Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gentilcore- Pomodoro!- review

Author David Gentilcore is a historian who has written an enjoyable and highly readable account of the rise to glory of the tomato in Italy. A sort of rags to riches veggiography of what the Italians now (sometimes) call oro rosso, or "red gold."

As Gentilcore recounts, our ruddy hero was initially despised by aristocracy and populace alike. His explanation of why the tomato was originally disliked and avoided is not entirely convincing, apart from the fact that all foreign foodstuffs take time to assimilate, and some never do. The association with the eggplant and the nightshade family weighed against it, as these were perceived to be toxic (and most of them aren't, as I am myself an eggplant and very wholesome). There are two considerations I would put forward- the first, that the tomato as initially brought from the New World was no great shakes; the fact that it was probably yellow (d'oro, golden) may mean that it was quite different in taste. Second- the Italians are notoriously xenophobic where food is concerned. Gentilcore notes that maize (our American corn) was readily adopted by them (some of them). Yes, but only in its processed form as cornmeal, as in polenta. To this day, Italians do not eat corn as a vegetable. Italians will not eat corn kernels, and particularly corn on the cob. My best guess is that the improvement in the tomato over the years, coupled with the hunger of the population, especially in the South, broke down resistance to it. It also goes exceedingly well with pasta, bread, and pizza, although all of these preceded the introduction of the tomato to Italy.

The book is both credible from the academic standpoint (published by the prestigious Columbia University Press) and a good read. It takes us through the centuries from the tomato's first appearance on European shores, and follows its progress until the present, a sort of history of Italy from a tomato's-eye-view. All sorts of recipes are included, and there were so many interesting facts and allusions to people, writers, artists, movies and so on, that I kept several tabs open on my netbook browser while I was reading, to look things up and further my knowledge. An example: I'd like to try to reproduce the lentils with sun-dried tomato dish he cites from Vittorini's Conversation in Sicily. If I do, I'll post it here.