Today I sneaked into a class offered at UCLA, profiling Italian history and culture (Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Risorgimento) through the analysis of gastronomy and literary texts. Taught by Italian poet, writer, food historian, and sought-after translator, Luigi Ballerini, who also contributes to Gastronomica magazine, this lecture was like listening to a wise Italian grandfather recount juicy stories over a fabulous espresso. Ballerini is a passionate speaker--animated, self-reflective, hilarious, and able to simplify dense subject matter into fluid, enjoyable conversation. It also doesn't hurt that his son directed and starred in a film about Rudolph Valentino!
Opening his class with the story of Pellegrino Artusi's plight to publish the first ever structured cookbook, "The Science of Cooking and Art of Eating Well," Bellerini went on to discuss the way this single cookbook (selling over 52,000 copies by word of mouth alone) signified a departure from famine and bigotry in Italy in the 1800s, pointing to the emergence of a middle class with the curiosity and desire to cook elaborate cuisine. Written as a series of stories that revealed recipes, though a bit didactic and indulgent, Artusi's cookbook made sophistication and taste accessible to all.
“Food has been a show of social and political power through the ages, so if you follow that trail, you’re fleshing out history, particularly the history of social classes,” Ballerini says.
Ballerini then diverted on a separate tangent about how carrots used to be purple and Italian tomatoes were originally yellow, before both became mass-produced. He ended the lecture with a commentary about how at around the same time that Artusi's cookbook was circulating, Carlo Collodi's famous novel, "Adventures of Pinocchio" was completed and comparatively used an abundance of references to food, or lack of it, to communicate a desire for social reformation.
Bravo, Ballerini! Til next week...