A Food Historian Dishes On Her Love Affair With Italy

A Food Historian Dishes On Her Love Affair With Italy

Francine Segan is a renowned food historian and author who is passionate about Italy’s food, people, and traditions. spoke to Francine to find out more about her work and how she got started on a fascinating career that seamlessly blends food, travel, and history. 

How did you wind up doing what you do? Actually, what is a food historian? 

Francine Segan: It all started with a simple question, “What would Shakespeare have eaten for dinner?” asked by my dear friend, Mark Linn Baker, an actor who had done a lot of Shakespeare, including As You Like It with Gwyneth Paltrow. I was intrigued by the question, researched cookbooks from the Bard’s day, and created a dinner party for friends. 

Everyone really got into the evening. We ate by candlelight, only using spoons and knives (they didn’t have forks in Elizabethan England), and word spread. I was approached by an editor at Random House who thought the dinner party would translate well into a cookbook. 

There may be a technical definition of a food historian, but for me, it’s someone willing to spend days in dusty libraries to track down a recipe written hundreds of years ago. College and graduate programs offer training. But I was bestowed the title by my publisher after the publication of my third book on foods of the past.

How is food history intertwined with travel and culture?

FS: The story behind a regional dish or unique ingredient adds richness to travel. It not only will make you appreciate what you’re eating but also the culture you’re hoping to explore. Ask a local to tell you about the history behind a favorite childhood dish and you’ll come away with not only fabulous stories but a new friend.

How did you first get introduced to the foods of Italy?

FS: During the years that I was writing my first four cookbooks, my family and I were spending more and more time in Italy, often months at a stretch. Our Italian friends knew I was a food writer, so they were delighted to introduce me to little-known dishes, rare ingredients, and whimsical characters who produced unique products. 

I started amassing so much information that I began lecturing and writing almost exclusively about Italian food and culture. Now Italian food culture accounts for nearly 100% of my food writing and about 75% of my lecture topics.

What is it about Italian foods that captivates you?

FS: Italy is made up of 20 different regions, each one like a different country; every region is made up of several provinces. Often, the foods of one province are not found elsewhere in the region.   

This amazing regionality, lack of mass-produced foods, and restaurant chains is the reason why I visit Italy over and over again. I always discover something unexpected. 

Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy is a prime example of this phenomenon. The region has more DOP and IGP foods than any other region in all of the European Union—foods that are so local,  so dependent on the exact microclimate of a small area—that they’re geographically protected. 

This region has 44 of these unique foods, each with a fun and fascinating history: famous foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, but also special cherries, mushrooms and more.

What have been the most exciting experiences of your career?

FS: Thinking about your question makes me want to pinch myself. I recall so many wonderful experiences since my first book was published. Early on, famous foodies like Rachael Ray, Mario Batali, and Martha Stewart graciously reached out to me as a new-comer to the industry and extended all sorts of courtesies (taking me to lunch, introducing me to food writers, having me on their programs…). The folks in the restaurant and food world are some of the nicest people I’d ever met. They take hospitality seriously.

I’ve also had amazing experiences in Italy, including the opportunity to address an international audience during the Milan Expo, where I spoke about the importance of pasta as an international and sustainable food. I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to be a judge in various Italian food competitions like the Barilla World Pasta Competition in Parma and the International Pesto Competition in Liguria.

What resources are there to help travelers and home cooks appreciate the history of foods? 

FS: Food walks and cooking classes are available at most travel destinations. As a result of the pandemic, many of these experiences are now available virtually, too. When you book a culinary experience, explain that you’re a foodie, and request a guide knowledgeable about the history of regional dishes. When travel resumes, those types of local experts will be able to steer you to out-of-the-way eateries, authentic local markets, and more. 

What role do you think the pandemic will play in food culture/traditions when we look back 10 or 20 years from now?

FS: There has been a huge increase in home cooking during the lockdown. I very much hope that trend continues after the pandemic. I hope people will remember the pleasure they got from creating something delicious, with their own hands, in their own homes. I hope they’ll remember the fun it was planning a meal, the calming effect of chopping and stirring, the comfort of sharing a meal with pod pals.

Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

About Francine Segan:

Francine Segan is a James Beard-nominated author of six books, including Philosopher’s Kitchen: Foods of Ancient Greece and Rome; Shakespeare’s Kitchen and Dolci: Italy’s Sweets. She has written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers, mostly focused on Italian cuisine and culture. She also lectures across the USA and is a frequent guest speaker at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the Smithsonian Museum in DC, AARP, Virginia Fine Arts Museum, and NYC’s premier cultural center, the 92nd St Y. 

Meet Francine, virtually:

Francine Segan will be giving a series of food history talks for AARP. All of the talks are free but advance registration is required (AARP membership is not required). 

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Written by Riel Roussopoulos


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