A lively stroll through (mostly southern) European culinary history.
Eskimo languages have 50 words for snow, suggesting an important feature of the cultural and physical landscape. In the same spirit, there are “sixty specifically named Italian words for pork or beef sausage,” to say nothing of the countless ways of naming noodles. Rebora (Economics/Univ. of Genoa) has a fine time touring through the Italian kitchen, pausing here to offer recipes like the kind Christopher Columbus might have enjoyed as a young man (panned partridge from France, lamprey from Portugal, marzipan from the Baltic), there to ponder the history of the fork (which, he tells us, was invented in Byzantium and introduced in the 14th century in Italy, where some clerics viewed it as a “shocking overrefinement”), and there to tease out the origins of local culinary traditions (French settlers brought couscous to Puglia, where it eventually mutated into orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta associated with that far-southern Italian region). All this is far from the usual whirlwind tour of food history found in the frontmatter of many cookbooks, for Rebora packs his text with learned asides on the biochemical and cultural bases for lactose intolerance, with the transmission from one region to another of methods for curing and treating meat (which led to all those Italian sausages, to Serrano ham, to Turkish pasterme, to German würstel, and on and on), and other arcane data. He argues that the image of the European Middle Ages as a time of endemic hunger is wrong: “I believe,” he writes, “that the people mostly had at their disposal adequate food, produce, and goods”—if nothing like the astounding choice that accompanied the exploration of the Americas and Asia.
Nicely balancing recent encyclopedic treatments such as the Cambridge World History of Food, Rebora’s slender volume should be of interest to foodies, cookbook collectors, and historians alike.