Gastronomic philology gets its day in the sun as an Italian food historian looks “behind the holy books.”

Above: one of the best executions of carbonara I’ve ever had was prepared by a Roman using guanciale and Pecorino Romano. The cook in question is one of the most brilliant and informed writers in Italy I know. But does he know the origins of his city’s synecdoche dish?

“A philologist looks behind the ‘holy books,’” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols (1889), “a physician behind the physiological depravity of the [believer]. The physician says, ‘incurable,’ the philologist says, ‘fraud’…”

This line came to mind over the weekend after a number of gourmand friends and gourmet colleagues sent me a wonderful Financial Times profile of Italian food historian Alberto Grandi entitled “Everything I, an Italian, thought I knew about Italian food is wrong.”

Grandi “has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food,” writes Marianna Giusti for the paper.

In his 2021 book Denominazione di origine inventata (Invented Designation of Origin), Grandi points out:

    that most Italians hadn’t heard of pizza until the 1950s, for example, or that carbonara is an American recipe. Many Italian “classics,” from panettone to tiramisù, are relatively recent inventions… Some of DOI’s claims might be familiar to industry insiders, but most are based on Grandi’s own findings, partly developed from existing academic literature. His skill is in taking academic research and making it digestible. And his mission is to disrupt the foundations on which we Italians have built our famous, and famously inflexible, culinary culture — a food scene where cappuccini must not be had after midday and tagliatelle must have a width of exactly 7mm.

Sounds like my cup of caffè corretto!

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I have written extensively about the origins of dishes like carbonara and puttanesca. And one of the major red threads of my research has been the debunking of myths, like the one about puttanesca being invented by sex workers and carbonara being named after purveyors of charcoal.

In case you missed the piece, check it out here (paywall).

I’m leaving tonight for Italy and plan to pick up a copy of his book while on the ground there. I can’t wait to read his book! Report forthcoming!

In the meantime, wish me luck and wish me speed. Lufthansa is on strike but I still hope to get to Italy by dinner tomorrow…

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