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The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food
by John Dickie

Free Press, 2010

This moreish history of the pleasures and failings of La Cucina Italiana follows a millenia of political, social and religious events that led Italian edibles to international fame.

British historian John Dickie effectively debunks the myth that Italian cuisine originated among peasants in rural villages during the Middle Ages.

"Saint Bernard's sauce - hunger - was the most important ingredient in the peasant diet for most of the last millennium. Happily the recipe has now faded from memory," he writes.

It was in the urban areas of Italy, with their wealth and extensive food markets, that Italian cusine came into fruition.

"Italian food is city food. Italy has the richest tradition of urban living on the planet."

Italian food is closely related to its place of origin, according to Dickie, and Italians derive much of their identity from the foods they eat. The act of eating secures the bond of person to place.

Each chapter of Delizia! is a self contained story situated in a single city at a specific time: Palermo, 1154; Venice, 1300s; Ferrara, 1529; Bologna, 1600s; Florence, 1891; Genoa, 1884-1918; Rome, 1954; Turin, 2006. Arranged chronologically, the chapters relate the history of Italy through its foods from the Middle Ages to the present day.

"What urban Italians have done again and again over the past thousand years is use food to create identities for themselves," Dickie points out.

While the larger story of Italy's culinary history is at the heart of this book, it is the little stories about specific foods like pesto and mortadella and pasta and spaghetti and pizza that are the most revealing, and the comparisons of Italy's palate to the eating habits of other countries are deliciously entertaining.

From the Italian point of view, the American diet is "a cornucopia of horrors," according to Dickie. "The gastronomic clash begins over breakfast. In the morning, the Italians gently coax their metabolism into activity with coffee and a delicate pastry. The very notion of frying anything so early in the day is enough to make stomachs turn. So the classic American breakfast is an outrage; among its most nauseating features are sausage patties and those mattresslike omelets into which the entire content of a refrigerator have been emptied. Grits defy belief. And anyone in Italy who tried serving a steak before the early afternoon would be disowned by their family."

Complex, well-cooked and appropriately spiced, this is a satisfying read for anyone interested in food history, Italians or gourmet cuisine.


Italy has become the model to imitate when it comes to making ingredients, cooking them, and eating them together. Some people believe that our health, environment, and quality of life may depend on whether we can learn some of the food lessons that Italy has to offer.
This book is a history of Italy's civilization of the table, rather than just of what Italians put on their tables.

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