Despite its title, Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy's Culinary Capital, by Eric Dregni (University of Minnesota Press) is not just about food. It's not even just about Italian food. It's a series of short essays, or dispatches, by Concordia University professor Dregni, reflecting on the culture of Italy and how it differs from the U.S. -- specifically the Midwest.
Dregni and his girlfriend, Katy, settle in Modena, home of balsamic vinegar. Pasta is purchased at a fresh pasta stand; pork is purchased from the pork butcher. There is a complex etiquette to ordering and downing coffee: "Drive-up coffee bars are unheard of, and carrying a big mug of coffee in the car is just plain wrong to any Italian," writes Dregni. "Coffee is never flavored; after all, coffee is a flavor." Coffee is espresso. Parmesan is authentic parmesan "made only from the milk from pedigreed red Reggiana cows." Find out all you ever wanted to know about balsamic vinegar. Sounds like a food-lover's heaven.
But Dregni's essays are not reveries on food but a more wide-ranging look at life in Modena: why it's pointless to bother fixing your bike, how to wear a hat like an Italian man, coping with an eccentric womanizing boss, trying to get the electric and the phone hooked up when he's not even officially living there. (He and Katy lived there for three years, making some money by teaching English and writing for the newspaper.)
Even so, the most fun is reading about the cuisine. Dregni tries zampone, the front leg of a pig once it's been stuffed with extra fatty ground pork -- it's kind of like "richer Spam," he says. A better experience is when real Neapolitan pizza is paired with sfogliatelle, a ricotta-stuffed pastry. Sicilian nougat candy torrone is, well, difficult to chew. Although many fans of Italian food would love the opportunity to eat their way through Italy, Dregni seems to end up before platters of dishes that, to American tastes, are turn-offs. (Pig brains, anyone?)
Never Trust a Thin Cook is one of those travelogues where the country being visited seems to remain strange to the writer even as he celebrates his experiences there -- or at least the writer continues to present the culture as strange, even as he becomes accustomed to it. But each dispatch is just a brief taste of life in Italy; the full meal remains tempting.
Dregni will expound further on his experiences in Italy at the Italian Workmen's Club on Thursday, December 3. Italian refreshments will be served -- although probably not zampone.