In an Italian meal, the antipasti are often under-appreciated and quickly forgotten. Arriving before the pasta dish, they are supposed to open up the stomach, as Italians believe that l’appetito viene mangiando (appetite comes while eating). A typical antipasto is a plate or wooden cutting board with slices of local sausage, hard cheeses with honey or jam, some bruschette, and pickled vegetables in olive oil. The small portions and variety indeed make one eager to get to the main dish, but the diner who stops, slows down, and savors them is rewarded. Massimo Montanari’s new book, Let the Meatballs Rest: And Other Stories About Food and Culture, can be thought of as a delicious mix of antipasti that will leave the reader with an appetite for more of the author’s books.
Montanari, a professor of medieval history and the unofficial dean of Italian gastronomic history, is the author or editor of more than twenty books, six happily available in English. This newest volume was ably translated by Beth Archer Bombert, also the translator of Montanari’s last gem, Cheese, Pears, and History in a Proverb (reviewed in Gastronomica, Summer 2012). Let The Meatballs Rest is a collection of articles and short essays written for Italian newspapers and magazines over the years, and is organized into thematic chapters. Despite Montanari’s medieval background, the article-antipasti run the chronological gamut from the fall of the Roman Empire to yesterday.
It is difficult to choose favorites from this collection—I found particularly interesting the author’s juxtaposition of meats and soups. The former can be divided by rank, with the honored guest or ranking diner getting the best cut. A soup, on the other hand, is not divided but democratically shared, with each person receiving his or her portion that is identical to any other. It is something that is obvious, but whose culinary semiotics we often do not stop to ponder. In another piece (“The taste of canned foods”), Montanari describes the strange history of industrial preserves. The original selling point was that finally, even commoners—until then forced to eat foods that were salted, smoked, dried, or otherwise preserved—could enjoy foods “fresh.” Another essay (“Eating on the highway”) takes a look at how the creation of the Italian highway network was critical for the invention of the romantic sentiments so often attached to “traditional foods” today. Highway eating turned what had once been a sign of poverty (having to eat food only from one’s immediate surroundings) into a positive value. Montanari points out that the “taste of geography” is a child of modernity, not a traditional value (one thinks here of the Michelin touring guides and their influence on the idea of terroir).
One of the best things in Let the Meatballs Rest is what is not in it. While writing for a wider audience, Montanari avoids the temptation to play up the themes that are so ever-present in popular food writing today: that there is such a thing as an “authentic” recipe for “traditional” food products, that the Mediterranean Diet is somehow peasants’ fare from long ago, and that McDonald’s is not part of Italy’s (or the world’s) food culture. In prose that is always erudite but eminently readable, Montanari gives his take on these issues, attempting to place them within a larger historical and cultural context. The result is an entertaining mix of insights on food from Italy to the United States. Perusing some of the other titles of the pieces—“To die for a melon,” “How chocolate became sweet,” “Philosophizing gluttony”—one realizes that just like the morsels on a good plate of antipasti, each one is a bite-sized story that leaves the reader with the desire for more.