The winter holiday season is the time you’re inbox will be inundated with lists of books designed to make you swoon over the immense beauty you might discover on the Italian peninsula. You will not be expected to notice that the landscapes are all made more compelling by human intervention. A picture of the Grand Canyon at sunset devoid of God’s favorite mammals might make you swoon, but a picture of rural Italy will likely be infected with the spirit of humans, even if they aren’t actually depicted, as in this picture of the Abruzzo:
Likewise, we might be faced with a book about Italian food, in which the dish of pasta shown on the cover is suitably adorned with edible flowers or some such frippery, and we are likely to be told that this dish has been dragged out of the murky culinary catchall called “cucina povera” because that’s what we want to hear.
Italians figure in everything. You can’t separate them from the land, or the beauty of the land or from the good eats they’ve created from humble ingredients. But we sure like to ignore their influence. Perhaps it is embarrassing to folks who get their food from vast corporations and who can’t eat Romaine lettuce because the provenience of the poisoned lettuce is hidden or unknown.
Lately, I’ve been reading many new books (and a few older ones) that give the sense of the 20th century disruptions that influenced Italians. Here are the ones I think deserve the attention of thinking folks with a desire to read books about Italy.
We have likely romanticized “the cooking of the poor” to such an extent that we’re willing to believe that every heaping platter of food we pay dearly for at something called an “Osteria” comes straight from a time when most of Italy was mired in poverty—a time few of us know much about. But why not just find some of these folks while they still live and breath and ask them about what it really was like back then? Surviving the 20 years of Fascism required a great deal of intestinal fortitude; the degree of poverty and lack of access to food during the era remains largely unimaginable.
…it was during the fascist reign that the behemoth that would become “Italian cuisine” was conceived and insisted upon as a foundation of national pride. The Oppression, dearth and want that characterized the fascist era were the mother of invention and the springboard that moved the population to vow, like Scarlet O’Hara, that they wouldn’t never be hungry again. It was through the determination of this generation to forge onwards and explore the potential of the bounty the country had to offer that Italian cooking spread its wings to become the most loved cuisine in the world. ~ Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita
Besides the author’s notes, the book is composed of eighteen remarkable oral narratives with recipes for the real cucina povera. It’s likely you’ll not want to make them. The information gleaned from these remarkable women makes the book a treasure.
While we’re on the subject of the 20 years of Fascism, you might be surprised to know that Mussolini got his share of laudatory letters as dictator of Italy, 1500 a day on average. Why not trace them down and set them up against a real timeline?
In fact, why not abandon, even for a second, the simple idea that Mussolini was a hated dictator who magically appears on the Italian historic timeline to reek havoc on life and liberty without so much as a how do you do?
Throughout the 1930s, Mussolini received about 1,500 letters a day from Italian men and women of all social classes writing words of congratulation, commiseration, thanks, encouragement, or entreaty on a wide variety of occasions: his birthday and saint’s day, after he had delivered an important speech, on a major fascist anniversary, when a husband or son had been killed in action.
Author Christopher Duggan presents us with selected letters written to Mussolini by Italian citizens. They’re arranged chronologically so that we can see the how sentiments changed over time. You might be surprised how those writing in the 1920s and 1930s were encouraging for Il Duce, and many seemed to consider him the man who would make Italy great again. Mussolini even sent small amounts of money to those who seemed to be in dire straights until Il Duce could get some traction. As the war changed course in the 1940s, letters arrive attacking the government but, oddly enough, continuing to be in praise of Mussolini.
Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy provides a revealing glimpse into the workings and appeal of a Fascist government.
Calabria, the Other Italy
It wasn’t so many years ago that you could walk into an Italian bar, order a hot tea, and you’d get the default black tea: Earl Grey. Why was this so? How did this guy from somewhere else manage to spook Italians into drinking this specialty tea over all else?
If you’ve already guessed the answer would have something to do with Karen Haid’s Calabria you’d be right. Earl Grey tea reeks of bergamot oil, and bergamot comes from a narrow stretch of land in Calabria…and that’s it.
The exceedingly curious thing about the unusual citrus, however, is that Calabria is the only place where the plant really flourishes. Stranger still is that the area is limited to a narrow stretch of land less than one hundred miles long from Villa San Giovanni to Monasterace in the province of Reggio Calabria. The main area of cultivation is half the size…While the plant can grow in other areas, it cannot grow fruit.
Where else is bergamot oil used? Perfume. It was one of the main components of the original Eau de Cologne, created by Italians living in Germany in 1709 and you can find it today in that bottle of Chanel No. 5 you have lurking on top of your dresser.
And we won’t get into the medicinal uses of this interesting and little known citrus, which are many. Suffice it to say that I find these little stories fascinating and a book full of them quite enlightening. You won’t find much “Go here. Turn Left. Follow the street bordered with palms until you come to the famous art museum where you’ll pay a 12 euro entrance fee to see art that will make you quiver in medieval delight. Calabria, the Other Italy is a guide to the unique stories that make it a compelling place to visit. You can go to the tourist office in 15 minutes and find all the museums you might wish to experience.
That said, there are stories here of places of great interest to tourists, like Reggio’s legendary optical illusion they call Fata Morgana or the Riace Bronzes. But there’s also that trip to the Doctor’s office and other glimpses into typical Italian life. The book is highly recommended if you’re planning a trip to Italy’s south, and especially Calabria, reading this will give you an appreciation of the finer points of culture and geography.