In our time of simmering enchantment with all things culinary, from cookbooks to gastro memoirs to televised chef brawls, you may be forgiven for thinking our food obsession is some kind of recent phenomenon. Massimo Montanari, in “Let the Meatballs Rest: And Other Stories About Food and Culture,’’ demonstrates how spectacularly unrecent, how truly untrendy this mania turns out to be. Positively medieval is more like it.
As a professor of food history at the University of Bologna, Montanari has the scholarly chops to explain why. His book comes larded with the sort of pinpoint cultural detail that vivifies not recent years or decades of eating, but centuries, making for a textured, surprising, and brightly astringent read.
In scores of short essays gathered in thematic sections, he explores subjects as various as the place of breakfast across time, how monks got around eating in silence, and how hunger and pleasure are intimately entwined. But what breathes through just about every page here is how food, cooking, and taste have consistently been wielded, knowingly or not, as razor-sharp weapons of class warfare.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, critic William Deresiewicz argued that American food hysteria has become “a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upsmanship, and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.)” And yet working with original texts, Montanari persuasively and amply documents how this sort of warfare has been around for a very long time, if not from the first experience of human hunger. As he put it: “Foods are not only edible substances but also social images.”
When spices were rare and expensive, the well-to-do spent fortunes to showcase them at their dinner parties. When worldwide transport rendered those same delights common and cheap, complex sauces became de rigueur and exotically spiced fare was cast aside. Montanari shows how this wearying human impulse toward one-upmanship has surfaced across time, whether it’s with white flour or sugar or peaches or beef.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether the ideas for “Iron Chef’’ or “Man v. Food’’ or “Chopped’’ weren’t grabbed from an ancient lockbox. Again and again, Montanari tries to tease apart the cultural underpinnings of how and why we eat what we eat. These essays feel like a much needed, idea-laden corrective to the roaring river of first-person culinary memoirs that we see these days, running along the lines of: I had my heart broken, then ate my way through Cambodia (or Tuscany or the Texas barbecue belt) and found myself healed!
If there’s a letdown to “Let The Meatballs Rest’’ beyond the title — did the author and his friends name this book after quaffing a case of grappa? — it’s prose weighed down by occasionally obtuse academese (the word “alimentary’’ sucks energy out of every other page) and the challenges of translation. A line like “Fruit evoked alimentary luxury, not choices linked to the daily struggle against hunger, but the pleasure of the unnecessary” lurches past like a freighter with no stern.
Regardless, these pieces are saved by the fascinating strangeness that Montanari unearths in old texts — for example, the character Lippo Ghisilieri, a patrician who protects his peaches from a crafty peasant by digging traps in his garden, lining them with nails. But the peasant, no fool, sneaks in on stilts fitted with horseshoes, tricking the noble into thinking a donkey has stripped his orchard clean. Think “The Canterbury Tales’’ meets “Restaurant Stakeout.’’Ted Weesner Jr., a writer in Somerville who teaches at Tufts University, can be reached at email@example.com.