May 202013


Wilson, Bee (2012) Consider the Fork: a History of How We Cook and Eat, Basic Books: New York.




This fascinating book traces the history of cooking technology from prehistoric to contemporary times. The author shows that “technology” is far more than the highly sophisticated pieces of electronic equipment that we call that way: it is the very human effort to construct objects and devices to make our life easier and more comfortable. Through the observation of changes in tools we can understand changes in societies and cultures, and we have access to different meanings attached to food preparation and consumption through time and geography (for example, the appearance of labour saving devices in Europe goes hand in hand with the disappearance of servants; forks, knives and spoons tell us about construction of individualized bodies, body management and table manners).

The book starts by asking which technology lies behind what we eat: making a simple omelette for breakfast is possible only thanks to the abundant technology that humans have built around food and that we often take for granted. Although a multitude of new objects are now available to us, the most fundamental inventions in human history (pots, knives, grinders and so on) are still there for us as our common cooking landscape: our kitchens are filled with the ghosts of past inventions and innovations that not only allow us to prepare delicious food, but testify social and cultural change through time, our changing attitude towards danger and risks, the different roles of women and servants, economic and family structures and so on.

The eight chapter of the books are divided into thematic sections: ‘Pots and Pans’, ‘Knife’, ‘Fire’, ‘Measure’, ‘Grind’, ‘Eat’, ‘Ice’, ‘Kitchen’. The fascinating chapter on pots and pans, for example, traces the history of cooking vessels showing that boiling, one of the most prosaic human cooking activity, has actually been a real adventure for humans. From the usage of mussel shells and turtles to animal stomachs, from the invention of pottery to experiments with metallurgy, the use of pots allowed cooking to become a refined and subtle business for the first time. Most cooks from the Bronze Age had to make food with one single-pot, the cauldron: its content was usually repetitive, (mostly soups) and did not allow for much subtlety in cooking experiments. The cauldron was at the centre of human domestic landscape, hanging on the fire or standing on a three-legged stand, constantly repaired, and not always properly cleaned: we can understand the centrality of the cauldron in societies by looking at its constant presence in folklore stories, in magic rituals, in paintings and drawings


In antiquity the Romans (who were the inventors of the patella) had a variety of pans and pots for different uses, but with the fall of the empire cooking tools went back to basic. In the XVII-XVIII  Century the batterie de cuisine in European aristocratic houses multiplied in an extraordinary multitude of objects, with the urge to give every ingredient its own specific vessel.


Through time, many scientists and inventors tried do design the “perfect pot”, experimenting and using different materials: copper, glass, silver, cast-iron coated in a vitreous enamel glaze, Pyrex, Teflon. Each material has it pros and cons, and each has been first welcomed as revolutionary before it became “business as usual”. The author, having traced the different uses of a multitude of materials talks about the constant search for the “perfect pot”:

“The ideal pan—like the ideal home—does not exist. Never mind. Pots have never been perfect, nor do they need to be. They are not just devices for boiling and sauteing, frying and stewing. They are part of the family. We get to know their foibles and their moods. We muddle through, juggling our good pots and our not-so-good ones. And in the end, supper arrives on the table; and we eat.”


 The chapter on fire traces the history of ovens and roasting techniques, beginning with the reflection that in our world fire has been progressively closed off and we do not have anymore the desires and the resources to cook on an open fire (unless we are in very specific circumstances, like camping). In modern kitchens fire has been tamed and boxed off and we forget that it exist at all, but the relationship with fire (lighting it, maintaining it, guarding it), its smokes and its dangers has been central to people’s daily activity, and still is in different parts of the world, sometimes with negative consequences on human health and environmental pollution.

The interesting chapter on grinding techniques (from the mortar and pestle to the Vorwerk Thermomix) ends with a thought-provoking question. Thanks to gas, to electricity, to modern kitchen architecture and sophisticated electronic appliances many people now spend less time and effort in the provision and preparation of food. Have these machines really saved us from labour? The author says that it is maybe only an illusion: alone, in our kitchen, we might feel entirely emancipated, because all we see is a pile of ingredients and a machine ready for us. Maybe we have only externalized, and not put to an end, that labour that until recently was part of daily cooking activity, with its toil, hardship and fatigue. That human labour has not disappeared, although we may not see it and we do think about it: the labour of invisible hands that work in the vegetable and fruit fields, in the meat factories and fish industries, the labour of the workers who assemble our modern kitchen robots in developing countries.


This great book is though provoking, well informed, and a pleasure to read. EA



 Posted by on May 20, 2013
Jun 042012
Still Life by Caravaggio

Food historian Heather Ruiter recently posted a draft copy of her forthcoming essay on prenatal food in Renaissance Italy. Basing her research on Michele Savonarola’s Ad mulieres ferrarienses, Ruiter examines the sixteenth century author’s recommendations for pregnant women, comparing them to what modern medical science recommends. Particularly interesting is a passage in which Savonarola recommends drinking quench water (i.e. the water in which smiths quenched hot metal). Ruiter hypothesizes that the water then had a higher iron content, a thesis that she promises to test in the future (a tantalizing question). A short but fascinating essay that has much good information on Galenic prescriptions.   ZN

The paper is downloadable here.

May 082012

The stereotype of the Neapolitan and papal economies as stagnant under alternating policies at once too laissez faire and then too controlled is one widely disseminated in the years following Italy’s unification in 1860. In a recent article, Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro contests that characterization by following the story of the intervention of the papal states to invigorate fishing on the Tyrhennian Sea. Tracing the story through various archives, the author describes eighteenth papal authorities carrying out a complicated plan to construct a number of trabaccoli, or fishing boats, and man them with fishing families transplanted from the Adriatic shore of Romagna to the coast near Civitavecchia, the principal port of the Papal States. Though the subsidized experiment eventually foundered on the inadequacy of the Adriatic ship on the rougher Tyrhennian seas, as well as a number of administrative and economic problems, it gives a new perspective on the ability apostolic administrators had and the length to which they went to bolster the supply of fish and direct economic intervention.  ZN


The article is unfortunately in Italian, though its abstract is in English.

(Full bibliographic citation: “I trabaccoli pontifici nel XVIII secolo,”  in Pesci, barche, pescatori nell’area mediterranea dal medioevo all’età moderna, Ed. Franco Angeli, Milano 2010, pp. 321-332)

Apr 162012
Slow Food The Case for Taste

Slow Foodists are unlikely to take kindly to this cogent and blistering criticism of the Slow Food movement and its gourmand-chief, Carlo Petrini. Rachel Laudan’s piece on Slow Food is ostensibly a review of Petrini’s 2004 book Slow Food: The Case for Taste, is in fact a history of the (conscious) development of terroir—pointedly referred to as a “strategy”—and what Laudan considers an analogous and to some extent equally vacuous concept, Slow Food’s pithy pseudo-slogan of doing good through eating well. In addition to a thorough explanation of what Laudan refers to as “culinary modernism” (i.e. affordable, varied food for everyone) and its critics (Moore Lappé, Pollan, and Petrini), the author provides a number of examples from Italy’s culinary past. The essay concludes with a pointed attack on the limits of what Slow Food can actually do, reigning in what Laudan sees as gastronomes enjoying themselves with a clear conscience.

“[Gastronomy] took eating out of the public realm and made it a matter of private pleasure. It modestly increased work for cooks, restaurant owners, shop keepers, farmers and gardeners, and tradesman. Of course it tended to breed tiresome snobbery and one-upmanship. But irritating as these traits are, they are not the greatest of human failings.” Laudan contends, though, that arguing that Slow Food will save the world without leaving out the world’s poor is disingenuous. I would add that like the locavore movement, it also misdirects (however well-intentioned the actors are) a lot of energy and thinking towards practices which are inefficient solutions to our problems.

This essay is an excellent reminder that there is no free lunch. Highly recommended.  ZN


The full bibliographic citation is:  “Slow Food: The French Terroir Strategy, and Culinary Modernism.  An Essay Review of Carlo Petrini, trans. William McCuaig.  Slow Food: The Case for Taste (New York: Columbia University Press).  Food Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 7. 2. (2004), 133-144.

 The original essay is available in free pdf format here:


Apr 022012
Carlo Petrini Slow Food

Adrian Peace’s 2008 piece about Slow Food’s Terra Madre event in 2006 is, despite the chronology, quite relevant today. Professor Peace, an anthropologist, attended the gathering in Turin in 2006 and describes it without the wide-eyed excitement of so many observers of Slow Food’s culinary (secular) mass. Peace mentions the standard critique of Slow Food–that it is simply the manifestation of the West’s middle class casting about for both a new means of distinction and some sort of meaning through (invented) authenticity–but goes far beyond it. She analyzes SF founder Carlo Petrini’s shamanic performance, and dissects the notion that artisanal producers are somehow inherently more “sustainable.”. While Peace  notes that “[f]etishizing the dignity of the small-scale producer within the figment of ‘a natural economy’ can easily result int he failure to recognize the indignities and inequalities imposed on numerous others within the narrow bounds of the rural community.” One wishes more anthropologists would turn their gaze towards Slow Food.  ZN

Gastronomica 8, no.2 (Spring 2008):31-39.

Mar 262012

wedding ring in Easter EggFor those of us who love a good food myth, reading Professor Steve Siporin’s article “A Contemporary Legend from Italy” is a chocolately pleasure. This urban legend, collected by the author in Perugia in 2008, relates the story of a would-be groom who has the engagement ring for his would-be fiancée placed inside a dark chocolate Easter egg, which he then gives to his beloved. The woman, who doesn’t like dark chocolate, returns the egg to a local confectioner, who then resells it. A bittersweet ending ensues: another customer finds and returns the ring, but the couple does not take their relationship to the next step.

The beauty of Siporin’s article is the detective work done (the author interviewed journalists who did stories on the supposed occurrence, and even tried to get a comment from the famed Perugian lawyer who had supposedly been involved), as well as the analysis of the tale within the framework of European folktales. An excellent read.

Journal of Folklore Research 45, no.2 (2008): 171-192.

Grazie a Steve Siporin per la copia dell’articolo.

Mar 162012
sheep in italy

It is difficult to find research published in English on sustainable food in Italy, and it’s a happy find especially when the article is a valuable source. This 2006 article’s full title is “Managing sustainable farmed landscapes through ‘alternative’ food networks: a case study from Italy.” Its authors review an intriguing farm scheme from the mountains of Abruzzo, where an entreprising sheep farmer has created an Adopt-A-Sheep program. For €190 annually, you can get several shipments of high-quality raw milk cheeses, invitations to mountain festivals, and the satisfaction that you are helping small farmers high in the mountains maintain livestock traditions (transhumance) that are fast disappearing.

The article itself highlights how enterprising “ecological entrepreneurs” can re-embed economic practices in their traditional context for the betterment not only of the seller, but also of the buyer. This initiative is a sort of community-supported agriculture (CSA) variant, but one that (unlike the agriturimo programs) does not rely on government intervention but rather on direct exchanges with sponsors all over the globe. I am practically allergic to the word “tradition” in the context of Italian food history, but the authors are careful to note that there has necessarily been a (re-) invention of it here to make the entreprise economically viable (e.g. local breeds but adoptions sold over the internet). ZN

The Geographic Journal 172, no.3 (September 2006): 219-229.

Adopt a sheep here.

Feb 132012
garum amphora

This mosaic from Pompeii shows an amphora of "flower of garum," the highest quality sauce.

As Robert Curtis explains, “Garum and its related sauces (liquamen, allec, and muria) suffer from a bad press. The mere mention of these fish sauces, products widely used both as a condiment and a medicine, usually evokes the image of an expensive, ill-smelling product derived from the fermentation of fish.” Curtis goes on to argue that more than likely the smell was no more offensive than modern day Asian fish sauce, or garlic, or Limburger cheese. Drawing on an extensive body of archeological evidence and clever inference, the author shows that while there were different gradations of price (as in, say wine then and today), garum was both widely available and widely enjoyed. De gustibus non disputandum est (One can’t argue about tastes), as the Romans said. An excellent article on the uses of garum and its related fish products, with a full bibliography. The Classical Journal, 78, pp.232-240 (1983).  ZN

Jan 142012

The one hundred and fiftieth year of unification of the Italian peninsula, first under the Savoyard monarchy and after 1948 under a republican constitution, has generated heated discussions in all fields, not the least culinary. We have argued in many posts that the “fame” of Italian food has been relatively recent, and that many of the mythical peasant diets—the so-called Mediterranean Diet and the cucina povera (peasant fare)—are more retroactive inventions than historical “cuisines.” Luckily the Accademia Italiana della Cucina has not fallen into the trap of mythmaking with the objective of unification-through-cuisine, and an able team of scholars from the Accademia has put together an excellent new publication.

This most recent volume, La Cucina nella formazione dell’identità nazionale, 1861-2011 (Cuisine in the Formation of National Identity, 1861-2011), is the first new book anyone interested in Italian food history should add to their shelves this year. The book begins with an overview of Italian food history from the mid-1800s to the present day, including even such up-to-date topics as molecular gastronomy and its place in Italian food culture (I for one had no idea there had been a Manifesto della cucina molecular italiana). The volume then proceeds with an in-depth treatment of each of the Italians regions and their contributions to the national cuisine of today, as well as noting where some of these traditions have been relegated to museums. The bibliography is both extensive and excellent. A personal note related to my research: while the book gives geography as the reason for Umbria’s unsalted bread, it does (rightly) regard the Pizza Margherita story of 1889 as an urban legend.  (Accademia Italiana della Cucina, 2011)  ZN