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Writing about food in Italy. From domestic storytellers to food writers

I have a black pen in my hand, it is quite anonymous but it has a fine tip, it allows me to write easily, words sliding on the paper without effort: they spring from the inside without pauses, filters or interruptions. I’ve written the most beautiful things, the ones that moved me to tears, with paper and pen. When I transfer those tactile words here on the blog, I can rearrange them, giving an order to phrases and thoughts, finding that red thread that binds them together.

Today I am at my desk, typing meditatively at my computer with ink-stained fingers, feeling lightened by so many thoughts that crowded my mind and that could not find a place to rest. Now they have it.

Today’s reflections follow up on what I wrote about food writing on Corriere della Sera, where I explained what I think of this profession, how and when my curiosity for this form of writing was born, what I read and what I like. Everything began with a fascination for foreign writers such as Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl, until I discovered that writer in whose voice I recognize myself more, which comforts me and inspires me: Laurie Colwin. My journey began from abroad, but today I come back to Italy, holding on to my roots, to who I am.

autumn

Writing about food in Italy. From domestic storytellers to food writers

It is food writing also in Italian, it does not have a translation as many other words such as computer and blog. Why don’t we have a word to describe this profession in Italian? Is food writing existing at all in Italy?

Every time grandma passes me a recipe, she does it through a memory, a precise moment in time when she learnt it, an occasion during which she prepared it, a person who taught it. Whether it was Aunt Antonietta and her latte alla portoghese, Aunt Valeria and her pasta with meatballs, or Fine, that lady who was so good at cooking that was asked to prepare meals in every household of the village during harvest time, they are never impersonal lists of ingredients and procedures, but stories. She would tell me the ingredients, the whys and wherefores, interspersed by superstitions and uses.

Perhaps food writing in Italy has never existed before, or it is just taking more time than in other countries to root, because basically the passing down of culinary knowledge has always been based on an oral tradition, on the margin notes written on family cookbooks with a clean calligraphy, as you would learn in school before the war, on the informal chatter of a Sunday morning spent in the kitchen.

Food writing struggled to rise to the level of literature because it was already there, among the domestic walls, mixed with the real food cooked and eaten.

Things change, though. This oral tradition of domestic storytellers is slowly disappearing with the evolution of the family: in the recent years a spontaneous response has replaced the old way of passing down recipes. Food writing exists in Italy today, it is not recognized yet, but you can find it in the pages of some blogs, where new writers write with their personal voices about their relationship with food, with a territory, with a gastronomic tradition.

juls

Giulia, Juls and the food writing

You can apply the label food writing to many different areas: when you write a gastronomical critique, when you write an essay about economics, politics, agriculture and sociology with a food perspective, when you write a memoir or a reportage on GMO… the kind of food writing that resonates with me, which made me exclaim this is what I want to do when I grow up, is writing recipes, introduced, enriched, stuffed and wrapped with memories and stories of my life or related to my family.

I had to face immediately an obstacle, an internal, auto-imposed barrier which had much to do with my self esteem. I had a wonderfully ordinary life, without drama, without sudden and inconsiderate decisions – if you exclude my first and last tattoo which I got when I was 27. Was this life worth to tell? Could it be really interesting for someone?

Then I figured out the importance of having a perspective. I realized that food has always been there, not as a backdrop, not as a faint garlicky smell on the back of my mind. Food made me who I am, honest, reliable and optimistic, it helped me to deal with those traumas or simply those challenging moments of growth which are always present in the life of a teeneager and young woman.

As a naive country girl, not able to pronounce profanity or to argue with someone, I would overcome the fear of not being accepted at school, not being part of a group, bringing a tray of biscotti when we would meet to study. Those biscuits still taste of self-assertion, they remind me of an unripe age which was going to blossom soon.

I would wipe out the disappointments of an adolescent love, when I used to fancy guys I never addressed a word to, whose names I barely knew, with a steaming cup of afternoon tea, in which I would dunk two biscuits at a time, until they became soggy and soft. Going down through my throat, they would melt that bitter knot that we all know very well, leaving only the sweet taste of sugar. Even today a cup of well brewed tea solves most of my problems.

At the university I made new friends and left my shell behind when I volunteered to cook during home parties in tiny scarcely lit kitchens, with just a burner and a few pans. I was there, in the midst of so many people I would meet for the first time, but I felt protected, keeping a foot in my natural environment. The wooden spoon was my magic wand and my security blanket. After so many years still nothing has changed.

I have always experienced food on a personal and emotional level, as a remedy, a therapy, a way to celebrate, to awaken memories, to keep them alive.

autumn

My food writing often betrays this intimate dimension. Those words, that I would relentlessly turn over in my mind when I was learning to grow up, gushed out and since then I have not been able to stop them. They changed my life when, at the age of 28, in the midst of the generational crisis of Saturn Return, I had a desperate need to redefine my identity as a young woman.

And I did it with food: cooking it with dedication, learning to appreciate it and especially learning to write about it open-heartedly, without a filter. As an introvert, I found my way out.

They say that the moment a child is born, the mother is also born. In my case, when I wrote my first post here on the blog on February 1, 2009, a food writer was also born or, as Ruth Reichl would say, a writer. As Dianne Jacob refers on her book, Will write for food, she told me the term “food writer” is pejorative, like “woman writer.” She’s a writer, she says. That’s it.

Food writing is writing about everyday life, with a distinct perspective, that of food: cooked, shared, offered.

kale and beans

Writing about food, in Italian and in English

I write about food in Italian and English with the same emotion, with the same enthusiasm and commitment. On the one hand, I am charmed by the American and English food writing that taught me so much, in terms of language, structure and methodology, and equally inspired me and moved me, with Elizabeth David, Ruth Reichl and Laurie Colwin as teachers.

On the other hand, I owe so much to Italy, my home, my family, my training and the essence of who I am. I love the Italian language, its nuances and its musicality, just as I am fond of the English one, especially when it comes to food. Years ago I was in Manchester and I found a menu in a farm-to-table restaurant, which for months I read enjoying every word as a delicious mouthful, like the last bite you leave aside, the one with the perfect balance of ingredients and textures.

I love writing in English as I like to imagine to have a small part in describing Italy and its gastronomical culture to foreigners with a fresh and authentic perspective, as an Italian, updating the idea that sometimes is diffused abroad of a country crystallized in a Sofia Loren’s movie.

We still have so much to give in terms of knowledge and appreciation of food, and I would like to do my part sharing the recipes of my culinary tradition, cooked as we do it today in my family, thanks to that original relationship I have always had with food, at home.

Even in Italy we have some extraordinary examples of food writing, which struck me before I knew that writing of food would become my profession: Camilleri – who wouldn’t want to sit at dinner with Montalbano -, Dacia Maraini and the penetrating smells of Bagheria, Clara Sereni and her Casalinghitudine, recently discovered thanks to Laura.

In the last years emerged also the voices of many bloggers who developed a style, an identity, that proudly make food writing all’italiana: we should start to reassess what we can do at home. We must look curiously at what happens outside the national borders without putting ourselves on the second level, something in which, as Italians, we tend to excel. Let’s make our voice credible, even outside the national borders, though we must be the first ones to believe we are worth to be listened to.

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My voice

I have a voice. Sometimes I feel it strong and definite, as it could easily overcome the noise that surrounds us. Other times my voice falters, trembles and mingles with sighs, like the day when I discussed my final project at the university, like when Tommaso told me that first night ‘shall we speak?’.

I do not hang out at Michelin starred restaurants and I certainly miss the lexicon to describe a dinner of that level, but I’m sure I am able to communicate the emotions that you could experience in cooking a certain recipe, I am convinced that I can make you feel able of cooking it, help you to prepare it in the best possible way, avoiding some of the mistakes that I have already committed.

For so long I thought that mine was another level of food writing, lower, prosaic, but today I reconsidered my position. Today I acknowledge which is my mission, what is the impact I want to have in other people’s lives, I have given a meaning to my work: I do not want to amaze or impress, I do not want to put myself on a different level, I want to write accessible recipes, that could drag you into the kitchen, to rediscover that unstoppable power that the well cooked and well enjoyed food has, as it can simply save you a dinner with friends or, in the most extreme cases, save your life, helping you to reinvent it.

So no recipe for today, just a ton of reflections and chats. If you reached the end of this post I’d be happy to hear your ideas, perspective and consideration on food writing, and I’ll see you again within the end of the week with a barely risotto with mushrooms!

cheese board

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This Post Has 33 Comments
  1. Loved the post. So entertaining. Glad you mentioned Manchester as I live not far from there and in fact was there on Saturday and had lunch at Carluccios. I look forward to your next post.

    1. Manchester was a business trip, I was there for a week and had completely freedom. Loved every single moment of that trip, and that restaurant with a solo dinner was the highlight!

      1. Love your recipes. I have an allergy to garlic and it’s so refreshing to see these amazing dishes that don’t always add it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excellent piece! Enjoyed every word of it. It is true that Italians have written home made recipe booklets for their families for generations. I personally was lucky enough to find beautifully calligraphed menus and recipes for Christmas and Easter during the war! Absolutely mesmerizing to touch and read.
    You’re doing an awesome job! <3

    1. what a treasure Saghar! This reminds me when I bought a second hand copy of Il talismano di Ada Boni on eBay, and found a book full of notes from a nonna. It is like getting into another person’s life!

  3. Amica, i tuoi post sono sempre bellissimi, ma stavolta ti sei superata. Viene voglia di abbracciarti ad ogni riga, oltre che di farti i complimenti per il coraggio e la passione che hai investito per diventare la scrittrice che sei oggi, per me probabilmente la migliore scrittrice di food in Italia.
    Sei un’ispirazione e un modello.

    1. Amica, e tu eri con me quella prima volta a Londra, quando jaden di Steamy Kitchen in collegamento dall’America ci diceva che lavorava solo 3 ore al giorno e che ci campava l’intera famiglia… ma ti ricordi?

    1. Thank you Alyce! I will keep on cooking and keep on writing, I find my motivation and my fuel in the interaction with you! so thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. What a stunning piece of writing here! And the conclusion is really, food writing doesn’t need a word in Italian, it is part of life.

    1. that could have been the title, you condensed the whole article in one perfect sentence! and, most of the thoughts here are the development of our chats, of everything we’ve been saying through the years! x

  5. A really stunning essay, Giulia, just beautiful! As always, your writing is lyrical, honest, and heartfelt. You portray the evolution and philosophy of your food writing. For me (and my wife) food writing has always been an important of my life. When I was in graduate school I cooked (and read) my way through Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; I devoured the essays in Gourmet Magazine. A large book case in our Florence apartment is filled with cook books and food writing. These days I most enjoy highly evocative and expansive food essays such as yours, with recipes or not. Your writing about Italian cooking comes from the heart, from your roots, and I find it to be highly satisfying. Thanks for all you do for Italian food, cooking, and food writing!

    1. Thank you so much Bob! I hope one day I’ll get to meet you and your wife, I guess there will be a lot to talk about! I’ve just browsed though Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking very superficially, but lately it is like everything is telling me to read it and cook from it extensively, and your message today is just another piece in the puzzle!

  6. Thank you, Guilia, very well written. You should never hesitate to do anything. I enjoyed every word, as usual.

  7. Wonderful piece! I agree that writing is writing whatever your focus is and it doesn’t have to be labelled. Food features in my writing whether it’s fiction or non-fiction simply because it’s an integral and very important part of my life. The ‘lexicon’ used to describe dining at high-end restaurants is full of cliches and works for superficial experience of food. Simplicity, honesty and genuine passion for food in your stories are by no means prosaic or inferior. You are a writer. And a really good one. Thank you for sharing.

    1. thank you so much Amela, you really warmed my heart with your comment! Reading your bio I value your comment even more! thank you!

  8. Even though I’ve subscribed to your blog for some time now, this is the first time I’ve reached out to you with a comment. With this post, I have learned more about you and am proud that you are so self-aware at such a young age. You are truly gifted and are handling it with integrity. Thank you for sharing this with us. You are enriching many lives.

    Mary Anne in Austin, TX

    1. Thank you very much Mary Anne, for your kindest words and for stopping by to leave this comment, it is always heart-warming to give a name, an origin and a voice to a reader. Thank you!

  9. Giulia grazie per aver scritto questo post così forte e coraggioso ma dolce e umano allo stesso tempo. La tua scrittura deve proprio assomigliarti! un abbraccio e un grazie enorme per i tuoi pensieri che condividi con noi.

  10. Guilia,
    We met at an Annette Joseph workshop where you prepared an incredible lunch. I have followed you ever since because during that day you made me feel as if we were cooking together in your own kitchen, as friends or family would do, not as a professional to a class.
    In my eyes you signify what Italian cooking is at it’s heart, love and sharing.
    Keep writing, cooking, sharing and loving.
    Grazie mille,
    Susan

    1. Oh hello Susan! 🙂 I remember that day, and I remember that everything went smooth because there was a good group of people who loved cooking and sharing and we had so much fun! This said, I’m going to treasure your words, as being also a cooking teacher this is my aim every time, and you can’t even imagine how glad I am you had such an experience! a big hug!

  11. i have tears in my eyes reading your post.
    I dont know much about food writting and my cooking on the end of a long working day is not allways fun. But food is for me emotion pur .. i love to travel and to explore and i love italian food a lot since it reminds me of my time as aupair in Firenze, when i was 17. There are still a lot of recepie in my all day cooking thst i learned in Florence.
    I have a cake recepie that my mom wanted to bake .. i bought here all the ingredients but she died unexpacted with 68 a week later.
    I stand in her kitchen crying after she past away with my sister and we backed this cake in her memory .. yes to me Soulfood excised

    1. Now I have tears in my eyes reading your comment, Sonja. What you did with your sister was probably the purest form of love, cooking as a way to remember, and celebrate. Which cake did you bake? it must be very spacial now for you.

  12. Guilia, thank you for mentioning my book, Will Write for Food. I like the meditative style of this blog post, the way you keep coming back to what you value most, which is family recipes. Many of us agree that nothing excites us more than writing down and reproducing beloved recipes from family members.

    1. Thank you Dianne, for everything. If you could read the article in Italian on Corriere della Sera that originated this post, you would find there again your book, which I consider my bible for food writing.
      I read it once a year, every time finding new and interesting food for thought!

  13. Continuing to enjoy your blog, and what about those great photographs! Wish I could reach through the screen and take a bite. Keep it up please.

  14. I love your comment about recipes in Italy – they are not impersonal lists of ingredients, but rather memories of a person and how they created food that was memorable. When I share a “recipe”on my blog, http://www.blog.learntravelitalian.com, I consider it really a “method” – either one I have learned through trial and error, or more commonly, one I have learned from my mother or grandmother. That is what really makes the food I prepare for my own family special in my mind. I hope my children will continue to pass these recipes down for the next generation.

  15. Giulia,
    I just came across this post and it so resonated with me. I often too have felt like my writing was not living up to some unspoken expectation. Keep writing and cooking and telling your story. The world needs your beautiful perspective.

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