Chewing the Fat, an Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita
by Karima Moyer-Nocchi delves into an exploration of the Italian culinary landscape during the fascist era that represents a departure from the romantic vision of Italian cuisine that many people believe has always existed. During the fascist period food was scarce. Most Italians weren't cooking up all of the delectable Italian classical recipes we have come to view as part of a longstanding Italian culinary history. Instead many Italians were barely able to get food on the table and were sometimes close to starvation. They often subsisted on a monophagic diet, in other words they ate the same food over and over, meal after meal, day after day. This was especially the case in southern Italy.
Karima Moyer-Nocchi is a culinary historian specializing in Italian food studies. She teaches in the Modern Languages department at the University of Siena and for the Enogastronomy master’s program at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata. Her research explores the impact of sociocultural and political currents on Italian foodways and culinary traditions, evident in both her first book Chewing the Fat - An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita, (available in both print and Kindle version) as well as her most recent publication The Eternal Table: A Cultural History of Food in Rome. Her practical work in recreating dishes from Italian culinary history can be seen on her website theeternaltable.com and on her Instagram account @historicalitalianfood. Karima was born and educated in the US. She has been a permanent resident in Italy since 1990 and currently resides in Umbria. At present she is working on a book about pasta.
What is food tradition?
In the latter part of Karima‘s book Chewing the Fat she interviews the Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini and he sums up the concept of tradition this way:
Tradition is about recovering the past, but you can only have that when you have come to terms with that past, come clean with it. But while you are doing it, while you are living it, it is not tradition. It’s only later that we pick and choose what we want our traditions to be, how we want to remember them and what we want to forget. That way, the past all seems so wonderful in comparison to the present, and it gives people something to yearn for. Working yourself to the bone to get food on the table and a shirt on your back was not a tradition, not while you were in the throes of it. People just wanted to get through another day, another season.
Foods prepared during sheer hardship often evolved into romanticized, beloved culinary traditions
A case in point is grano arso. This flour is most often used in southern Italy, especially Puglia and Basilicata, to make orecchiette pasta (ear-shaped) flour and water pasta. Grano arso is a burnt, black flour.
In the past after wheat was harvested and the fields burnt in preparation for the next year‘s planting the poor managed to gather remnants of flour from the fields, blackened from the burning, and used it to make orecchiette pasta. Sometimes remnants of burnt bread flour gathered from communal ovens was also used to make pasta.
Nowadays there’s a romantic vision surrounding grano arso and orecchiette made with this flour. Often people roast flour to achieve a product similar to the original grano arso. It’s one of many examples of romanticizing the past and embracing the painful past as a beloved culinary tradition.
Coffee and Coffee Surrogates
One chapter of the book Chewing the Fat talks about coffee and coffee surrogates like coffee made from orzo (barley), and coffee made from other lesser known and less appealing surrogates like roasted beans, acorns and almost anything that could be roasted and produce a hot, black liquid. In many cases people from the fascist era had never even tasted coffee but they nonetheless aspired to drink something that resembled it. Now coffee is widely available yet often people choose to drink the now romanticized coffee surrogate, barley coffee.
Pork in Italian Cuisine
Another chapter in Chewing the Fat talks about pork and the role of pork in Italian cuisine. In the past one pig would be enough for an entire family and every little bit of the pig was used. Only one in 10 families were lucky enough to have a pig and for those who didn’t have enough to feed the pig they couldn’t have one. Pork remains a key element in Italian cuisine and still almost every part of the pig is used.
Pasta and the pasta industry
Karima dedicated a chapter to the pasta industry and how it began. Naples was the hub for pasta production, and still is, especially Gragnano pasta. One of my personal favorites that's readily available worldwide, even at Costco in bulk is Garofalo Pasta.
Recipes shared by the Italian women Karima profiled in Chewing the Fat
Karima interviewed 18 elderly Italian women of diverse socio-economic and geographical heritage who were alive during the fascist era about their culinary history and traditions. She asked each one to share a recipe or two and these are included in the book. This is not a cookbook, but these recipes illustrate foods that were made during the fascist era, or rather foods that were made on special holidays or that these women aspired to make.
Some of the recipes shared by the Italian ladies have become part of Italian culinary tradition. You’ll find all these fascinating recipes in Karima‘s book and here are just a few of them that have become traditional and have wide appeal.
Giulia shared this recipe. It illustrates the frugal use of pork and all pig parts in recipes to extract as much flavor as possible. The popular Italian recipe website, Giallo Zafferano, features many recipes for Cassoeula Milanese.
La Cassoeula Milanese – Winter stew Serves 6
500 g savoy cabbage, cut into chunks 300 g pork ribs
100 g raw pork rind
2 small sausages per person
2 ham hocks with skin, cut in half
1 pig ear, shaved and cleaned
1 pig face (includes jowls and snout) 1 pig tail
100 g carrots
100 g celery
100 g onion
50 g butter
1 glass dry white wine
1 liter meat broth
Boil the feet, rind ears and face for an hour to render some of the fat. Skim off some fat for another use. In a large Dutch oven or cast iron pot, melt the butter over low heat. Cut the ear, face and rind into strips and cut the slab of ribs into singles. Brown them all plus the tail in the butter for a few minutes and add the carrot, celery and onion. Pour in the glass of wine and bring to a boil. Just barely cover with broth and simmer covered for an hour making sure it does not stick to the bottom. Salt and pepper to taste. After half an hour, add the cabbage and the sausages. Cook for another 30-45 minutes skimming any scum that may rise to the surface.
This recipe was shared by Giuditta and is similar to cornbread or corn muffins. Compare it to my cornbread recipe and you see that it's essentially the same. Cornmeal and polenta feature heavily in Italian cuisine to this day.
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