Pamela Sheldon Johns has written one of the finest books on the joys of peasant cooking imaginable: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking isn’t the usual list of recipes you can’t replicate because the ingredients are uber-expensive or not available in your area, it is a fascinating excursion into the mindset of simple country folk in their kitchens, wasting nothing while churning out unimaginably tasty food.
What I’m saying is this: you could cherish this book even if you didn’t cook a single thing from it. It is a book meant to be read, not just propped upon on the kitchen counter and submitted to the indignities of spattering grease. It brims with photos, remembrances, and sound advice. It is nice to hold and to thumb through. You’ll come away with an intimate knowledge of the peasant kitchen and the sturdy folks who occupy those kitchens, the most important room in the house.
Cucina Povera will remind you of the lost cleverness in our throw-away world. Imagine the complicated Venn diagram that could come out of the work of processing chestnuts:
Nothing was wasted; it could be considered the symbol of cucina povera. The nut was eaten fresh or dried and ground for flour; the shells were used for the fuel to dry the chestnuts, the dark, pungent honey from the chestnut flowers was eaten with the fresh local ricotta. The best wood of the tree was used for building barrels, furniture, and hand tools. Lesser-quality wood was used for fencing and posts, then shaved pieces became baskets, and the leftover bits of wood were turned into slow-burning charcoal used in the forging of knives and sharp tools. The fresh leaves, along with old chestnuts and acorns, were used for animal feed, and in the autumn the fallen leaves were used to line the stalls in place of hay, which was used in the paper mills.
A friend introduced me to the concept of “hedonistic sustainability” the other day. It occurs to me that cucina povera is just that. You don’t throw shrimp shells away, you use them because they hold more characteristic flavor than the flesh of the shrimp; you use them to impart flavor back into the dish because that way you can derive more pleasure from it. The same way with onion skins; use them in broth, not just to get rid of them, but they, too, impart more flavor than the edible flesh of the onion. Sustainability should have hedonistic benefits; all the gathering of field herbs the Italians still do isn’t because they couldn’t go and spend a load of money for tasteless industrially-grown herbs, but because field herbs and wild asparagus bring them more pleasure—and, as a hidden benefit, those plants come back year after year, sustainably.
This, I think, is why cucina povera has legs. It’s the way to the sustainable future through simple and tasty food. Books like Cucina Povera will provide the link to the past so that we can return to the place where we made the wrong turn and can continue toward a new and more pleasurable future of good eats—or at least a future of considerably less industrial crap food. We’ll see, but good food is worth fighting for. It’s the stuff of life.
Buy this highly recommended book on Amazon, hardcover or for Kindle: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking.