Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    Sausage peddlers were a common sight, but more so were the vagrants who filled sixteenth-century Mediterranean cities. In Spain the ranks of the picardia (rogue’s den), included vagrants, adventurers, beggars, pickpockets, even students. They congregated in towns like Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The thieves and tramps came from the dregs of Spanish society and, when not robbing, looked for work and were naturally drawn to the ships heading for the Indies.

    As Spain entered its Golden Age in the late sixteenth century, brigandage was on the rise. In Catalonia Cervantes described the road from Barcelona to Saragossa as particularly dangerous, filled with as many bandoleros as there were bandouliers in Languedoc. These bandits were like modern guerilla bands, with the peasants on their side. Cities had to be careful when expelling these dregs of society because they ended up in the countryside robbing travelers. Seville rounded up all its vagabonds in October 1581 and shipped them to the Americas, but they never made it: the four ships sunk in the South Atlantic and a thousand vagabonds drowned.

    The odd assortment of rogues in Spanish society during this period often became characters in literature. The picaresque novel, derived from the word for “rogue’s den,” saw the poor rascals become anti-heros. They were known as the sopistas, the soup eaters living off the handouts of sopa boba at monastery doors. Two of the earliest picaresque novels were the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes published in 1554 and Francisco de Quevedo’s La Vida del Buscón written in 1608. These novels about the down-and-out rascally youths are preoccupied with how to get food. In Lazarillo de Tormes, poor Lazarillo works for an evil priest who gives him one onion every four days. Lazarillo finds a tinkerer to make a copy of the key to the priest’s bread box. But he can eat only mere crumbs, like a mouse, so he will not be found out..

    The huge number of vagabonds, and lack of strong central authority in Italy, made it a bandit’s paradise, especially in Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. Behind all banditry was the specter of hunger. In Sicily the exploits of the bandits were sung by the urvi, blind wandering minstrels who played small violins. There were bandits in North Africa, too, where the noble and ancient ghazwa, the razzia or military raid, became nothing more than highway robbery. Turkey, too, eventually became infested with robbers.

    Calabria, in southern Italy, was the most infamous for its bands of cutthroats and bandits who committed the most horrifying crimes. They were viciously repressed only to retaliate with ever greater audacity and ferocity. They killed people in churches, raided castles, and entered the towns in daylight. Bandits were often supported by their relatives living in the villages who stored their food supply and provided shelter. Banditry continued in part because one country delighted in the troubles of another and covertly supported the bandits there. Whether Calabria’s rustic cuisine is attributable to its rough historical precedents is an interesting question, but, of course, culinary development doesn’t necessarily work that way. Contemporary rustic cuisine is often an outgrowth of historic poverty.