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Never Trust a Thin Cook

Eric Dregni

(University of Minnesota Press; US: Sep 2009)

An American in Modena

Italy has been attracting and delighting all kinds of visitors for centuries. Artists are drawn to Italy’s soft yellow light and blue skies, writers and poets visit the sophisticated art cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome, fashionistas flock every year to Milan, pilgrims en mass (pardon the pun) visit any number of holy sites and churches sprinkled across Italy like baker’s confection.


Italy also has always been a foodie’s paradise and for those in the know, Emilia-Romagna is the gourmet center of Italy and Bologna is both the regional capital and food capital of Italy. The Tuscan landscape and bits of Milan, Rome, and Venice may be the evocative images Italy projects onto the world, but Emilia-Romagna is the place you must visit if you love food, glorious Italian food: tortellini, prosciutto, and pasta a la bolognaise.
 
This is the starting point for Eric Dregni’s desire to live in Modena: “I simply want to live in the place with the best food in the world.” He accepts a job to teach English in Modena and convinces his girl friend Katy that Modena is the perfect small city compared to the big tourist cities such as Milan or Bologna. Dregni expects to find in Modena “authentic charm unspoiled by polluted air, where people take the time to cook and enjoy meals.”


So what does he find?


The book answers this implicit question by chronicling Dregni and Katy’s picaresque experiences that range from learning how to deal with the Italian bureaucracy’s obsession with stamps and massive forms, to secretive cheese merchants, mad women in an Italian supermarket, ancient bicycles, to the shenanigans of Dregni’s boss who runs the local private English school, and tasting the precious local balsamic vinegar, to name some of the episodes in this book.


There are some 48 little sketches or portraits in all, in varying lengths from a few hundred words to some that expand into several pages. Each sketch is an attempt to capture some aspect of Italian life and in particular to describe the Italian passion for tasty, fresh food. Indeed, Italians demonstrate a lusty passion for good food and they are constantly steering Dregni in the right direction when it comes to eating well.


At the festival of San Geminiano, at the end of January, Dregni devours porchetta (roasted pork) wrapped in the local hot piadina (flatbread) and washed down with a fizzy wine called Lambrusco. A visit to a friend’s farm allows him to sample tagliatelle (wide pasta noodles) with porcini mushrooms and sprinkled with the pungent (and expensive) flavor of freshly shaved truffles. In a trattoria (informal restaurant) he and Katy enjoy crescenteni, flat bread that is ferociously claimed to be from Modena and not Bologna.


Although the book claims to be primarily about food and eating well in and around Modena, the focus soon strays into trying to make sense out of the Italians and their customs, sports, media, and politics. Alas, Dregni is never able to get past the surface of Italian life and all too often the competent writing is cute rather than insightful or particularly thoughtful or penetrating. Granted this is about teaching, eating, and learning about Italian life in a small provincial town in northern Italy and perhaps there is not too much drama or intrigue other than of the bumbling rule-bending kind that Italians seem to be prone to. Being furbo, or clever at outwitting the law or government taxes is something of a national characteristic and Dregni does get the spirit of it for example when he is asked to sit in on a TV broadcast van and appear like he knows what he is doing.


The tales or stories are light and frothy like the foam atop a cup of cappuccino and seldom take us into unexpected or uncharted waters. Life in Modena, in Italy in general, is all good clean madcap fun according to Dregni. There are cute, witty observations about language and how in Italian, context (as in all languages) is all-important. Or we are served up the observation Italians are second only to the United States in porn consumption but that Italians like their porn amusing whereas Americans like their porn slick and glossy and the Germans, well, they have a thing for sadomasochistic porn. These promising observations never go anywhere mainly because there is nowhere to go with them, and he simply concludes chapters on a tepid note.


Thus, Dregni does not tell us anything new or profound about Italy and how the Italians live. In fact he sometimes strays very close to stereotype in his depiction of Italians. For example, he devotes an episode to Modena’s obsessive relationship with Ferrari and this turns into a cliché about Italians love of all things Ferrari.


Curiously, Dregni seldom discusses cultivated landscapes, the stunning seascapes (he does, however visit southern Italy and a windstorm is the big adventure), or the abundant art and architecture to be found all over Italy. Instead, he seems content to see Italy with wide-eyed innocence and good humor—a sort of Italy lite—rather than now and again peering into the darkness that lies just beneath the surface in such an ancient sunny land.


Dregni clearly enjoys Italian life and the Italians seem to enjoy Katy and Dregni, but this does not translate (pardon the pun) into a complex inside look at a sophisticated people and their ancient culture. Having said that, to Dregni’s credit he cracks the social code of drinking espresso correctly and understands the place of spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, and for this we can give thanks.

Rating:

Carmelo Militano latest book, Fate of Olives, is part travel book, and part memoir. It was short-listed for the D.H.Lawrence travel book in Europe and Eileen McTavis Skyes book award in Canada.


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