You focus on medieval Italian literature, specifically Dante, and Italian culinary history and culture. How did that happen?
I worked on my master’s at NYU with John Freccero, the preeminent Dante scholar of the last century, and he encouraged me to work on Dante. But I was always very compelled by food and the connection to culture.
How do these two interests intersect?
The Late Middle Ages was when the great Tuscan city-states—Pisa, Lucca, Florence—became centers of culture, and food became something that people exchanged as a way of communicating. Dante uses food all the time to express very human experiences—what brings joy, what provokes nausea.
What are you teaching?
My course this winter is on Italian humanism and food. My first course was on Dante and food culture, which is also the subject of my upcoming book, Dante’s Gluttons: Food and Society in Medieval Italian Literature.
You also cohost a podcast, Gola, where you place Italian food and wine in a broader social context. Why do you feel that’s important?
There’s a lot of dilettantism in Italian food. People want to capitalize on the extreme visibility and easy love that people have for Italian culture, but at the expense of some really important issues: the influence of the Mafia, migrant labor, extreme forms of exclusion—and the totally out-of-control problem of a national economy that is so vitally dependent on tourism, especially food tourism.
Do you cook?
I love to cook with my family and friends. But if I’m home by myself, my go-to dinner is a tin of sardines, a nice piece of cheese, glass of wine. Done. I’m a new junior professor and I’m working a lot.
You weren’t able to travel to Italy last year because of the pandemic. If you could be there now, where would you go and what would you eat?
Sicily. I’d start with the little raw shrimp that they serve utterly untouched—just lemon squeezed on top. Then a pasta with just two or three ingredients: colatura, toasted bread crumbs, a little hot pepper. A simple piece of fish and simple vegetables, then fruit, nuts, cheese, a digestif—all the things that punctuate and elongate the meal, that make it an event and not a necessity.