Recent Reads on Italy and Cooking

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The oranges of the island are like blazing fire
Among the emerald boughs
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers
Who have spent the night crying
-Abd ar-Rahman, Sicilian-Arabic poet
from The Land Where Lemons Grow

I haven’t been cooking a lot of Italian food lately (though, I assure you, that will change soon!) but I have been doing some reading on Italy and cooking which I thought I would share with you.

I started the summer reading Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks. I was initially drawn to this book because Nick and I are planning to go to Sicily next year and I wanted to learn more about public transportation on the island. Parks is a professor and British expat who has been living in Northern Italy for over 30 years. I figured if anyone had a good perspective on travel in-country, he would, functioning both as a participant and an observer. Parks uses the rail system in Italy, full of archaic rules and regional idiosyncrasies, as a means of better understanding Italy’s infrastructure, history, and people. I learned pretty quickly that my romantic notion of Italian train travel is exactly that – romantic and not realistic – though train travel is not without its charms.  I was surprised to find that some of Parks’ descriptions of travel in Sicily reminded me of my experiences with transportation on another, often misunderstood, island – Cuba.

Next, I read Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/owner of Prune, in New York City. Though not specifically about Italy or Italian cooking, there are several long passages devoted to Hamilton’s summer vacations with her husband’s family in Puglia and of her encounters in an Italian kitchen – both good (simple, seasonal food prepared lovingly) and bad (her mother-in-law’s habit of keeping day-old food unrefrigerated in cabinets). This book was gifted to me by my dear friend Meredith who thought I would appreciate Hamilton’s story (she briefly attended Hampshire College) and culinary career. Hamilton’s descriptions of food and cooking are evocative and allow the reader to experience her joys and frustrations in the kitchen. I especially enjoyed her recollection of childhood in rural New Jersey – the people, moments, and meals which sparked her fascination with food and launched a career.

I’m currently reading The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit by Helena Attlee. Some may assume that this subject is terribly dry and boring but that couldn’t be further from the truth! Atlee traces the prominent role of citrus throughout Italy and its social, cultural, and economic impact in a thoughtful way. She gives just enough detail (scientific classification, specifics on cross-pollination) without overpowering the more poetic, expressive passages. Throughout, she quotes writers, philosophers, artists, and aristocrats – all of whom have ruminated on Italian citrus. She also includes old recipes for citrus-infused dishes and starts every chapter with a map of the part of Italy she’s referring to. It’s very helpful for someone who’s not so great with geography! Finally, her book reinforces my belief that Sicily (arguably the jewel in the Italian citrus crown) is a great destination for someone who loves food and history.

Lastly, I’ll finish with a book I haven’t read yet. It’s a cookbook, entitled Seafood alla Siciliana by Toni Lydecker. I’ve leafed through it but I look forward to reading it more closely. I love that the recipes are listed in standard Italian as well as the Sicilian dialect, accompanied by anecdotes and beautiful photos.

Have you read any great books about Italy and/or cooking? Let me know!

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