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Food and Culture in Europe – Part II

Food and Culture in Europe – Part II

The Culture of the Fork – A brief history of food in Europe by Giovanni Rebora (Translated by Albert Sonnenfeld; Columbia University Press, 1998)

Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History by Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari (Translated by Aine O’Healy; Columbia University Press, 2003)


Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food by Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban (Translated by Antony Shugaar; Columbia University Press, 2002)

When the subjects of tableware, eating in France, or the Medici family come up my wife Paola never fails to mention that Caterina de’ Medici introduced the fork to the French in 1533 when she married Henry II, the future King of France. The implication, of course, is that this gift allowed French culture and civilization to flourish and that without Caterina de’ Medici the French would have continued to eat like barbarians for centuries.

Caterina needed the fork, of course, in order to continue to enjoy Italian pasta in her new homeland. Have you ever tried to eat spaghetti with a skewer, the original “fork”? Or one chopstick? It’s a little easier with two chopsticks, but with two metal skewers? It’s hopeless! So, as Giovanni Rebora would have us believe, the Italians developed a two-pronged fork in order to spear hot, slippery pasta, including spaghetti and flat noodles, and the fork spread right along with the spread of pasta from the mid-15th century onwards. Caterina de’ Medici was simply part of a process (albeit a necessary one), an agent of cultural diffusion from a geographer’s perspective.

Columbia University Press, under the direction of Albert Sonnenfeld, has produced a series of books called Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History. The series caught my eye, naturally, because of Sonnenfeld’s interest in the history of Italian cuisine. The three volumes I’ve selected for this review represent one-third of the titles in the series.

These three books allow you to delve superficially or deeply into Italian cuisine, depending on your level of interest. Rebora’s The Culture of the Fork: a Brief History of Food in Europe, for example is just that. It makes for easy reading as he offers readers “quick bites” to savor, with succinct essays on grains and bread, the history of couscous, soups and minestrone in the Mediterranean basin, water and salt as essential ingredients in cooking, cheese, meat, and spices. You’ll learn, for example, that meat, especially beef, was quite widespread and inexpensive in Italy in the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance due to the demand for leather goods from cowhide.

Rebora writes of the introduction of sugar cane to the new world by Columbus on his second voyage and uses this – the “sugar route” – to touch on the trans-Atlantic transfer of foodstuffs. Sugar was an old world food cultivated in the tropical parts of Europe, namely the Canary Islands and Madeira. Very quickly it became obvious that the New World provided excellent habitat for the cultivation of sugar. The same eventually became true for other plantation crops such as cotton, tobacco, and rice whereas the initial introduction of staples such as grapes and olives failed.

There was a two-way flow of species across the Atlantic, of course, with hot chili peppers, beans, corn, and potatoes leading the eastward migration. Some caught on quickly while others, like the tomato, were regarded with suspicion and took two centuries to catch on. (For a wonderful essay on the impact of new world plants on the landscape of Italy see Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, Songbirds Truffles and Wolves and my review of it here; see also one of Nabhan’s favorite sources, The Columbian Exchange, Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., Greenwood Publishing, 1972).

More specific in focus, Alberto Capatti’s and Massimo Montanari’s Italian Cuisine: a Cultural History into great detail on the regional history of Italy’s food traditions. This is for the serious student of Italian foods, recipes, and their origins. You’ll find the contributions of the Arabs to Italian food, the adoption and rejection of certain spices, and a brief overview of the origins and varieties of pasta in Italy.

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in this book are those on the “Italian Way of Eating” and the “Sequence of Dishes.” Which tourist in Italy has not been baffled or frustrated by the advisory in Italian restaurant windows or on menus that “full meals only” are served. For an American or a northern European a “full meal” would be a main course flanked by vegetables, perhaps followed by dessert. An Italian, though, thinks of a full meal as a pasta dish (sometimes preceded by an “anti-pasto” – literally “before the meal,” not “before the pasta”), followed by the main course (usually meat or fish), accompanied by vegetables or potatoes, then salad, and, finally dessert and/or fruit. These two chapters will help you to understand this Italian ritual!

Finally, for those of you who really want to delve deeply into Italian cuisine, the third volume in this triumvirate is for you. Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban have written the definitive history of pasta, debunking once and for all the urban myth (started, they claim, by the “Macaroni Journal” of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association) that Marco Polo introduced pasta from China upon his return to Italy in 1295). Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food is actually a serious study of the two major cultures where pasta was adopted as a major part of culinary tradition: Italy and China. It is rendered accessible by a good translation and by a variety of anecdotes and historical vignettes that make it highly enjoyable to read.

Italian academics and Italian publishers have a history of writing and publishing for the general public as well as the academic community. This is quite different from US academics who tend to publish for their colleagues in academe. And while the translations are not always all that one would hope for in the Rebora and the Capatti and Montanari volumes (Shugaar’s, on the other hand, is very good.

We can thank the Italian publishing house, Giuseppe Laterza, for making the work of these five university professors available to the general public and we can thank Columbia University Press for picking these titles up and publishing them in the US.

Part 1 of Rick’s essay on food and Culture in Europe can be found here. His essay contains book reviews and suggested readings about the history and geography of food and eating in Europe. It features reviews of

  • Food in History, Reay Tannahill (first published in 1973 but still a classic) and
  • French Food: On the Table, On the Page, and in French Culture, Edited by Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Stay tuned for Part III: Guidebooks to the foods of Europe in the coming months.