The Epic History of Italians and Their Food: Interview with John Dickie


A best-selling British author, historian and academic, John Dickie is an internationally recognized specialist on many aspects of Italian history and his books have been translated into many languages. Best known for his compelling journeys into the history of Italian Mafia (Cosa Nostra: A History of The Sicilian Mafia, 2004; Mafia Brotherhoods: The Rise of the Italian Mafias, 2011; Mafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse. Cosa Nostra, ‘ndrangheta and camorra from 1946 to the Present, 2013), he is also the author of a brilliant book on Italian cuisine, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and their Food (2007), in which he addresses the question that any Italophile, traveller or foodie can’t help but ask: how did the Italians come to eat so well?


LG: As an academic and writer, you are a great connoisseur of Italian culture and history. What led you to explore Italy’s many marvels and unresolved issues?

JD: That’s a very flattering description! I’m one of many UK-based academics who work on different aspects of Italian culture and history–and part of the fun of my job is engaging in dialogue with them, and with Italian colleagues too, about our areas of specialisation. Perhaps the way I can answer is to be autobiographical. I started life, academically speaking, as a linguist: I studied French and Italian at Oxford. Since then, I’ve become much more of a historian. One of the things you learn quickly about history in Italy is that it’s never entirely in the past, for good or ill. Recent attempts by so-called “neo-Bourbons” to call into question the unification of Italy as a terrible thing for the South are just one example. That kind of polemic is typical of the way historians can be drawn into contemporary debate, which is exciting.


LG: In all your books, especially the ones focusing on Cosa Nostra and Mafia Brotherhoods, you always manage to provide valuable insights into the most controversial aspects of Italian culture, without ever falling into stereotyped representations or clichéd views. Where do you find inspiration and source-materials for your books?

JD: Stereotypes are the perfect starting point for a writer in my position, trying to bring academic research to a bigger audience. For example, the stereotype that equates mafia organisations with families, or that assumes they grew out of poverty, or that imagines that all Sicilians share a “mafia mentality”. The reason why such beliefs are interesting is that they aren’t just misconceptions about the mafia, they are misconceptions that are an integral part of the history of the mafia itself. For example, the Sicilian mafia is a criminal organisation that is very carefully designed to exploit family relationships. But mafiosi themselves would often claim, in court for example, that there was no such thing as the mafia-as-organisation, and that they were just members of families who were having a disagreement and wanted to settle it among themselves. In other words, they deliberately spread the mafia-as-family stereotype, which would later be given an epic form in a film like The Godfather. In trying to tell the story beyond the stereotypes, I followed the Italian pioneers of mafia history who simply did what historians in all other fields do: they looked at the available sources. So my sources are trial documents, government papers and inquiries, newspapers of the day, memoirs, and so on.


LG: In your book entitled Delizia! The epic history of Italians and their food, you creatively use food as a means to weave together a compelling history of Italy. You also point out how violence and intrigue, as well as taste and creativity, have shaped the history of pasta, pizza, risotto, salami, pesto, and other world-famous Italian dishes. Can you make some examples?

JD: Pasta is a good example. Maccheroni (to use the term most frequent in earlier eras) first became a food for the masses in Naples in the eighteenth century. There’s a wonderful essay by the agricultural historian (and hero of the resistance against the Nazis) Emilio Sereni, who explains how Neapolitans at that time earned the nickname mangiamaccheroni (“maccheroni-eaters”) which had previously belonged to Sicilians. Essentially, as Naples expanded to become one of the biggest cities in Europe, it needed a cheap and easily transportable foodstuff to supplement a diet that had previously been based on meat and vegetables. New technologies in pasta production, plus investment in the cultivation of durum wheat in parts of the Neapolitan kingdom like Puglia, allowed pasta to meet the need. Travellers soon remarked on the sight of the Neapolitan poor eating maccheroni with their hands in the streets: this became a cliché of Naples that lasted into the twentieth century. But there is a political angle to this story too. The Bourbon King of Naples in the second half of the eighteenth century, Ferdinand, became famous for eating maccheroni with his hands–even in public, at the opera! Some dismissed him as just uncouth, but I think this was actually a smart political gesture to identify himself with the most close-knit and organised element within the Neapolitan masses, the so-called lazzaroni. They became the fiercest supporters of the Bourbon monarchy against internal and external enemies, and they were granted special privileges as a result: like lots of maccheroni! This was a new form of politics for a huge and unruly city that had no precedents in Italy.


LG: One of the most interesting points you make in your book is that the Italian great food tradition has more to do with the cities and urban living than with the much-praised and advertised vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany. Are we trapped in the imagery of Mulino Bianco?

JD: I think so. Most real Italian peasants, rather than the ones in the adverts, lived a hand-to-mouth life of great hardship, and had very little variety or nutritional value in their food. Moreover government investigations after Italian unification showed that many peasants didn’t even know how to cook the little that they did eat. But the image of Italian food as peasant food, as a cucina povera, is another stereotype that has its roots in the history of Italian food itself. A number of things came together to produce that stereotype. The first is the birth of peasant nostalgia. The Mulino Bianco cookie brand, based on the idea that these were somehow rustic cookies, was created in the 1970s, by which time Italy had left its peasant past behind, and motorways and cars had obliterated much of the ancient difference between town and country. Italy is not the only country where consumers love the nostalgic idea that their food just comes straight out of the earth, as natural as can be. At around the same time as the birth of peasant food nostalgia, the idea of the “Mediterranean diet” was really taking root. This was a slogan created by the American epidemiologists Ancel and Margaret Keys. They were the ones who first identified the link between animal fats in the diet, cholesterol in the blood, and high rates of cardiovascular disease. Their international comparative research showed them that the fire-fighters and petty bureaucrats of Naples had much healthier hearts than the businessmen of their home city of Minneapolis. They were so taken with Southern Italy, which they visited on their research trips, that they had a house built for themselves in a village called Pioppi on the Campanian coast. They also wrote cookbooks, to create a life-style that fitted with their research, and they dreamed up the slogan of the Mediterranean diet to sell those books. It worked a treat! And it also extended millions of people’s lives. I recently went down to Pioppi to interview the Keys’s cook, a lovely old lady called Delia, who made me some of the local fusilli and told me some great stories. She’s the one who taught Ancel and Margaret Keys much of what they knew about the Mediterranean diet. But as Delia’s bosses knew very well, the real Mediterranean diet was very different, particularly in the mountainous interior of the South. For example, the real Mediterranean diet was unthinkable without the pig, including its fat. And in the past, much olive oil production in the South was for industry and not for dressing salad. I think another thing that contributes to the creation of the stereotype about Italian food as peasant food is the nostalgia of the descendants of migrants to the United States–but then that’s really part of the history of foodways in the USA rather than Italy.


LG: You also reveal very surprising and little-known details about the history of Italian cuisine. Is it true, for example, that Mussolini championed risotto and early pizzas were disgusting?

JD: Mussolini certainly did champion risotto. He pursued an insane nationalist policy of economic independence or autarky, and he knew that Italy could never grow enough wheat to feed its own people with bread and pasta. So there was a big propaganda drive in favour of rice, which was grown in the Po valley. And many observers, including Neapolitans, certainly did think pizza was disgusting. The first reports of the existence of Neapolitan pizza more or less as we know it today date from the early nineteenth century. It was very much a food of the urban poor: bread dough, quickly baked and flavoured with a bit of lard, some garlic, maybe some tomato, or a couple of anchovies. The problem was that the poor of Naples lived in Europe’s most unsanitary and overcrowded slums, which were notorious for their periodic cholera outbreaks. Cholera is a disease spread by human faeces in the water supply. Any food associated with a lethal and disgusting disease like cholera was going to struggle for popularity. As late as the 1940s, Neapolitan writers used the word “pizzeria” in inverted commas, and had to explain what it was to their northern readers. It wasn’t really until the 1960s that pizza became a national favourite.


LG: What aspects of Italian culture are you going to focus on in your next books and projects? JD: The thing that is taking up all of my time just at the moment is television. I’m currently making my history of Italian food, Delizia!, into a TV series that I am writing and presenting for the History Channel Italia. It’s being done both in Italian and English so that it can be sold to other networks around the world–including the USA, hopefully. It feels like a huge responsibility being the first person to be entrusted with making a TV history of Italian food, and I’m not even Italian. I feel like I’m there to be shot at! But it’s great fun. That’s how I got to interview the Keys’s cook Delia, for example.

  • Laura Giacalone