Food historian recounts her love affair with Italy

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Francine Segan is a renowned gastronomic historian and author, passionate about the cuisine, people and traditions of Italy.

Forbes.com spoke with Francine to learn more about her work and how she embarked on a fascinating career that is the perfect blend of food, travel and history.


How did you end up doing what you are doing? In fact, 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 time, and organized a dinner party for friends.

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

There might be a technical definition of a food historian, but to me, he’s someone who is willing to spend days in dusty libraries just to find a recipe written hundreds of years ago. ‘years. College and university programs provide training. But my publisher awarded me the title after publishing my third book on Foods from the Past.

How does the history of food relate to travel and culture?

FS: The story of a regional dish or a unique ingredient adds richness to the trip. It will not only make you appreciate what you eat, but also the culture you hope to explore. Ask a local to tell you about the story behind a favorite childhood dish and you’ll walk away with not only fabulous stories, but a new friend.

How did you first discover Italian foods?

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

I started to accumulate so much information that I began to lecture and write almost exclusively about Italian cuisine and culture. Today, Italian culinary culture accounts for almost 100% of my culinary writing and around 75% of my lecture topics.

What fascinates you about Italian cuisine?

FS: Italy is made up of 20 different regions, each as a different country; each region is made up of several provinces. Often, foods from one province cannot be found elsewhere in the region.

This incredible regionality, the lack of mass produced food and restaurant chains is the reason I visit Italy again and again. I always discover something unexpected.

Emilia Romagna, in northern Italy, is a prime example of this phenomenon. The region has more DOP and PGI foods than any other region in the entire European Union – foods so local, so dependent on the exact microclimate of a small area – that they are 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 remember so many wonderful experiences since publishing my first book. Very early on, famous foodies like Rachael Ray, Mario Batali and Martha Stewart graciously contacted me as a newcomer to the industry and offered me all kinds of courtesies (taking me to lunch, introducing me to food writers, have me on their programs…). The restaurant and food people are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They take hospitality seriously.

I also had incredible experiences in Italy, including the opportunity to address an international audience at Expo Milan, where I spoke about the importance of pasta as an international and sustainable food. . I was lucky enough to be invited to be a judge in various Italian culinary 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 food?

FS: Food tours and cooking classes are available at most travel destinations. Due to the pandemic, many of these experiences are now also available virtually. When you book a dining experience, explain that you are a foodie and ask a guide with knowledge of the history of regional dishes. When the trip resumes, these types of local experts can point you to distant restaurants, 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 this trend will continue after the pandemic. I hope people will remember the fun they had to create something delicious, with their own hands, in their own home. I hope they will remember the fun of planning a meal, the soothing effect of chopping and stirring, the comfort of sharing a meal with friends.

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


About Francine Segan:

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


Meet Francine, virtually:

Francine Segan will give a lecture series on the history of food for AARP. All conferences are free, but prior registration is required (AARP membership is not required).

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