Food and the city

Pub date May 14, 2008

When we talk about "regional" cuisines or cooking, we often find ourselves talking about some quarter of Italy. For centuries, Italy was a politically fragmented land — a jigsaw puzzle of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, serene republics, and city-states — and did not become a modern nation-state until the 19th century.

Yet what politics could not achieve, food could. As John Dickie demonstrates in his engrossing Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food (Free Press, $26), trade among the peninsula’s cities in the late Middle Ages became the foundation for the distinctive cuisine we know today as Italian. Cooking in the Italian cities was more similar than not, Dickie suggests, and it was immeasurably better than what was to be found in the impoverished countryside, where peasants were practically boiling weeds for soup. In our time, a love of rustic Italian cooking is just one of many food fetishes — mostly harmless, but maybe not quite, since under the guise of lauding a rural bounty and style that never really existed, it subtly reinforces an American prejudice against cities. We already have Jeffersonian myths about our own countryside — as a redoubt of wisdom, rectitude, health, and happiness — that reach back beyond the founding of the republic.

We have myths about our cities too, but most are of the if-only variety. Urban utopians — the people who think cities would be little paradises if only we could rid them of homeless people or cars or Republicans or loud partiers — would do well to consider Dickie’s portraiture of Italy’s cities across eight centuries. Like all cities, always and everywhere, they are full of dirt, noise, and disease — as well as cruelty, wealth, vanity, status consumption, insecurity, and vicious politicking. They are nasty and exciting, as we would expect from any sort of social experiment that concentrates large numbers of human beings in a small space.

The lesson of cities, then, is that they are marketplaces not only of goods and services, but of ideas. They are messy with conflict among innumerable worlds and subworlds. And much of that conflict is pointless or even counterproductive — but not all of it. Sometimes a random spark will catch and burn brightly, and then we all say huzzah, or buon appetito.

Paul Reidinger