I’m going to write a word, and I want you to say out loud the first thing that comes to your mind: Italy.
What was it? Was it “art” or “culture”? Was it “pasta”, “pizza”, “wine”? Or was it more broadly, just “food”? Maybe it was “delicious”. All of these are appropriate, because Italian culture, history, art, religion, and cuisine, has been one of the most successfully celebrated and exported that the world has ever known. And for good reason, as anyone has ever enjoyed a bite of a Napoli pizza can attest to!
Endless volumes can be written on the Italian affinity for the combination of beautiful ingredients grown under the Mediterranean sun. But what may be most fascinating is that what we find so uniquely Italian, that distinctive flavor we know so well, comes from a combination of ingredients that were never truly Italian to begin with. Tomatoes, for example, are native to the Americas, and did not arrive in Italy until after Columbus’s journey in 1492. And even after, the first printed recipe to even mention tomatoes in Italian cuisine didn’t occur until 1692, some 200 years later. This was largely due to the widespread belief at the time that they were poisonous, there red color earning them the nickname “the devil’s fruit”. Furthermore, there was even a general distaste for them by those brave enough to try, with authors at the time maligning them to as a mushier, worse version of an eggplant. Basil, another staple of Italian fare, is originally from India, and was thought to be an evil plant in Europe until the 17th century, causing scorpions, yes literal scorpions, to appear in one’s brain if smelled too often. Oddly enough for the longest time, Italians (Tuscans especially) were known not for their hearty consumption of bread or tomatoes, but beans, something we rarely associate with modern Italian cooking. The fagioli, as they were known, were particularly fond of fava beans, which had been cultivated since 6000 BC in the region and were celebrated religiously in medieval Sicily, being tied to mystical Christianity. This is strange however, as exposure to the beans can trigger a fatal reaction (known as favism) in about 20% of people who carry a genetic mutation most prevalent in the Mediterranean, known as G6PD deficiency. How could the beans remain so celebrated then, when a somewhat high percentage of people in the area could die from eating them – wouldn’t it be bred out, or the beans be cursed (like basil or tomatoes)? In a fascinating case of food influencing human evolution, fava bean consumption has been to shown create an internal environment in the body hazardous to the parasites which the deadliest disease humankind has ever known: malaria. Malaria was widespread in the central and southern regions of Italy up until the beginning of the 20th century, infecting nearly 2 million people per year. In fact, immunity to the disease was found to be even greatest in those who carried the G6PD deficiency, but who did not suffer the fatal reaction of favism, about 80% of that population. So, fava beans remained; their usefulness for malarial resistance outweighed their potentially deadly consequences for some.
As any chef worth their salt will tell you, it is the ingredients that make the dish (though with some humility they may attest they had something to do with as well). This seems evident when we look back on the history of Italian cuisine – from devilish fruit to gene-altering beans – there is nothing so important as the individual plants, animals, and fungi which are the true DNA of our favorite cuisines. Rich soils, rolling hills, pleasant climates, and abundant sunshine create a happy and productive farm, whether on the central coast of California or the vibrant hills of Tuscany. There is no substitute for a truly magnificent tomato, artichoke, peach, or pomegranate. So, while we may raise a glass to the chef, let us not forget to raise one as well for the farmer, who has brought from seed to plate, and another (why not?) to the ingredients themselves, whose very essence we celebrate tonight and give thanks to with our cheer.
Join us at our upcoming virtual guided tasting celebrating Italian cuisine here