A prolific writer on food history and culture, Massimo Montanari has lots to say about why we eat the ways we do. His book Let the Meatballs Rest, and Other Stories About Food and Culture is a compilation of 100 short pieces. The works explore the origins of specific ingredients and ways of cooking, and how culturally-specific diets have shaped human society for centuries.
Many of Montanari's pieces detail specific foods and their rise to popularity. He describes how eating garlic was considered to be a damning mark of poverty in the tenth century. Only peasants would dare to eat such strong and foul-smelling food! When potatoes were introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, their mild flavor and "subterranean nature" made them unappealing to even the lowest class. They only began to be cultivated when widespread hunger necessitated high production of easy-to-grow crops. And the eggplant, today so associated with Italian cuisine but initially brought to Europe by Arabs, was quickly relegated to "the lower class and Jews." These firm distinctions led to the development of a peasant cuisine that would later be co-opted by the upper class.
Montanari also explores alternative philosophies about consumption and restraint. Monks restricted their lifestyles substantially, but were encouraged to develop a rich and interesting food culture. Monks often made more complex foodstuffs such as jams and cheeses. And many upper-class people in the tenth century adopted the philosophy of adapting one's diet and eating patterns to the changing seasons. This intentionality allegedly made one more adaptable to unpredictable life events.
Montanari makes a strong case that beauty and beautiful food shouldn't be "the privilege of the few." Beauty by his definition means being conscious of the environment, paying attention to seasonality, and being thankful to those who produce our food. I liked how in this and other instances, Montanari broke down the way currently view ingredients and eating styles. He demonstrates that fundamentally and historically, these views are entirely a product of our time and culture.
Let the Meatballs Rest is a nice read, though the language is a bit stilted. This may be a result of the fact that Montanari is a professor and academic, or because the book was translated from Italian. It has the feel of older, classic food authors like Brillat-Savarin or early M.F.K Fisher. But his tone isn't didactic; rather, the reader learns about food history while still absorbing Montanari's lessons that we should all appreciate other cultures and ways of eating.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.