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Comment: Italian-Jewish cooking   Leave a comment

Italian Jewish Cooking by Tom Albert

i) Introduction and Artusi

Pellegrino Artusi published in 1891 the best known of all Italian cookbooks: La Scienza in Cucina. In this cookbook, Artusi mentions the Jews and their cooking in Italy.

‘Forty years ago, one hardly saw eggplants or fennel in the markets of Florence; they were considered to be vile because they were foods eaten by Jews. As in other matters of greater moment, here again the Jews show how they have always had a better nose than the Christians’ (Artusi 1890, §399).

Artusi’s quote sums up the Italian perception of the Jewish presence in Italy. In it we see the anti-Semitism present in Italy – the nose joke – but also the melding of Italian and Jewish foodways. Artusi’s quote also indirectly demonstrates how little information there is about Italian Jewish cooking, since this paragraph is the only important nineteenth-century source we have on this topic.

ii) Italian Jewish Communities

Italian Jews fell into three categories: Italkim, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim (Goldstein, 1998). The Italkim arrived in Rome in 2 B.C. The Sephardim immigrated from Spain and Portugal in 1492 right after the Spanish government drove them from the country. Lastly, the Ashkenazim were from central Europe and settled in the north of Italy.

These three groups each brought with them specific foods. For example, the Sephardic Jews brought New World food to Italy, including peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and pumpkin (Goldstein, 1998). Ashkenazim tended to use more spices, while the Italkim utilized the regional foods of Italy (Serbe-Viola).

Once the Jews arrived in Italy, most settled throughout Italy: Rome, Turin, Piedmont, and Sicily (Stille, 1991) (Goldstein, 1998). Anti-Semitism was present in Italy and thus the Jews were ghettoized. They were isolated and shamed as we see in one notable Florentine Renaissance source: ‘Every Jew, male or female above the age of twelve, whether or not named in the Florence agreement, and whether or not a resident of the city of Florence shall be required to wear a sign of O in the city of Florence’ (Bucker). There was a penalty of 25 lires for those that forgot to wear it (Bucker).

Their isolation and public dislike did not bode well for their economic status, and they were, for the most part, poor. Their diet consisted, then, of the classic Mediterranean staples: olive oil, wine, little meat, and ‘poor’ vegetables (such as onions and garlic). In addition, in the ghetto, there was a mixture and mixing of Jewish traditions. This blend of customs obviously affected cuisine. The Italkim could share with the Sephardim and Ashkenazim their New World food, while Ashkenazim introduced their Jewish counterparts to spices.

Their diet was also influenced by the region that they lived in. Since Sicily was a center for Mediterranean trade, Jewish cooking was influenced by Arabic, Norman, Arogonese and later Spanish cuisine (Goldstein, 1998). The Jews incorporated Arabic cuisine especially, with the use of sweet and sour dishes, as well as pine nuts and raisins. However, the Spanish Inquisition effectively drove many Jews out of the southern island, which was under Spanish control (Goldstein, 1998). They moved ‘to Ancona and Pesaro, most to Rome, where their Arab-inspired dishes entered Roman culture’ (Goldstein, 1998). In addition, since the Jews migrated to separate parts of Italy, and, as Italy was not unified until 1861, Italian Jewish cuisine changed with the regions. Since the Jews were forced to move constantly due to persecution, they had to adapt to the local ingredients and shape them around their Kosher laws.

Nevertheless, Italy’s unification represented a change for the Jewish people of Italy. Once they were allowed to leave the ghetto, they took on the identity of Italian first, Jewish second (Goldstein, 1998). This was the time of assimilation. The Jews in Italy held high-power jobs, such as generals, cabinet ministers, and prime ministers (Stille, 1991). ‘The distinction between Jews and non-Jews didn’t exist…there were some religious Jews, but they tended to be poorer, closer to the roots’ (Stille, 1991).

iii) Jewish Cooking

Assimilation meant the loss of many Jewish traditions and in this changing world, cooking was one precious link with the past. As Lucia Levi had it in the introduction to Poesie Nascosta (1931) the first Jewish Italian cookbook:

‘Vi sono forme delle tradizioni culinarie proprie ad ogni paese, ad ogni regione, qualche volta ad ogni famiglia. Spesso tali tradizioni sono le solo sopravvissute in mezzo al più desolante abbandono di ogni abitudine ebraica. Tenendole nel giusto onore Israele non rimpicciolisce la religione ma realizza quella che è l’essenza stessa dell’ Ebraismo, spiritualizza cioè i più umili materiali atti della vita, identificandoli con l’atto più elevato cioè la preghiera, la comunione con Dio.’

[‘There are forms of cooking tradition in every country, every region and sometimes in every family. Often these traditions are the last survivors in the midst of the complete abandonment of every Jewish custom. Holding cooking in proper honour Israel does not diminish religion but underlines what is the essence of Judaism, to spiritualise the most humble material acts in life, identifying them with the highest act – prayer and the communion with God.’]

Assimilation also meant that many Italian Jewish families no longer kept a kosher home. Yet, they still celebrated holidays, but with more emphasis on food than the historical importance of what the holiday represented (Goldstein, 1998). For example, during a Passover Seder, they had ‘buttered sandwiches of anchovy paste, smoked salmon, caviar, pate de foie gras, ham; with little volau-vents filled with minced chicken in béchamel…the ham and chicken in béchamel are clear violations of the kosher laws’ (Goldstein, 1998). Jewish identity was ‘more a matter of family tradition and honor than spiritual commitment…they were proud of being Jewish…[and] proud of being Italian’ (Stille, 1991). With this assimilation, even though it meant more equality between Jewish Italians and Italians, it also meant that Jewish laws, which are a crucial part of the religion, were being forgotten.

So, what exactly is Jewish Italian cooking? This is a hard question to answer because there are not many sources out there that discuss this specific topic. The first published Italian cookbook, Poesia Nascosta, did not appear until 1931, and by this time, assimilation was at its climax (Siporin, 1994). Jewish cooking for the Italians represented ‘unforgettable memories of ceremonies, of family reunions that have left a sense of nostalgic sweetness and delicious dishes in the hearts of everyone’ (quoted from Siporin, 1994). In Italy, nostalgia began to define Jewish cooking. ‘More recent Italian Jewish cookbooks further diminish the role of Kashrut and correspondingly expand the role of nostalgia in defining cucina ebraica’ (Siporin, 1994). In another Italian Jewish cookbook, the author mentions that he hopes that Jewish dishes ‘become a tasty pretext for discovering (or rediscovering) the pleasant aroma of our holidays, which seemed lost forever’ (quoted from Siporin, 1994). In addition, Italian Judaism in Italy has ‘been sentimentalized and recast in terms of family tradition in the kitchen’ which helps explain the nostalgia that comes from the meals (Siporin, 1994).

This nostalgia is evident today. Italy’s leading Jewish website – www. – includes two Jewish Italian cookbooks in its corpus of Jewish Italian works. It is there too in the name and tone of many more modern Italian Jewish works of cookery including La Cucina della Memoria [The cooking of memory] Ricete giudaico-monferrine raccolte dai ricettari di famiglia, a cura della comunita ebraica di Casaie Monferrato, Fondazione arte e storia della cultura ebraica a Casale Monferrato e nel Piemonte orientale, (2001).

Yet, besides nostalgia, Jewish Italian dishes also took the pattern of the Italian menu, with a primo piatto, secondo piatto, contorni, and dessert (Siporin, 1994). This regular form ‘is so common in Italy that it is almost invisible’ (Siporin, 1994). It also made a statement ‘of class association through one’s ability to adhere to the structural formula’ (Siporin, 1994). Jewish Italians felt that in order to show their participation in the culture, they had to show that they understood and contributed in culinary refinement. The Italian Jewish cookbooks ‘apply the Italian meal formula to each Jewish holiday, so that menu tradizionali have been constructed for every seasonal celebration. In other words, there are set, four to give course meals for Purim, Passover, Shavuot, and other holidays’ (Siporin, 1994). Even the cookbook themselves are organized according to the Italian menu, with sections for meats, soup, and vegetables in the ‘sequenced order of the meal’ (Siporin, 1994). This demonstrates how much the Jews assimilated the Italian culture into their own. ‘The form of the meal-even on the most Jewish of days-is Italian. And the contents and occasions of these elegant Italian constructions are anciently and locally Jewish’ (Siporin, 1994). Italian Jews are making it very clear that they contain both identities, allowing both to shine simultaneously.

Yet, even with the two identities mixing, there is still the inevitability of the diminishing presence of the Jewish religion. Modern cookbooks do evoke a sense of nostalgia and express pride in being Jewish. ‘They also serve to secure a place for ‘Jewish cuisine’ in the pantheon of ‘regional’ Italian cuisine’ (Siporin, 1994). The importance of the religion has faded, but the cuisine reflects ‘an identity that… is still valued’ (Siporin, 1994).

Artusi, Pellegrino, Murtha Baca, and Stephen Sartarelli. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003. Print.

Brucker, Gene The Society of Renaissance Florence, 241-243.

Goldstein, Joyce Esersky. Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (San Francisco, 1998)

Serbe-Viola, Diana. ‘Jewish Cooking – Foods of the Diaspora’ In Mamas Kitchen. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>

Siporin, Steve ‘From Kashrut to Cucina Ebraica: The Recasting of Italian Jewish Foodways’, The Journal of American Folklore, 107 (Spring, 1994), 268-281

Stille, Alexander. Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism. (New York 1993)

Comment: Montanari on primi and secondi   Leave a comment

Massimo Montanari, an ever-observant food scholar, made an interesting guess at the “family history” of the current Italian trend of separating the seemingly inseparable primo and secondo dishes. The typical Italian menu, and indeed (supposedly) Italian lunch or dinner, consists of an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (usually a pasta dish) followed by a secondo (meat or fish), then dessert and coffee. Recently the primo and secondo have been increasingly distant, with the former served at lunch and the latter at dinner. The separation of these formerly (again, according to commentators, not food historians) perfectly-wed dishes is yet another sign of the decline of the Italian family.

Montanari has another take. Historically, he points out, meat was the main element of a meal, with pasta the side dish. As the majority of Italians could no longer afford meat, pasta came to take a more central role: meat, when present, was a condiment, for example a meat sauce over pasta or polenta. Only with the post-WWII abundance could Italians put them back together at the same table simultaneously. Their divorce (Montanari’s metaphor) is logical, more in line with the modern European dish that has only one main course, not two. Decadence? Montanari says it’s simply a reasonable separation.  ZN

(See Montanari’s Il riposo della polpetta e altre storie intorno al cibo. Laterza, 2009)

Posted November 14, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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