Breadcrumbs are an essential part of cucina povera, and a big part of the cuisine of Italy today. During the intense poverty of common folks during the 20 years of Mussolini, especially in the south, women would carefully dust the table for crumbs to save until there was enough to toast and use. No hyper-expensive Cuisinart machines were needed to whack intentionally dried bread into submission. Crumbs just came that way naturally.
There is a spiritual side to this “crumbs from the table” thing, too. Remember Lazarus? During the end of his life he becomes destitute. He’s lying outside the gates of a rich guy’s house naked; dogs are licking at his open sores. He begs for crumbs. He’s rebuffed by the rich man, who’d rather have his servants throw the crumbs away. In other words, Lazarus has asked politely for something of no value to the rich man, and he’s refused. Soon after both die. Guess who goes to heaven?
To not waste even a crumb is indeed an essential part of living with poverty and managing the meager resources of a nearly tapped-out earth. But if you’re really good at being poor, you’d raise up these pedestrian ingredients until they grace the tip of the food pyramid (and why aren’t we teaching this in every school?).
Imagine one of my favorite dishes. This:
What we’re eating in the Basilicata region is eggless pasta with toasted bread crumbs, a few flakes of dried peperoncini, and a little olive oil. A classic. In Sicily the classic is called Pasta ca’ Muddica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs). If you have a few cents more, you can add a little garlic.
(At one time you could have eaten an entire meal of cucina povera, including meatless meatballs, at a ristorante called La Locandiera in Bernalda, a famous little village in Basilicata, while staying inside a room in a restored cheese factory that once made ricotta forte, a strong, fermented ricotta cheese that will make you cry if you like stinky cheeses. I mean really stinky—a little goes a long way. See: Bernalda: The Navel of Basilicata Life. I’ve recently been told that the restaurant is no longer in existence. It’s a sad time; many journals on food have called it one of the best in Italy.)
Cucina Povera Persists
The crumbs from your daily bread go in those meatless meatballs, of course, because the toasting makes those little balls taste for all the world as if they have beef in them.
But I’ve also seen Italians simply sprinkle toasted breadcrumbs on small, skewered shrimp and cook them on little bits of charcoal scraped from a roaring fire. Who breads their grilled shrimp? Well, after eating a few, I’d say everyone should.
And finally, I’ve been in a German restaurant with a young cook whose family owned a bakery. He steamed a small rabbit tenderloin, ran to the bakery for the breadcrumbs, and returned with a dish of the little tenderloin simply rolled in the fresh breadcrumbs and set on the plate.
It was delicious.
All this simplicity and fresh, local ingredients are a wonderful vacation from our idea of kicking a dish up a notch by adding yet another gratuitous tablespoon of dried herbs in addition to the 16 already floating in the pot. Get your senses ready—because they’re probably going to be very, very confused.