Two Essential Books on Cucina Povera
Learn about the coming trend and the historic basis of the cooking of the poor

Updated Mar 09, 2019

If you’ve read some of the articles here, you may wish to learn more on the philosophies behind Italy’s cooking of the poor, cucina povera, and the applications this simple and tasty cuisine has in the modern world.

Both heavily involve oral histories—real data from folks who’ve lived and survived under very stressful conditions.

Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns

cucina povera cookbook
Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns

There is a commendable balance in this quintessential volume; those who’ve been mired in the age of poverty tell their stories and experts in the cooking of the poor explain the essence of making simple food taste like a million dollars, as we used to say. And there are recipes.

Chef Carlo Cioni of Da Delfina makes the iconic Tuscan soup called Ribollita but shows how it slowly becomes ribollita through a transition that provides soup for four days, each soup different and easily modified the next day for a totally different taste, ending in its iconic form, a big, warming, main course soup.

Cucina pover is clever. Very, very clever. Big flavors can be generated from easily obtained ingredients. Take Pasta alle Briciole for example. In the author’s words:

The topping for this pasta is sometimes called poor man’s Parmigiano and represents cucina povera at its most frugal. Women would save every bread crumb until there were enough to dress pasta, garnish soups, or flavor roasted or grilled vegetables. For this recipe, the breadcrumbs are tossed with garlic and spicy red pepper flakes that have been sauteed in olive oil. The finished topping is crunchy with a wonderful spicy flavor.

Tuscan cooking has remained simple, and for this reason folks are sometimes loath to try recipes with few ingredients, as if such simplicity couldn’t possibly be of interest. Buy, grow, or make good ingredients, and you may think differently.

Pamela Sheldon Johns offers cooking schools through her Agriturismo Poggio Etrusco.

Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita

At some point in the examination of Cucina Povera, the degree to which Italians were unable to access basic foodstuffs needs to be addressed. Karima Moyer-Nocchi interviews women from all over Italy old enough to have survived the darkest period of poverty. Her argument is that we outsiders have no idea of the depths of that poverty, and what we define as Cucina Povera today is a fantasy recreated through nostalgia for the past.

Yes, the portions of “cucina povera dishes” we might find in a restaurant are unimaginably huge and sometimes kicked up a notch or 100. But when the book is read you might be struck by how the women who talk about the difficulty of procuring food have no stomach for modern food; it lacks the flavor, the essence of what came before.

We had the ration cad all the way through until 1949. The only bread we had was black bread, pane nero, that was practically uneatable, but we made a good soup with it called _pancottino: leave your black bread for a half a day in water, boil it, and add Liebig.

What’s Liegib? He was a Baron who “came up with the idea of utilizing the bovine carcasses in Uruguay (discarded after use for their hides only) to make a cheap and nutritious meat extract for the underprivileged in Europe.”

Eventually, Liegib turned into the bullion cube we still use today.

But at the time, Liegib was a luxury item, and you had make a pretty decent trade to get some.

Another flavor enhancer was a rind of grana padana cheese. You got the cheese from country folk who had much better access to food than the city poor.

Chewing the fat makes for interesting reading from a period hidden from tourists. Highly recommended.

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