Sunday, January 17, 2010


John Dickie’s Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food is a wonderful romp through Italian history and eating from the late medieval period to the present. He is intelligent and perceptive on both: including the best insight into the failings of the Kingdom of Italy I have read.

Dickie debunks the myth, particularly strong within Italy, that Italian cuisine has its origins in peasant food. The peasants often ate quite poorly, stalked by famine and, at times desperately, gleaning any bit of edible foodstuff from the countryside.

What we think of as “Italian food” is urban food, a series of merging cuisines that began in the cities of Italy operating as centres of trade (and thus ingredients) and concentrations of wealth.

Dickie starts with the late medieval period, because that is when substantial written evidence begins again with the end of the long literary drought after the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. Medieval food used spices because people liked them and they were expensive, so marks of success and status. (He debunks the myth that spices offered any protection against spoiled food.) Sugar was much used (when available) to counteract the salt that was added to so much of the meat to keep it.

The title ‘delizia’ refers to the rural pleasure retreats for the urban elite (p.82). A nice play on words, given the central thesis of the book.

Given how my mind works, it was the social and political details that struck me particularly. Thus Dickie notes that the increased power of the Pope as secular ruler increased Italian share of cardinals, as Italian princes were willing to invest so much in getting Conclave votes (p.117). He relishes telling the very Renaissance story of cardinal del Monte who, admonished by his mother on her deathbed for his numerous illegitimate children, sobbingly promised to give up women and stick to boys. He allegedly boasted that, if elected Pope, he would make his favourite (his monkey-trainer) a cardinal. Which he was and did (Pp117-8).
He was (apart from a very brief Papacy) succeeded by the first of the Counter-Reformation Popes, who confined the Jews of Rome to a ghetto for the first time (Pp123-4). Since the Papacy was the main barrier to Italian nationalism in the C19th, and the Papacy was so avid in repressing Jews, Italian nationalism was free of anti-Semitism: on the contrary, a good Italian nationalist believed in civic equality for Jews. As, however, Mussolini’s regime got closer to the Vatican, the loyalty of Italy’s Jews was questioned for the first time. As the alliance with Nazi Germany developed, things worsened further (p.262).

One of the steps in the initial tightening of the Fascist regime was the press refusing to review the historical biographies of a former Radical politician, who was beaten up and banned from practising law (p.263). The “cold shoulder” tactic is not limited to repressive political regimes: mainstream Australian publishing has been known to act as an ideological cartel, as has book-reviewing in the major newspapers (small dissenting publishing houses have been frozen out of having their books reviewed).

Dickie also gives a nice example of the Christian Democrats handing out regulatory favours (p.297). And an amusing analysis of media scare stories as memetic viruses.

The grim side of Italian cuisine is also covered, such as near-slavery among tomato pickers (Pp309-10). Or how a classic of Italian cuisine was written by an Italian officer who was an Austrian PoW during WWI: the Kingdom of Italy, unlike the other Allied Powers, made no attempt to provide food for its PoWs in the blockaded Central Powers.

Dickie takes us through the importance of culinary books in both providing us with information about elite dining in past centuries and in spreading the concept of “Italian cuisine” to Italians themselves. The great collectors of recipes acted both as recorders of tradition and creators of them.

While Dickie is an insightful and informative observer of Italian history in general, it is his loving descriptions of what Italians ate and why which makes Delizia such a fun work of history.

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