June 4, 2003: Features

Food for Thought
Course blends books and cuisine

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96

Photos: In his kitchen, Professor Pietro Frassica and his students prepare foods mentioned in their readings. (Photographs by Ricardo Barros)

Students have overtaken Pietro Frassica’s sunny Princeton kitchen. Three have covered the table with flour and dough, turning it into a pasta-making station. Two others hover near the stove, sautéing chicken and grating Parmesan for the pasta’s filling. Anthony Costanzo ’04, who has sung opera professionally, croons in Italian as he folds veal cutlets around prosciutto and rosemary from Professor Frassica’s herb garden for a sautéed entrée called saltimbocca, Italian for “jump in my mouth.”

“The presentation is very important in Italian cooking,” Frassica tells the students, as he shows them how to slice cantaloupe into thin slices, which he then wraps with even thinner slices of prosciutto. A professor in the French and Italian department at Princeton for 28 years, Frassica oversees this culinary chaos as part of his Italian civilization course, The Literature of Gastronomy, which he has offered just three times in the past dozen years.

The course considers food as a reflection of historical and sociological issues portrayed in modern Italian literature from the early 1900s through the 1990s. Twice during the semester, students choose dishes from the literature they have discussed and re-create them in Frassica’s kitchen.

The students’ preparation of the stuffed pasta – the cappelletti in brodo, or “little hats in broth,” a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region – for example, was inspired by the 1990 novel Carossa, which depicts a northern Italian family’s struggles during World War II. The recipe calls for a number of ingredients (a filling of chicken, an Italian pork sausage called mortadella, ricotta, and Parmesan cheese) and intricate preparation: assembling the filling, simmering the beef stock, making the pasta from scratch, stuffing it, and creating the tiny “hats” by wrapping each piece of pasta around one’s finger. Shopping for these Italian specialties, and then navigating through the recipe, gives students an intimate connection to the reading; they consider how the family depicted in the novel did the same – but during a time when ingredients were scarce and one couldn’t simply drive to the supermarket. In addition to gaining culinary knowledge of a unique regional dish — a kind of Christmas soup — the students learn the importance of ritual.

Frassica created the course to help students understand how food, and particularly its preparation, is an integral part of Italian literature, which often depicts how in times of hardship, the scarcity of food forced Italians to come up with creative solutions. But however abstract discussions of the social, historical, economic, or psychological implications of the literature become, students always are rooted in the tangible ingredients and meals described by influential Italian authors such as Primo Levi and the fabulist Italo Calvino, and in well-known tales such as Pinocchio. (Along with its lesson about children who tell fibs, the story admonishes against wasting food.) The students – 13 this year – have several opportunities to cook and exchange recipes, but for the most part, they read, in Italian, about weighty issues of war, hunger and starvation, sexism, and Fascism. In one class early in the semester, for example, students discussed Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and how food becomes something more than nourishment:

It becomes a symbol of currency, of power, and a memory of life outside the camp. Finding food is one of the novel’s central themes; Levi, a chemist, survived because he knew to eat protein-rich earthworms instead of rotten bread, and because he pilfered small amounts of nutritious chemical compounds from the Nazi lab in which he was forced to work.

Italians’ wartime experiences also were analyzed in readings such as Pane Nero, which considers how the war affected women. Always the cooks and caretakers of the family, in the absence of their husbands women were obliged to find food as well. In a sense, they became modern-day hunters, forced to stand in a bread line for several hours or scrounge a lone onion from the dirt. Watching Sophia Loren’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of a mother in the movie Two Women, students gained a realistic, visual sense of wartime fear and the lengths to which a woman would go to feed her child, after she had fled Rome for the countryside and left her grocery store behind.

Many students say the most intriguing and surprising reading of the class was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Fillia’s La Cucina Futurista (1932), or “Futurist Cuisine.” Marinetti, the poet, critic, and founder of the Italian Futurist movement, organized what Frassica calls “extreme eating experiences” dictated to the last detail and meant to provoke Italians to abandon the provincial and simple lifestyles reflected in their cuisine. These luncheons, Marinetti hoped, would shock people into a futuristic world. Marinetti invented recipes like Equatore + Polo Nord, or “Equator and North Pole” – which he describes as “a sea of raw egg-yolks seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon. From the middle of this rises a cone of beaten egg-whites, embellished all over with segments of orange, like juicy slices of the sun. The top of the cone should be studded with pieces of black truffle cut in to the shape of negro aeroplanes conquering the summit.” The same man who concocted these imaginative and bizarre dishes encouraged Italians to give up pasta and instead eat rice, saying the traditional Italian meal induced “fiacchezza, pessimismo, inattività nostalgica, é neutralismo (lethargy, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity, and neutralism).”

The Fascists embraced Marinetti’s agenda, promoting locally grown rice over the expensive imported wheat needed for pasta. Such an inflammatory suggestion – imagine attacking Italy’s beloved pasta – shows how even food could be used as Fascist propaganda, Frassica says.

Frassica’s interest in gastronomy began when he was a boy on a farm in postwar Sicily, surrounded by “simple, wonderful food. When the cherries and peaches were ready to eat, it was a holiday,” he says. “You learned to appreciate the changing of the seasons.” Because they lived on a farm, his family didn’t suffer as much as others during the food shortages of World War II, but Frassica remembers neighbors coming to ask for food. He remembers how neighbors with relatives in the U.S. were sent food in cans. “That really impressed me as a child,” he says. “No one had seen food in cans. People thought it was a miracle.” He learned firsthand how the absence of food changes a culture.

When Frassica left home to teach in Milan, he missed the food, and called home frequently for recipes. “I learned to cook over the phone with my mother, aunts, and sisters,” he says. He quickly built up an impressive repertoire of classic southern Italian recipes, which he now uses to dazzle friends. “I don’t play an instrument or paint as an artistic hobby,” he explains. “I cook.” His pièce de résistance, he says, is eggplant caponata, a Sicilian ratatouille made with cubed, fried eggplant. “When I don’t make it, my friends are disappointed.”

So when students gather in his kitchen, where bunches of ripe tomatoes and dried orange peels hang from the ceiling, and shelves are lined with bottles of different olive oils (some made by his relatives in Italy), they are in the hands of an expert.

“The students work very hard,” he says, “but they understand the literature and the food and become a part of it.”

As the cappelletti are dropped in the broth to cook, Frassica plates the prosciutto é melone, which in the short story Le Grotte di Postumia by Achille Campanile, was a hungry traveler’s delusion of a stalagmite (and is a common Italian summer appetizer). Dessert – castagnaccio, a peasant cake made with chestnut flour – is placed in the oven to cook; in the book Pane Nero, peasant women ground their flour from chestnuts. Cooks Christina Marks ’03 and Mike Castagna ’03 used Castagna’s grandmother’s recipe to make the rather unsophisticated cake of pine nuts, raisins, olive oil, and chestnut flour – ingredients readily available to peasants, though not necessarily to students in central New Jersey. Castagna says that he trekked to Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, to find the chestnut flour.

While a visit to Bensonhurst hardly can be seen as a hardship, Frassica believes the cooking workshop does give students a sense of the importance, difficulty, and ritual of gathering and preparing food. Still, the afternoon in his home is festive and busy, with students oohing and aahing over the smells coming from the frying veal; it culminates with a large meal in Frassica’s sunroom, Italian music from the 1930s playing in the background.

“The workshop was the kind of experience that one always hopes to get out of Princeton,” says Anthony Costanzo. “We had the academic material, but it became experience, in addition to thought.”

In the past, Frassica has offered this course only every four years. But this year – in conjunction, he says, with a growing interest by literature scholars in the relationship between food and literature – he had to turn away dozens of students. The class usually is open only to those who can speak and read Italian, but Frassica intends to hold his next course in English (with a precept for Italian speakers), and he hopes to hold it every two years, instead of every four.

Despite the serious subject matter covered in the literature, “we have happiness and light too,” Frassica notes. As students help themselves to seconds he exclaims, “After all I’ve made you read, you deserve a treat, no?”

Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a PAW staff writer.




Photo: As part of their course, The Literature of Gastronomy, Pietro Frassica and his students eat their work.

Follow these recipes to prepare some of the dishes created by students in the Literature of Gastronomy class – and enjoy them with wine suggested by Professor Frassica.


Cappelletti in Brodo (inspired by Carossa, by Claudio Marabini)

Serves 10

1/2 chicken breast (about 4 oz), chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 oz mortadella (a mildly spicy, pork sausage)
3 oz ricotta
11/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 eggs
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
13/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 cups clear meat or chicken broth

1. Brown the chicken breast in the butter, season it with salt and pepper, set aside.

2. Chop mortadella finely, and combine in a bowl with chicken, ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan, 1 of the eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix well.

3. Heap the flour in a mound on a wooden board and make a well in the center. Break in 2 eggs and knead into a soft, smooth dough. Roll out into a thin sheet and cut into 11/4-inch circles. (The top of a round water glass cuts well.)

4. Place a little filling in the center of each circle and fold the pasta in half, making a semicircle. Press the edges together to seal in the filling. Wind the folded edge around the tip of your index finger, and press the two ends together to form a ring. (It will look like a small Pope’s miter.)

5. Bring the broth to a boil, drop in the cappelletti, and cook until al dente, about 2—3 minutes.

Wine suggestion: Sangiovese or a red or white Sicilian Regaleali


Castagnaccio (inspired by Pane Nero, by Miriam Mafai)

Serves 12

3 tablespoons raisins
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
2 cups + 2 tablespoons chestnut flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons pine nuts (pignoli) or walnuts
2 cups cold milk
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves (fresh or dried)

1. In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the lukewarm milk for 20 minutes.

2. Sift all but 1 tablespoon of the flour into a large bowl. Add the sugar, salt, and pine nuts. Mix well with a wooden spoon, then add 2 cups of cold milk, little by little, stirring constantly, being careful not to create lumps.

3. Drain the raisins and coat them with the remaining tablespoon of chestnut flour. Add the raisins to the bowl, along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and mix well until smooth.

4. Preheat oven to 400. Oil a round baking pan, preferably tin-lined copper, 91/2 inches in diameter and 3 inches high, with second tablespoon of oil.

5. Pour contents into pan and sprinkle remaining tablespoon of olive oil and rosemary leaves over the top. Place pan in preheated oven for 40—50 minutes (if using a copper pan, cook for 10 minutes less). Let cool for 15—20 minutes.

Wine suggestion: White or red Malvasia or a sweet Passito de Pantelleria


Saltimbocca (inspired by Le Grotte di Postumia, by Achille Campanile)

Serves 4

8 veal cutlets (scallopini)
6 oz thinly sliced prosciutto
24 large sage leaves
1/2 cup flour for dusting
Salt and pepper to taste
Enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan (about 3 tablespoons)
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons butter

1. Pound each cutlet very thin. Cover the entire surface area of the cutlet with prosciutto, and place 2 sage leaves on the veal. Fold the veal in half and pound again to seal. Make sure to mix salt and pepper into the flour, and then lightly coat veal with flour, shaking off any excess.

2. Heat the oil until smoking, and place the cutlets in the pan. Try not to move them around for the first 30 seconds. When deep golden brown, turn and brown on the other side. The first side should take about 3 minutes; the second, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove cutlets from the pan and set aside; cover with foil to keep warm.

3. Deglaze the pan with white wine, reducing the heat. Simmer until the wine is reduced by two-thirds. Whisk in the butter until the sauce thickens and add the remaining 8 sage leaves to the sauce.

4. Pour sauce over the cutlets and serve.

Wine suggestion: Barolo or Dolcetto d’Alba; or Pinot Grigio

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