Book Review: Cucina Povera

The food of Italy is famous for being fresh, flavorful, frugal, and delicious. But the country’s history tells a story of deprivation and hardship that its cooks overcame to create wonderful recipes.

Italian cooks do not waste food. They use up every bit of the pig, a loaf of bread, and the leaves, flowers, and stems from vegetables and fruits harvested from the garden. This thrifty way of life has created some fabulous dishes, such as the luscious soup thickened with bread called Ribollita, Panzanella, a fresh salad with bread and tomatoes, and jams to capture every bit of the summer sun.

That story is beautifully told in the book Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns. This gorgeous book, with its thick paper and deckled edges, has wonderful tales and recipes from Italians who survived the deprivations of the sharecropping system called mezzadria and the rationing and strict rule of World War II, along with gorgeous photographs of the food, the Italian countryside, and the storytellers.

My parents grew up during World War II. They tell stories of ration coupons and how dolls and toys such as bikes and trains were impossible to find because rubber and metal were destined for tanks and trucks.  Their parents came of age during the Great Depression, when jobs and food were hard to come by. Frugality was a way of life for them as well.

In Europe, the people living in any country under control of the Nazis or Fascists quickly learned they had to take their food where they could find it. One story from the book really struck home with me. German soldiers brought flour for a woman and her mother to make bread. They brought five kilos of flour and expected to have five kilos of bread in return. But what cooks know, and soldiers may not, is that five kilos of flour will produce more than five kilos of bread. The women had bread left over for themselves, and they used every last crumb.

“La Cucina Povera” literally means “the cooking of the poor.” But these recipes are anything but impoverished. Cooking when food is difficult to find means having a reverence for it, treating it with care, and giving it every chance to shine on its own.

Some of the recipes may sound strange to the American palate. For instance, tripe is not a common food in this country; it’s the lining of the first stomach of a cow. In a recipe for Trippa alla Fiorentina, it’s cooked with olive oil, and onion, and fresh tomatoes until tender, and eaten as a main dish or as a hearty sandwich filling.

Another recipe for Cinghiale e Carciofi in Umido, or Wild Boar and Artichokes, highlights a way frugal Italians found something to eat: hunting and foraging. Boar meat becomes tender and sweet when cooked for hours with a soffritto, that mixture of onions, garlic, and celery, and a rich red wine.

That type of cooking is at the center of the foodie world now. Eating locally and in season, being frugal with your food, using every bit, and enjoying the tastes of real food are wise ways to disconnect from the real poverty of fast food and highly processed food.

Cooking with the four seasons is something many Americans just don’t do. Since we can get strawberries, albeit imported from Brazil, in December, and broccoli and cantaloupe all year round, we’ve become deprived of the pleasure of looking forward to foods in season.  In the “olden days”, meals followed a schedule. Animals were butchered in January. The spring was a time for foraging for wild greens and gathering newly laid eggs. Summer meant working in the fields and tending the gardens and olive trees, with fresh fruits and vegetables to treasure. And in the fall, the grapes and olives were harvested to make wine and olive oil, and hunting deer and rabbits provided fresh meat.

When you eat this way, you’ll discover the pleasures of “the simple life.” In the winter, try making your own pasta; all you need is flour, water, and a bit of olive oil. Cook it until al dente and toss with some bread crumbs toasted with garlic. In summer, there’s nothing better than a fresh tomato picked off the vine in your backyard, tossed with olive oil and fresh basil and piled on top of lightly toasted homemade unsalted Tuscan bread. Gather some (unsprayed) dandelion greens in the spring for a frittata made with fresh eggs. And in the fall, mushrooms cooked with onions and garlic made a delicious pasta sauce.

Read this book and enjoy the simple recipes. You’ll learn that if you have a delicious dish of homemade pasta in front of you that you can enjoy with good friends in front of a warm hearth, you are rich.