"American Convenience Culture Has Largely Erased the Concept of Seasonal Produce"

Stills from Katie Parla's Roman Kitchen, Photo Credit: Kat Tan
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Rome-based culinary historian, New York Times-bestselling cookbook author, and Emmy-nominated television host Katie Parla talks about her journey from art history to culinary tours, her love for Italy and its food culture, and the difference between American and Italian ways of looking at food

Piyali Sen
February 07 , 2022
10 Min Read

She has written and edited more than 20 books, including Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City, and the New York Times bestseller - The Joy of Pizza, co-authored with Razza chef/owner Dan Richer. 

In her book Food of the Italian South, Parla sets out to challenge the pasta-heavy, tomato-flavoured concept of 'Italian food'  that is prevalent in most places outside Italy. As she says, "in most cultures, exploring food means exploring history—and the Italian south has plenty of both to offer." 

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She showcases much loved and widespread culinary traditions that hail from the regional cuisines of the south of Italy. And takes you on a tour through these vibrant destinations, sharing rich recipes, both original and reimagined, along with historical and cultural insights that encapsulate the miles of rugged beaches, sheep-dotted mountains, meditatively quiet towns, and, most important, culinary traditions unique to this precious piece of Italy.

Also Read: 5 Pizza Recipes From Rome-Based Culinary Expert Katie Parla

Originally from New Jersey, and with a degree in art history from Yale, Katie Parla fell in love with Italy and after a whirlwind romance, eventually settled there. Roman culture and cuisine. She has a sommelier certificate and a master’s in Italian gastronomic culture. She uses her art history and culinary bacjground to great effect on her much acclaimed culinary tours of Rome. 

Parla moved to Italy in 2003. "I had decided on this life change much earlier, as a high school student," she says. She visited Italy with her Latin club and was immediately obsessed. After that trip, she started studying Italian and saving money to move “when I grew up.”

When she started college in 1998, Parla enrolled in art history classes, eventually majoring in the subject with a specialisation in Roman antiquity, aimed at preparing her for the move and potentially a career as a historian. "I moved about six months after graduation planning to live in italy forever, but without exactly figure out how that would work. I wasn’t fluent in Italian yet and I didn’t have a super clear art history plan. I had a lot to figure out those first few months!"

We had a chat with her about her romance with Italy and its food.

 
 
 
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On the journey from an art history degree from Yale to culinary tours in Italy

I graduated before food studies became a widely accepted discipline so I didn’t study food in a formal way but the city of New Haven, where Yale is located, was a wonderful classroom for tasting international cuisines. For sure the way of learning and researching at Yale informed my approach to and curiosity for food when I moved to Italy. Also my art history studies helped me launch private tours of Rome, which funded my food-focused travel!  

Now food studies are often part of college curricula at some level, but that wasn’t the case 20 plus years ago. While I did not study food formally when I was doing my undergraduate work nor attend culinary school, it became the center of my graduate studies years later. Just after arriving in Italy, I took a sommelier certification course for fun. It led to me doing wine tastings and eventually making me realize that I wanted to focus my career on food and wine. I enrolled in a Master’s degree in Italian gastronomic culture shortly after. The most valuable thing I learned in my MA program was that learning never ends.

Also Read: Heston Blumenthal’s Quantum Gastronomy

 
 
 
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On the differences do you see between the food cultures of Italy and the US

Probably the starkest difference is that in Italy, there’s a deeper knowledge of seasonality when it comes to produce while American convenience culture has largely erased the concept of seasonal produce in many places. There’s also a lot more processed food and fast food chains in the US though Italy has plenty of it, too! There’s also a much greater awareness in Italy of how food affects health. Here in Italy, ingredient combos and portion sizes are contemplated with ease of digestion in mind. 

On pizza becoming a central theme in life

I have always loved pizza and flatbreads in general. Like a lot of us, pizza is nostalgic for me and linked to a lot of memories. But I think it’s become an obsession because it’s a universal and accessible food that almost anyone can afford and understand. Pizza in Italy is actually different all over Italy. The sheet pan-baked Roman pizza by the slice is part of a totally different tradition than the thick rimmed Neapolitan style. Generally in Italy you find traditional toppings that reflect classic Italian flavors while elsewhere you might find toppings or styles that are completely absent here—buffalo chicken comes to mind. There’s no shortcut or secret. It’s all about practice, sticking to a dough recipe and perfecting it over time. I always recommend using the same flour every time and making dough consistently so you can better build on your experience.

On her favourite cuisine

I couldn’t possibly choose between Thailand, Mexico, Turkey, Japan, Ethiopia, and India! I always joke that Italian isn’t even in my top 5 favorite cuisines. I love it of course—especially ingredients like buffalo mozzarella, but I can’t live without the flavors and seasonings of other parts of the world! 

On her celebrated culinary tours

I have been doing tours for almost 20 years now and I love it. Tours are half- and full-day experiences lasting 3 and 6 hours, respectively. The full list is here: https://katieparla.com/walking-tours/ but in a nutshell, they are neighborhood immersions that dig deep into the cuisine and history of a district in Rome. They are private tours only with a maximum of 6 participants to keep the experiences really intimate and respectful of the small businesses I take people to.

Also Read: Food Meets Art at Gordon Ramsay Steak, Paris Hotel

Parla at a book signing event

On the television show, Katie Parla’s Roman Kitchen (on @recipe.tv

The show was filmed in my apartment in the spring of 2021. It’s all about cooking and hosting guests. I’ll make pizza dough in my kitchen and bake it in the oven on my terrace for friends, or I’ll mix some drinks in my living room and serve them with snacks to a friend. We really wanted to capture the simplicity of Roman food and the joy of entertaining. We focus a lot on ingredients and my approach to shopping and supporting small artisanal food businesses.

On her most cherished culinary discovery

There have been so many really special moments but perhaps the most incredible was spending some time in Kars in Eastern Turkey discovering the grains and cheeses of the area and visiting a water powered mill and seeing how cow’s milk cheese is made through an intense labor intensive process. 

Also Read: Of Food, Memories and Shared Experiences: A Conversation With Chitrita Banerji

You can sign up for Katie Parla's cooking classes online. They are privately organised and can be booked on demand.  Contact info@katieparla.com for info.

Catch up with Katie on her website.  
 

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