Saturday, November 2, 2013

Food Is Culture

by David P. Wagner

Author of Cold Tuscan Stone
In the late 1970s I was a young vice-consul in Milan, beginning a love affair with Italy which continues to this day.

As I tell people any chance I get, living in that country changes one’s life.  It makes you look at everything differently, starting with history: Italians are the cynics they are because they’ve seen everything already.  I remember reading an article in a Rome paper about a plan to restrict car traffic in the congested center of the city, and the journalist pointed out that the first politician to decree foot traffic only inside the walls was Julius Caesar.  So no matter what happens, especially in politics, the average Italian knows that it will be nothing new.
But another way Italy changes you is with your relationship with food.  Food is an important part of Italian culture, perhaps – dare I say it? -- more important than art.  Though in fact you could say that it is art.  I remember my business lunches with Italians always started with a serious discussion of the menu, and if I was a visitor in the hinterland, the locals urging me to try some regional specialty.  Italians know their food and they take it seriously. 

Which brings us back to the young vice-consul in Milan.  One time, I don’t remember the year, I found myself traveling to the wonderful city of Parma, which was part of my territory, to represent the consulate.  I had been to Parma many times, always building my schedule around a lunch with some local contact.  Many people,
perhaps me among them, believe that Parma has the best food in Italy, though that debate is better saved for another time.  But we’ve all tasted parmeggiano reggiano, perhaps the best known of Italian cheeses, which takes its name from the city and the region. 

The event I was  sent to was organized by the consortium of parmeggiano reggiano producers to honor the cook book author Marcella Hazan.  Mrs. Hazan was born in a town in the eastern part of Emilia-Romagna, Parma’s region, but lived most of her life in the States after marrying New Yorker Victor Hazan.
The cheese producers were thanking her for promoting Italian food in America, and she certainly did that.  Her  books are, in my opinion (and more importantly my wife’s, since she is the real cook in the family) the best books on basic Italian cooking you can find in English.  After she received her certificate of appreciation, there was of course, a fine lunch.  I still remember that the first course was a classic local dish, tortelli d’erbette, but instead of the waiters serving it from the usual silver platters, it was scooped from hollowed out wheels of parmeggiano reggiano.  I was very impressed.

But the highlight of the lunch was being seated next to the delightful Signora Hazan.  We talked food, of course, though I recall that she just picked at what was put on her plate.  I also remember that even though she lived in the U.S., she was more comfortable chatting in Italian.  She also showed her roots by smoking a lot, but it was the 70s, back when it was not just legal in restaurants but normal.

I was already a fan of her books, but the encounter with Marcella made me get the new ones whenever they appeared.  Sadly, the final one has appeared, since Marcella Hazan passed away in September at the age of 89 at Longboat Key, Florida.   

David P. Wagner lived in Italy for a total of nine years.  His first book, Cold Tuscan Stone, A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery, is published by Poisoned Pen Press.  It takes place in the ancient city of Volterra and involves stolen Etruscan artifacts, intrigue, and murder.  And since David couldn’t just write “and then Rick had lunch,” it includes a few descriptions of Tuscan food.  More information on the author, Italian food mentioned in his book, and Italy, can be found on his website,


Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, David! Your book sounds intriguing. By happy coincidence I'm publishing a murder mystery this month that takes place in Tuscany and Liguria, and of course I describe the food (not quite every meal, but close). And the gelato.

Marcella Hazan introduced me to pesto, and I can't imagine living without it now. How lovely that you had the chance to meet her.

Sandra Parshall said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, David. You've sold me on Marcella Hazan's cookbooks. I'll have to acquire one or two.

Best of luck with your first mystery!

Marina Sofia said...

I did get the chance to read your book, David, and of course I loved the food descriptions. You cannot write about Italy and ignore the food! Great post.

Polly Iyer said...

David, I agree living in Italy changes your life. I lived in Rome for fourteen months in the early 60s, a time when you could walk through the Sistine Chapel without waiting in lines, walk through the Forum and Coliseum. I learned the language, made Italian friends, and loved every minute. I've traveled to many other places, but there's no place like Italy.