Read to Eat

Start the summer with great food stories and recipes worth a little perspiration

Read to Eat

Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and their Food

by John Dickie
Free Press, 384 pp., $26

We all love Italian food, don't we? And most of us have very specific ideas of what Italian food is, depending on where we've grown up and how susceptible we and our antecedents have been to media and marketing hype. And this, by the way, pertains to modern Italians as much as to the vast numbers of Italian-food lovers in the rest of the world, where Italian food has become, according to the author, "the model to imitate when it comes to making ingredients, cooking them, and eating them." But why is this, and how did it happen?

John Dickie is a historian and Italian studies lecturer at University College London and author of the international bestseller Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia. He knows Italy, and he knows how to convincingly document his research while telling a fascinating story in compelling prose. Delizia! is less a history of Italian food than a history of the relationships of Italians to food. Dickie's first premise is that – contrary to received wisdom – what we think of as the traditional cuisine of Italy was never the food of peasants but was developed in the cities, where well-known links were forged between food and identity: pesto and Genoa, pasta and Palermo, risotto and Milan, mortadella and Bologna, pizza and Naples.

Until the late 19th century, Italy wasn't a country but a collection of city-states surrounded by subservient agricultural territories populated by hungry peasants subsisting on meager, boring, and not very nutritious food. To make his point, Dickie organizes the book into chapters that connect a historical period with a specific city and a particular food, illustrated by the cookbooks and news items of the time. Beginning with the medieval table in Palermo and ending with Carlo Petrini's Slow Food movement in Turin, Dickie's book takes you on an eye-opening food adventure through Italian history. And trust me, after this ride, you'll never again view Italian food in quite the same way.

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