How did Italian food conquer the world? Garlic! One Clove at a Time

The April Fools Day forecast for Vermont and the Northeast is for snow. Heavy, wet snow: 8 inch accumulation and 30-degree temperatures. It might not be pretty. So like many of my fellow Vermonters, I’ll be seeking solace in food. Comforting Italian food, pasta specifically, laced with lots of garlic.

With that menu in mind, I was delighted to find a rebroadcast of Terry Gross’ interview with John Mariani, Esquire Magazine food critic and the author of “How Italian Food Conquered the World“. The title of the book is a winner. It’s big and wonderful and attention-grabbing, not unlike my favorite tuber. But unlike the title of the book, the interview was fairly innocuous.

First of all the book is about Italian food becoming popular in America, not the world. This makes the same presumption as baseball’s World Series. John Mariani made the history seem so un-romantic. It was all about cheap food. And the type of Italian food that conquers in this book is Italian-American food, not Tuscan food or Neapolitan food.
At the turn of the century, thousands of Italian immigrants came to the US to escape the war. Because they could not find the indigenous and fabulous ingredients of their homeland, they improvised with American ingredients. Thus Italian-American food was born. Because the Italian housewife of the era had more free time on her hands (Mariani doesn’t tell us why in the interview), dinner became less about subsistence and more about being the best cook on the block.

Chef Boyardee took it from there. The canned spaghetti-and-meatballs was originally made as GI rations and thousands of soldiers were introduced to “Italian” food.

Because of the relatively low-cost of its ingredients, Italian food became associated with large portions. And we indulged and split our seams.
The interview notes that olive oil was largely absent from the conquering cuisine until the International Olive Oil Commission first promoted and funded theĀ  Mediterranean Diet in 1980. And we started eating more and healthier Italian food in smaller quantities and with less cheese.

I was disappointed that Mariani did not even mention garlic until 16 minutes into a 20-minute interview. For me, Italian food is all about romance, spice, flavor, chance, adventure and celebration. I love the stereotypes.

Maybe I have seen too many Fellini films, but for me the romance of Italian food is all Marcello Mastroianni and Gina Lollobrigida and Barollo and Garlic!

In fairness to Mariani, the book got some great reviews (and some bad ones – one reader claims that his mouth did not water once while reading the book). Read an excerpt and make your own call.

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