WWII. We cut it off our steaks and chops, we select lean cuts, we skin our chicken. Cooking with lard, well, that is spitting in the wind. The events that transpired to bring this about are fascinating, and as we are discovering now, they were the result of ambition and bad science. And the sideways sneer goes to the Americans. I refer you to this link which will explain the background in a nutshell. The fact is that today, we don’t know how to cook with lard or minced fatback, whereas once, being the cheapest cooking fat available, it was the most widely used.
I was also surprised to learn that coffee-loving Italians have only been drinking ‘real’ coffee in large numbers since the post-war period. Could you tell us more about what Italians used to drink before ‘real’ coffee began being consumed en masse?
Food is embedded in a sociological context. It is culture and identity. This dates back to ancient times when there’s started to be a division between those were the main producers of food and those were the main consumers of food. Ironically, perhaps, producers got the short end of the stick. Humankind puts food on a culinary hierarchy. I do not use past tense here because it is still something that holds true. In this case, drinking a black, bitter, watery hot beverage, particularly to punctuate the morning hours, is an imitation of the upper classes who could afford and had access to real coffee. There were many surrogate coffees, which I cover in my book, but again the point was making something similar to coffee as possible. An interesting case in point is Giuditta who says that she had never heard of anyone she knew ever having had real coffee. She herself had not tried it until 1956, about when the coffee bar explosion took place in Italy.
Your book contains an informative and thought-provoking aside about the Mediterranean Diet. Could you tell us a little bit about this?
The Mediterranean Diet leviathan is the offspring of American Ancel Keys’ highly flawed studies carried out in an effort to find the cause of the cardio-pathologies that were supposedly plaguing the modern world. Again I refer you to this link. The Mediterranean Diet is a highly profitable conceptual product. It has snowballed out of control and become a commercial behemoth, a source of cultural pride, as well as a panacea diet. Italian cuisine, in all its regional and historical manifestations, is not the Mediterranean Diet. Italian cuisine is changing to mirror the MD, but the discrepancies are many. In my book I briefly deconstruct the MD as it relates to Italian culinary history and discuss the impact it has had on Italy. Many Food Studies scholars, from nutritionists to historians like myself, are working to put this into perspective, but because of the combined affective and economic investment in it, it is difficult to harness.
How did the women you interviewed feel about Mussolini and the Fascist government?
I was surprised to find that there was not a general negative consensus about Mussolini or the fascist reign. Some were fiercely against, while others spoke in defence of the regime and the good it did for Italy. The prevalent thought was that the fascist era was a time of order. You knew what was what. You knew what the rules were and what the consequences were. There was a feeling that people respected and helped one another in a way that they don’t see happening now. This was not said with an air of romantic nostalgia, but with sadness for the direction that Italy took when things “got better.” It is an Italy that grew and changed so quickly that they became a lost generation.
What was Fascist Saturday? Until reading your book, I had never heard of it.
Fascist Saturday was the precursor to the better known Hitler Youth. It is said that the term totalitarian was coined for Mussolini’s brand of governance; it reached into schools, the church, and even structured the populace’s free time. Fascists Saturday prepared boys for war, girls to be obedient and physically fit wives and everyone to blindly follow fascist policy.
Could you tell us about how Mussolini and Fascist propaganda made a virtue out of autarchy and going hungry?
Mussolini was not a hypocrite in desiring the people to embrace parsimony as a national duty. He suffered from gastrointestinal disorders and was a very frugal eater himself. His dream of national self-sufficiency was not going to be possible without the consensus of women who embraced thrift and privation as an expression of patriotism. This is when the middle classes began to value and recognise Italian food, whereas in the 19th-century French food reigned supreme. And herein lies the heart of the matter when Italians began to see themselves as Italians, and not only recognise but exalt the culinary possibilities around them.
And what did the women you interviewed have to say about the abundance of food available in Italy today?
Certainly the answers varied, but most said that Italian food today is not recognisable to them as such. They feel disoriented in supermarkets, uncomfortable in restaurants, they don’t know what to order and when the food arrives they don’t necessarily know what it is. They appreciate that no one is hungry, not like they were before. But even hunger is relative because in the generation that preceded theirs, people died of starvation, and that rarely happened in their day. People were hungry, and filling their stomach day in and day out was a constant concern for many. This resulted in malnutrition or substandard nutrition, which had consequences, often fatal, of its own.
I thought I’d conclude this interview with a question about Renata, whose recipe for pomodori al riso con patate inspired my interpretation of the dish below. Feisty and no-nonsense, she made the following matter-of-fact observation: ‘You can’t really talk about cooking well, or even good food until you get pretty well into the 1950s. You can only talk about making do with what little there was. Some people were better at it than others. If you found something edible you cooked and ate it. End of story’. Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances of Renata’s youth in the San Lorenzo area of Rome? What was the other (‘lean times’) dish she prepared for you?
Renata was one of the interviewees who most affected me. Her determination to overcome the conditions of her upbringing was inspiring, and yet there was an unmistakable sadness about her even when she smiled. Not only was her youth fraught with difficulties, she had also lost her youngest son when he was 22, after which she decided to leave Rome forever and retreat to the countryside.
When you mention San Lorenzo to almost any Italian, it immediately evokes connotations of poverty and hardship. It is one of the newest parts of the city centre, having been built in the mid-1880s just outside of the city walls. It was constructed in haste, and intended to house the lower classes and the poor, for which not much attention was paid to the quality of the housing or infrastructure, and consequently the buildings quickly became derelict slums. Remember that it wasn’t until 1870 that the last holding of the Papal State fell and Rome became the capital of Italy. As the seat of government, the population of Rome rose steadily. It became a destination for dignitaries and fortune seekers of all kinds, hence, it was necessary to set up an out of the way quarter for the “riff-raff”. During the fascist era, it was known as an anti-fascist hub and was subject to police raids, though the residents themselves were a force to be reckoned with. When the close of the war was eminent, it was targeted by the allies because of the nearby railway depository. Renata talks about the terror and confusion of that moment because Italians didn’t know who to run from at that point, the Americans or the Germans. Later, as happens, a monument was erected for the 1,674 victims from the San Lorenzo quarter who died during the bombing.
While I was with Renata, we made stuffed tomatoes, because in Renata’s case, as was true with Vera, and Giulia, there wasn’t really anything that they felt was worth eating from their own past, though they were proud of the local food that others could afford that they partook in now and again. She told me about other ways that they managed to eat by making use of peels, cores, pods and other food bits that one might, in other circumstances, have discarded. One of those, which was a relatively well-known stopgap solution, was the pea pod soup, which is described in her narrative. At a certain point in the early 40s, even the magazine La Cucina Italiana, normally for the middle class housewife, really lowered the bar and included those recipes that made use of every last scrap of food. Even crumbs were carefully swept off the table to be reused.
Pomodori al riso con patate (Rice-stuffed tomatoes with potatoes)
Inspired by Renata’s recipe[i] for times of plenty
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
- 10 round medium to large tomatoes
- 250 g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
- 1 small bunch basil or parsley, finely chopped
- 100 mL olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 kg potatoes
Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Cut tops off the tomatoes. Hold tomatoes above a bowl and scoop out their pulp, seeds and juice so they fall inside. Sprinkle salt inside the hollowed tomatoes and then turn them upside down on a plate or clean tea towel so their excess liquid is drained away. Pass the tomato insides through a food mill or process with a blender. Add the chopped garlic, herbs and olive oil to the tomato puree. Season with salt and pepper, stir and set aside. Turn tomatoes over and distribute the rice evenly in the insides of the tomatoes. Pour the puree on top of the rice mounds ensuring that the tomatoes are almost but not completely full. Wash, peel (no need if using new potatoes as I often do in summer!) and chop the potatoes into 2-3 cm sized cubes. Toss the cubes in the remaining puree ensuring they are thoroughly coated. Arrange the tomatoes in a large tray with their caps on top. Place the potatoes around the tomatoes ensuring that the tomatoes are well-supported. Cover with foil and place in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake in the oven for another 30 minutes or until the tomatoes have shrivelled noticeably and the rice and potatoes are cooked. Leave to sit for at least half an hour before serving.
[i] I was also inspired by Rachel Roddy’s version of this dish from her cookbook, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome.