After a long Italian dinner, I feel not only the gift of exceptional company, food, and wine but also an inexplicable sense of well-being, of revival. This healthy appreciation is directly connected to cucina povera. Revere what you have. Food is natural, eaten with moderation, yes, but with gusto. Here we are at the heart of the matter. Those great grandmothers knew all about gratitude and respect for what’s served forth.

~Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun

If it’s true that one can tell a people through their food, then Cucina Povera demonstrates how resilient and inventive Italians are. With few ingredients at their disposal, imperiled peasant women in Italy’s Tuscany region made inventive and delicious meals to keep their families from starving. You’ll now find those classic dishes in expensive cookbooks, blogs dedicated to Italian cooking, and articles in leading food magazines, but the phrase, Cucina Povera, was once just a simple phrase that described the kitchen of the rural poor. Ironically, now the world’s best chefs want to emulate it. 

When those chefs and mindful food connoisseurs preach about the benefits of local, seasonal, and organic whole foods, they’re speaking the language of Cucina Povera. Though the origins have nothing to do with the modern sustainability movement, Cucina Povera admonishes food waste because it arose during a time when people were hungry and had to make a small amount of food to feed a large amount of people. They ate mindfully decades before that became a thing, in stark contrast to Americans, who’ve never had a war on their soil (knock wood) and have always overconsumed. To fully understand Cucina Povera, it’s important to understand its humble origins.

Italy After the Second World War

When you visit the opulent and verdant region of Tuscany, it’s hard to imagine the bitter times when people there faced an oppressive regime and were impoverished and hungry, but that’s what happened because of WWII. The Nazis had looted and devasted Tuscany and were executing people. The region’s atrocities and devastation weren’t even fully understood until many years later.

Survivors scavenged to feed their families. Children were starving and suffering from malnourishment. Many Italian grandparents would later share heart-wrenching stories to teach their children and grandchildren not to take anything — above all food — for granted.

To envision what it was like, watch the 1998 film, Life is Beautiful, which is set in Tuscany. It won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Actor-Director, Roberto Benigni, who was born in Tuscany, was the first actor ever awarded the Best Actor Oscar for a film that was not made in English, but rather it was made in Italian with English subtitles.  Though the film had a heavy subject matter, Benigni will always be remembered for how delightfully amusing he was when he accepted his awards.

The world recognized that Benigni had excelled at finely balancing the bleak sadness of inexplicable Nazi cruelty with moments of pure joy and humor in the face of that oppression to portray how, when stripped of all other types of power, we still have power to shape our lives by how we think.  He portrays Guido, a man who protects his young son from being harmed by the guards in the concentration camp where they’ve been sent by convincing the child that they’re playing a game together. The other prisoners, both amused and grateful for some levity, go along. 

La Vita é Bella depicted the vagaries of life, how situations can go from elating to disastrous and all the nuances in between.  It epitomized the strength of the collective Italian character to persevere, to keep the focus on the future and rebuild, from ashes, to show the world that their spirit could not be squelched. Italy rose to great influence again, but the costs were immeasurable.

Journalist Luigi Barzini, in his 1964 book, The Italians, an honest critique of the state of his country and culture less than twenty years after the war had ended, said that what drove Italians — for better and for worse — was, “…to face life’s injustices with one of the few weapons available to a brave and desperate people: their imagination.”

Nowhere was that strength of character and imagination more apparent than in the indestructible Italian peasant women who fought and foraged, harvested and pulled from battle-scorched land everything and anything they could use as food so their families would not succumb to starvation. Every morsal could make the difference between life or death. They could not suffer waste of anything edible. They found ways to use and stretch every ingredient.

These are the circumstances that gave birth to Cucina Povera, often referred to — too simply — as the “food of the poor,” when really it should be called the food of the resourceful and inventive. It’s important to note that the Cucina Povera mindset was adopted by rural poor throughout Italy, but many Italian dishes you’ll find attributed to Cucina Povera, such as Ribollita and Panzanella, originated in Tuscany.

Cucina Povera was Local & Organic Before People Cared

Necessity had become the mother of invention during the grim circumstances of the war, but the Tuscans were fortunate in one sense because, geographically, the region abounds with healthy food resources. What the peasants could source from was delicious and healthy. That many of the foods were flavorful also meant versatility, allowing them to create dishes that fed more mouths than they could afford because the next meal was never guaranteed.

Chestnuts proliferate throughout Tuscany. These were a low-effort resource because they were harvested simply by picking them up after they fell from the trees in the fall and there were many ways to use them. Chestnuts can be eaten raw or roasted. They can be dried and candied. For cooking and baking, they can be pureed or ground into flour. There so popular in Tuscany there’s even an expression, Non mi rompere i maroni! that roughly translates as, “don’t break my chestnuts.” In other words, “don’t give me a hard time.” (Italian speakers will recognize that this expression replaces a similar one, which means the same thing, but less delicately.)

Chestnut flour is the key ingredient in Castagnaccio, a traditional Tuscan chestnut cake that’s a Cucina Povera staple. It’s both gluten and sugar-free with the sweetness being provided by the flour. This was how peasant women provided sweets for their children during a time when eggs, flour and sugar were difficult to find and cost-prohibitive when they did.

Remarkably —because it’s doubtful that post-war Tuscan peasants were thinking about this the way we do today — chestnuts have a great deal of nutritional value. They are nutrient-dense, high in fiber, contain antioxidants, reduce inflammation, improve heart health, and may decrease tumor size. They’re also, for the Tuscans, what we now call “local” food. So, Italians were sourcing locally and practicing farm-to-table before it became a thing, and without realizing that, though they were impoverished, they were eating healthier than people who could afford much more.

They stretched every ingredient. Nothing was wasted, evidenced by what they did with bread or, more aptly, how many different dishes they made with bread. Salt had become such an expensive ingredient, that they first invented a simple, four-ingredient bread without it that was made from flour, yeast, water, and salt. Rather than toss the stale leftovers, they’d use it in a soup called Ribollita and a salad called Panzenella. You’ll now find these “peasant” dishes regularly on the menu at many Italian restaurants.

All the ingredients that were used by Tuscan peasants were simple, and naturally abundant, like white beans, lentils, garden-fresh vegetables and rice. Pasta was made without egg, like Pici. Meat and fish were expensive, so they were used sparingly and not as the focal point of the meal, but rather to add flavor.

A Cucina Povera Mindset Would Help Americans with Food Insecurity and Food Waste

It’s a good thing that Cucina Povera has gained notoriety in the U.S. among chefs and food writers, but some are cooking the recipes without fully understanding the why and understanding the why would positively impact Americans because, in 2022, the Environmental Defense Fund reported that Americans annually throw away 160 billion pounds of food. It’s near impossible to understand how that much food can be wasted when, in 2022, the Urban Institute also reported that approximately one in five adults are experiencing household food insecurity

“Food insecurity,” in case you’re not already aware is not the same as “hunger.” The USDA differentiates the two states so that people understand that physiologically starving and not having enough to eat aren’t the same thing. They do this so that people don’t dismiss food insecurity as less important because people aren’t starving the way one might see in a third-world country. Imagine if impoverished families had access to education about cucina povera and families that had money to eat well committed to less food waste. 

In its Simplicity, Cucina Povera is Remarkably Healthy

There’s nothing processed about Cucina Povera. Every dish is made from all-natural, whole foods. In Italy, most ingredients are sourced locally and seasonal, so they’re at the peak of their flavor and nutritional value.  The typical Tuscan kitchen has more fresh produce from local markets, more beans, more olive oil and, overall, more heart-friendly food.

Italians are remarkably healthy. They are also more physically active. If it’s within walking distance, they’ll more likely walk into the town or city center than drive. Many Italian cities and villages either restrict or don’t even allow cars.  Traditionally, after dinner, Italians take a leisurely walk, known as la passagiata.

Cucina Povera demonstrates how many of the preconceived notions Americans have about Italian food being heavy and drowning in sauce and cheese simply aren’t true. They’re thinking about the food served at Italian American restaurants, but when you go to an authentic Italian restaurant — where native Italians run the kitchen — you’ll find a moderated approach that focuses on the flavor produced by superior ingredients, rather than on portion size.

La Cucina Italiana explained, “In an effort to please the American palate, Italian food was chopped up, redefined, and redistributed in ways that any Italian arriving for the first time would hardly even recognize.”  Further, unlike Italian American food, Italian food is almost always regional, seasonal and as much about enjoying the Italian lifestyle as it is about the meal.

Despite travelers who insist they gain weight because of Italian food, Italy doesn’t have an obesity problem. In fact, in 2023, Italy was named the world’s healthiest country. By contrast, America is ranked as 45th, probably because Americans have an unhealthy reliance on processed food. Four in ten Americans are obese.  The New York Times reported that, “More than half of all the calories that the average American consumes comes from ultra-processed foods, which…combine large amounts of sugar, salt, oils, fats and other additives.” 

It’s also been reported that American are addicted to these processed foods, making it harder for people to eat moderately, resulting in obesity and chronic illness. David A. Kessler in his book, The End of Overeating, speaks about how food has metamorphosized over the years and is now so refined that even the bran is milled from rice, stripping away nutrients and leaving nothing for the body to break down, so it immediately turns into sugar in the bloodstream. He believes that when food is heavily processed it overrides the body’s natural ability to gauge when its full.

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