Interview with Anna Maria Volpi

The author of The Timeless Art of Italian Cuisine talks about the writing of her book, about the appeal of true Italian cuisine, her love of Italy, about winning the prestigious Special Jury Award, 10 simple points for good and healthy eating, her cooking inspirations, and lots more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Tell me about your book’s genesis.

Anna Maria: The book started many years ago as a promotion tool for my business of cooking. I believe writers don’t know what they are writing about until they start. In fact along the way became a much larger project that took more than one year to put together.

Magdalena: Why do you think that Italian food has such a wide appeal?

Anna Maria: Italian food has two different aspects, at least in the USA. The Italian-american food, a deformation of the real Italian cooking, appeals the masses hooked up on extreme fat and large portions, the double-triple cheese on pizzas, the thousand layers lasagna, etc. The true Italian cuisine instead, the one I advocate, the one you can find in few elected restaurants, appleas because of its simplicity, the care for the freshest ingredients, the absence of complex preparations and sauces that cover everything. Appeals because all the ingredients balance and blend together and don’t cover each other, because the sauces and gravies come from within the dishes and are not imposed on top, because is simple to prepare and replicate, bacuse is so varied and has so many diferent preparations that everyone finds someting that they like. While the fast-fat food appeals to the stomach, the true Italian food appeals to the palate.

Magdalena: Did you worry that it might be too much fo a history book to work as a cookbook or did the relationship between food and its history seem a natural one?

Anna Maria: If i started thinking about the marketing aspect more than the content probably I wouldn’t have had so much fun writing the book. besides, I found always a lot of interest in people about the history of food. I think cooking is like a language and the dishes are the words that need the proper spelling. Like studying Latin gives you a better understanding of the western languages, knowing where the dishes come from helps better understand who we are and how we should adapt the traditional dishes to our modern life. The beauty of the language of food is that we can talk to each other in our food language. Sharing food is the oldest way of communicating, and sitting at the table together unifies the families and builds friendships.

Magdalena: Was this book a way of getting back to Italy for you – a kind of love letter to your home country?

Anna Maria: I love Italy very much, and when I moved to the USA about 15 years ago at first I was tremendously homesick. In time I learnt to appreciate America and its opportunities. I still suffer the common syndrome of the newly emigrated, where you would like to have the best of both worlds. Yes, for me writing this book was a way to keep in touch with my roots, even if I can see that every time I go back to visit things change little by little, and many things are different, and I start to idealize many things that I remember, and that are no more the way they were when I lived in Rome.

Magdalena: Tell me about winning the Special Jury Award. Has it made promoting the book easier?

Anna Maria: It was a big surprise, like winning a lottery. In reality it has helped very little since the Gourmand award doesn’t have in the USA the resonance that it receives in Europe and the rest of the world. I have been told the gala award in  Barcelona I will attend is a big event with the participation of 12 ambassadors and the representatives of 33 countries. It will be all over the news I am pretty sure.

Magdalena: Do you share any special/secret family recipes in the book?

Anna Maria: Yes, there are few recipes in the book that are very original which I learned from my mother, but generally speaking our family cooking was very traditional.

Magdalena: How did you source the plates/illustrations? Did you do the drawings yourself?

Anna Maria: Many illustrations are original pencil drawings made by my husband like those on pages iii, 10, 14, 30, etc. in addition to the little hand shots. For the rest we couldn’t afford color so we thought  old Italian prints would be in theme with the character of the book.

Magdalena: Do you think that there’s an inverse relationship between poor health/obesity and good quality cooking?

Anna Maria: Definitely! There should be more education on healthy eating. I know there are so many different opinions among nutritionists. Now is the turn of Atkins. But I think the truth on feeling well and eating well is not in eliminating this food or the other, or in starving your body but in few simple points:

1. eat everything
2. eat balanced varied food within the day as much as possible
3. eat in moderation
4. eat fresh food avoiding pre-cooked meals
5. read the labels to learn what’s inside your food
6. cook your own food
7. cook simple ingredients
8. drink a lot of water, amoderate alcohol, but avoid sodas completely
9. avoid too much of addictive food (chocolate, sugars, caffeine, snacks, etc)
10. share your food with friends and enjoy the company of others

Magdalena: Who is/are your cooking inspiration(s)?

Anna Maria: I learnt a lot from some writers of food history like Montanari and Capatti, and from few of the great cooks like Jean Pepin and Nick Malgieri, that inspired me for their integrity in cooking.

Magdalena: Do you plan to do more writing, or other related projects (eg a tv series, etc)?

Anna Maria: No more writing at least for now, but if I find a publisher for my book I would consider elaborating it a little bit more. I regret the limitations of my budget that obligated me to cut short some parts of the book. Of course I am looking for new opportunities especially in teaching cooking classes that is one of the things I love the most.

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