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Italian Food

(article, Elizabeth David)

h3. From the introduction to the 1963 edition

It is now well over 10 years since I returned to England after nearly a year spent in Italy for the express purpose of collecting material for the book which eventually became Italian Food.

When about to embark on my travels, English friends who knew Italy far better than I did at the time had been ready with unencouraging predictions. “All that pasta,” they said. “We’ve got enough stodge here already; you won’t find much else in Italy. You’ll have to invent.”

How we cling to our myths, we English. The French, we believe, have been forced to perfect the art of cooking owing to what we like to think is a necessity to disguise poor materials. We ourselves have, we comfortably imagine, no need for either art or artifice in the kitchen. Our basic ingredients are too superb to need the application of intelligence or training to their preparation. As for the Italians, they live, according to our mythology, on veal and tomatoes, spaghetti, cheese, and olive oil.

h1. About the book and author

First published in 1954, Italian Food was Elizabeth David's third book on regional cooking, after Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking. To a Britain still under rationing after years of war, her straightforward books were like sunshine; readers might not have been able to buy the exotic ingredients she mentioned, but they could dream. David's books altered a nation's ideas of what home cooking might be.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of the Penguin Group (1999).

It is now 1963. During the last decade provision shops and supermarkets selling a high proportion of Italian and other imported produce have multiplied. In our big towns new Italian restaurants open almost monthly. The Espresso Coffee Bar, phenomenon of the early fifties, has developed into the Roman or Neapolitan-type trattoria, and spreads far beyond the confines of Soho into the outer suburbs of London and our great industrial cities and seaports. Scarcely a week passes but somebody writes an article in a national newspaper or magazine extolling the glories and subtleties of Italian cooking. Every year appear new cookery books giving more or less accurate versions of the best Italian recipes. And still the general public finds it difficult to equate these happenings with anything having any bearing upon Italy itself as a nation or a geographical entity.

I know that finding the kind of food one is looking for in Italy can be hard work. My own voyage of discovery in that country was far from easy. My command of the Italian language is decidedly the wrong side of adequate. The amount of money I had to spend was not boundless. Neither is my eating capacity. Italians are on the whole abstemious drinkers but big eaters. Sometimes I was asked to plough through a five-course meal and then start all over again with some dish for which I had particularly asked. My kind hosts would be astonished, and cease to believe that I was at all a serious person, when I could do no more than taste a spoonful.

As recipe after recipe came out and I realized how much I was learning, and how enormously these dishes were enlarging my own scope and enjoyment, the fever to communicate them grew every day more urgent. How wrong they had all been, all those pessimists. Invent indeed. I had so much material that a vast deal had to be rejected. What I kept were mainly those recipes which would, I believed, be of use in our own kitchens.


h1. Featured recipe


This is, I think, a book for those readers and cooks who prefer to know what the original dishes are supposed to be like, and to be given the option of making their own adaptations and alterations according to their taste and their circumstances. There is, I know, a school of writers who seem to believe that English housewives are weak in the head and must not be exposed to the truth about the cooking of other countries; must not be shocked by the idea of making a yeast dough, cleaning an inkfish, adding nutritive value to a soup with olive oil, cutting the breast off a raw chicken in order to fry it in butter rather than buying a packet of something called “chicken parts” from the deep-freeze and cooking them in a cheap fat or tasteless oil substitute.

If I believed that English women really needed this kind of protection — censorship it almost amounts to — I would have packed in cookery writing long ago.

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