People in Italy talk about food a great deal, much more so than in other parts of the world. Whereas a British or Russian intellectual feels that an exaggerated attention to food may lower the caliber of the conversation and will primly skip over the subject, the Italian lingers over it with visible pleasure, dwelling at length on the details. Why? The expression “Parla come mangi!”—“Speak the language of your food”—embraces all-encompassing themes in Italy. What kinds of things do conversationalists evoke in memory or imagination when they recount past dinners, plan menus, or debate the quality of ingredients, in many cases not even mentioning their enjoyment of the meal?
I myself have often felt disoriented before this passion, so profound and pervasive as to extend to areas, such as the lexicon, that apparently have nothing to do with food.
Over time, I’ve become accustomed to it, partially by assimilating this lexicon, but I have not stopped badgering friends and acquaintances with a thousand questions: Why do all of you—your writers and journalists and politicians—love to talk about food so much? And why is it that you identify particular historic moments with references to food? What does chicory have to do with class struggle? Why did the Fascist regime try to abolish pastasciutta during the twenty-year period known as the Ventennio? What does the poet Tonino Guerra have in mind when he mentions caffè sospeso, a coffee held “in suspense,” that is, paid for in advance by a customer who’s feeling well- off and held for a future customer who may be down on his luck, in a radio interview? And if other peoples’ bread tasted salty to Dante Alighieri, was it because of the tears he shed over it, as translators believe, or for some less romantic reason?
Little by little I, like all students of Italian culture, discovered hundreds of poetic and narrative works full of “culinary” references that disguised much more serious affirmations and ideas. This is because the abundance of metaphors linked to food is truly staggering: andare a fagiolo; cacio sui maccheroni; buono come il pane; rendere pan per focaccia; troppa carne sul fuoco; mangiare il porro dalla coda. These recall such English expressions as “icing on the cake”; “life is but a bowl of cherries”; “spill the beans”; “sour grapes”; “worth one’s salt”; “cool as a cucumber”; “a piece of cake”; and many more. The collective imagination is expressed through numerous references to food.
This phenomenon is well-known, and the philosopher Andrea Tagliapietra, one of many experts who have studied it, summarized it quite well in his article “La gola del filosofo. Il mangiare come metafora del pensare” (The philosopher’s temptation: eating as a metaphor for thinking): “We have an ‘appetite’ for knowledge, a ‘thirst’ to know, or a ‘hunger’ for information. We ‘devour’ a book, ‘gorge’ on data to the point of ‘indigestion,’ read or write ‘ad nauseam,’ never get our ‘fill’ of stories, ‘chew over’ some project, find it hard to ‘digest’ some concepts, and we ‘absorb’ some ideas better than others. We ‘swallow’ a story, particularly when it is told to us with ‘sweet’ words rather than a sprinkling of ‘bitter’ deliberations, ‘acidic’ or ‘disgusting’ witticisms, or worse yet, ‘tasteless,’ ‘bland’ allocutions. It is not by chance that the most ‘appetizing’ stories are those filled with ‘peppery’ anecdotes and ‘spicy’ descriptions, as well as ‘savory’ analogies, if you will.”
I think the answer to why Italians love to talk about food so much is this: in Italian culture, a person who shares a recipe is referring us to the region of his origins and, very often, proclaiming his own sense of belonging. Italian history evolved in such a way that every village or borgo was self-sufficient; no one city prevailed over another, and no provincial capital over the province nor the nation’s capital over the surrounding cities. Foreigners from all over the world came to Italy on religious pilgrimages, or to get to know its artistic patrimony on a Grand Tour; thus even a village could feel that it was a central, important place. There could be no solitary backwaters in areas where there was such an uninterrupted flow of humanity! Nor could inferiority complexes toward large cities be manifested in villages and towns that boasted their own magnificent cathedrals, monastic schools, and libraries. “It’s city and countryside all in one,” Gogol wrote of Italy, choosing it as his adopted country and writing his best works there. And another Russian exile, Aleksandr Herzen, observed: “Every town has its own physiognomy.”
The more you know Italy, the more it becomes evident that each community has its “gastronomic emblem,” namely, a dish or product that has been developed to perfection in that place: steak Florentine, risotto Milanese, radicchio Trevisano, Caprese salad. And the inhabitants are proud of this specialty.
For Italians, more than for any other people in the world, talking about food does not mean simply naming an ingredient. It means celebrating a rite, uttering a magic formula, reciting like a litany the list of fish suitable for salting, or that of the spring herbs that make up the Ligurian preboggiòn bouquet.
Pronouncing the names of the various dishes, the connoisseur of Italian cuisine mentally savors an entire restaurant menu, from the first entry to the last. And the menu is like a rosary, or like Don Giovanni’s catalog of conquests.
Exploring the culinary code is also a linguistic study. This is the secret behind Italians’ joy in talking about food. It is a theme that allows them (and us) to discover the riches of memory, enjoy the curiosities of language, and share insights with friends.
Examining the culture of food, we also come to understand its unique ability to inspire joy and create harmony. Whether at table with family, in a restaurant with friends, or at a scientific conference—wherever and however—food is talked about in a language that is accessible to all, exciting to everyone, democratic and positive.
Those who chat about food may hail from all walks of life, yet whatever their origin and income level, they readily find a common language. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement (which defends traditional, civilized cuisine); explains the unique, unifying language in these words: “There are some who describe it as a language: it has words (the products, the ingredients), which are organized according to rules of grammar (the recipes), syntax (the menu), and rhetoric (convivial behavior). Like language, cooking embraces and expresses the culture of those who practice it; it is a depository of the traditions and identity of a group. It self-portrays and communicates in a manner even stronger than language, because food is able to be directly assimilated by our organism: eating someone’s food is easier and more immediate than speaking his language.”
In this way the language of a culture is born, resistant to consumerist infection. Consumerism and its vehicle, advertising, are obsessed with the here and now—the ephemeral. They are stubbornly aimed at devaluing what already exists and increasing the value of what is new. The language of culture, on the other hand, upholds history and dismisses trendy gimmicks as mere kitsch. The Italian culinary code is imbued with dignity, democratic feeling, and erudition.
As a foreign student of Italian culture, I confess that discovering it and analyzing it have absorbed me completely, drawing me under its spell—just as I was drawn in so many years ago by the country that created this code, the Italy that I will never have my fill of discovering, and that each day increases my hunger for beauty and thirst for art. I know you will understand.
[From the book “Why Italians Love to Talk about Food”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009]
Elena Kostioukovitch is a scholar, literary translator, essayist; visiting professor at several Italian universities; from 1988, she resides in Milan, Italy.
Background and academic achievements: she graduated from Moscow State University (Italian Studies). From 1980 to 1988, literary consultant for Sovremennaja Khudozhestvennaja Literatura za Rubezhom (Contemporary Foreign Fiction) magazine, Moscow. From 1988 to 1991, full-time research scholar at the Department of World Literature, USSR Academy of Sciences. From 1989 to 1995, visiting professor at Trento University, Italy. Then visiting professor at the University of Trieste (1991, 1992), Pavia University (1995) and State University of Milan (2000 to 2009), visiting course at Ca’ Foscari (Venice, 2014), public readings at the University of Tokyo (2014), at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (2014) and at the Kobe University (2014).
Awards: BEST TRANSLATION OF THE YEAR (1988, Moscow, Russia), ZOIL Literary Award (1999, Moscow, Russia), GRINZANE CAVOUR MOSCA Literary Prize (2004, Italy), BANCARELLA (cucina) Award (2007, Italy), CHIAVARI Literary Prize (2007, Italy), NATIONAL AWARD FOR TRANSLATION (2007, Italy), AWARD FOR INTERCULTURAL APPROACH (2011, Italy), GOGOL Prize (Rome 2012).
Books: Why Italians Love to Talk about Food (Italian edition: Milan, Sperling and Kupfer, 2006; Russian Edition: Moscow, EKSMO, 2006; Serbian edition: Paidea, 2007; American edition: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009). The book has been published in 18 countries. Her long novel Zwinger was published in Russia in 2013 (Corpus Publishing House), and in Italia, translated by the Author herself, in 2014, with the title Sette notti, Bompiani Publishing House, 2014.
Main translated works: Umberto Eco’s renowned bestsellers The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, Baudolino (ranked as one of the top translator’s works by OZON Online Bookstore for four months, Fall 2003), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana; Umberto Eco’s non-fiction books Five Moral Essays, How to Write a Dissertation. She translated also Emanuele Tesauro’s Through the Lens of Aristotle (the only complete foreign language edition).
Contribution to periodicals: Itoghi (Moscow), Ezhenedel’nyj Zhurnal (Moscow), Novaja Model (Moscow), L’Espresso (Italy), Panorama (Italy).
Elena is the founder and chief executive of ELKOST Literary Agency, which represents prominent Russian authors worldwide (www.elkost.com)