photos courtesy of Elena Kostioukovitch
Elena Kostioukovitch was born in Kiev in 1958, studied in Moscow, and moved to Italy in 1988. She is a professor at the University of Milan, an essayist, a translator, a literary agent and an author. Her 1988 translation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was a literary sensation in Russia and has led to a long-term collaboration with Eco. Since 1988 she has been editor of the Russian series for Bompiani/RCS Publishers and, since 1996 of a series from Edizioni Frassinelli. She is the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Welcome Prize (2006), given by the Russian National Association of Restaurateurs. In 2006 Kostioukovitch published her first book, Perché Agli Italiani Piace Parlare del Cibo. An immediate bestseller in Italy, as it was in Russia, the book won the 2007Bancarella della Cucina Award and the 2007 Chiavari Literary Award. It has been translated into English (the first was an Australian edition), French, German, Hungarian, and Spanish. Kostioukovitch has just returned from a US promotion tour of Why Italians Love to Talk About Food, published in October 2009 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, with stops in New York (February 3-6) and in San Francisco (February 9). Otherwise she lives in Milan with her Italian husband and her two teenage children.
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood, your first memories of food?
EK: Lack of food. We weren’t hungry but always had cravings to eat something that tasted better than what was available. As you (and everyone else) know, Russia is not a country where you can eat fresh products all year round. There are only potatoes, potatoes, and more potatoes. You’ll find potatoes in almost every Russian recipe. You can preserve them covered in salt without vinegar. They don’t have vinegar in Russia because we don’t grow grapes. They don’t produce wine so they don’t produce vinegar either. The only way to preserve foods is to cover them in salt, but what foods? Cabbages, mushrooms, and cucumbers. These three foods plus potatoes are stored all winter long in the cellars of Russian country-folk. They, especially cabbages, are the source of vitamin C. I’m an urban Russian. My food source was the usually almost empty supermarket where there was certainly no choice on the shelves. During the holidays, if you were lucky, you might find sausages and meat-gelatins. Everyday Russian food is still boring, very boring to be truthful about it. For example, you’ll almost never find fresh fish because either it’s too expensive or it’s been caught in polluted rivers so no one wants it.
You shouldn’t forget that I was born in 1958, so grew up during the seventies and eighties when the Soviet system was in crisis and all political energies were concentrated in weapon production. I ate really awful salami, potatoes and all kinds of soups. Soups and potatoes, potatoes and soups. To make matters worse my mother and my grandmother were terrible cooks. They were intellectuals and historically intellectuals like them had employed cooks who, of course, disappeared after The Revolution. So there was no female member of my family who could hand-down recipes. It wasn’t until I arrived in Italy that I could appreciate food.
When did you come to Italy for the first time? Why did you come and where did you go?
EK: I came to Italy the first time at the invitation of Umberto Eco because I was the translator into Russian of his books. His first novel The Name of the Rose was published in Italy in 1980 and my translation in Russia in 1988. That same year his publisher Bompiani invited me to a symposium in Milan.
I arrived in Rome, where I had friends, by train from Moscow. The trip took three days. Eco and Bompiani covered the costs of my room and board, but the transportation was at my expense. Let me clarify for you: I was born in Kiev, but, when I was 10 we moved to Moscow. After finishing my studies at the University of Moscow, I worked at the Academy of Literature in Moscow.
After three days the train’s first stop in Italy was at Trieste. Of course, I had a bunk in a sleeping car, but I was dead tired. It was the middle of the night. I got off and stood on the platform. I smelt roasting chestnuts. That smell will always signify Italy for me. Believe me, Lucy, from that moment on Italy got under my skin, became part of me. Even if I’d studied the Italian language and Italian culture, had already taught them both and translated Italian literature into Russian, I’d never before touched Italy with my hand, never seen Italy because it was forbidden. The Iron Curtain separated these two worlds: Russia and Italy.
When I arrived in Rome the next morning, I was overwhelmed by another very strong memorable smell: white pizza with rosemary and olive oil. I’d never tasted olive oil before. In Russia we cook everything with sunflower oil. These first two impressions were tangible, alive. Italy means these two foods: roasted chestnuts and white pizza, for me; Italy equals food for me. Food is an important part of Italian history, culture, and the landscape. Now you know why I wrote Why Italians Love to Talk About Food, even though I’d already lived here for twenty years. During these two decades I traveled all over the peninsula. When I’d been to all 20 regions, I wrote the book. The last region that I finally visited was Basilicata.
Why did you translate The Name of the Rose and not another book?
EK: We were living in a country under a regime where everything European, Western, was suspicious or forbidden. Umberto Eco was known because outside Russia he was a highly respected scholar of semiotics. I already knew of him, of course, because I’d studied Italian culture at university. As you know well, The Name of the Rose is a novel set in the Middle Ages, but connected to today’s world by numerous symbols which are the keys to understanding present-day literature and politics. For this reason his works were black-listed in Russia, even if all the main libraries had copies of his works in a room always off-limits to the public. Luckily for me, as an employee of the Literary Department of the Academy of Sciences, I had a pass which allowed me access to these “off-limits” rooms. I could consult these black-listed books, if only in these off-limits rooms. So I read and translated The Name of the Rose in the off-limits room of the Academy of Sciences.
If you remember the library of the monastery in The Name of the Rose also had an off-limits room in which “forbidden books” were hidden, so my story is a bit like amatryoshka. I loved The Name of the Rose. I looked into publishing my translation but was told that no publishing house in Russia would dream of publishing a black-listed book. So I translated it for my own pleasure. It took me two years, and luckily for me, when I’d finished, it was the time of perestroika. Gorbachev had abolished censorship on apolitical foreign fiction. Translating The Name of the Rose was the fruit of youthful enthusiasm and of my ambition for success. It was a difficult job, but I won lots of literary prizes for it. I was able to edit it very carefully because I was in no rush.
You translated it at work?
EK: Thanks for this question. I translated it during work hours because I had so little work to do that I usually finished it in two or three hours each day. I’d done my duty. I was an intellectual of the Soviet regime, which kept us intellectuals in a kind of locked box. We had to keep our place and not protest. They paid us a pittance but punctually and we had to be well-behaved and keep our mouths shut. That was the agreement. So I had a lot of free time on the job. I usually worked half a day. I had access to the so-called “special storeroom or stacks.” There I could also read foreign newspapers. It was a very odd existence.
When did you first meet Umberto Eco?
EK: In Milan because from Rome I took a brief side-trip to Milan. Eco had invited me to come in October, but I came earlier, in August. That’s why I had to pay my transportation out of my own pocket. When I arrived, it was 40 degrees Celsius in Rome and everyone was on vacation. No one was around. Some friends lent me an apartment all for myself. I was in seventh heaven. I was a scholar of Italian culture, but I’d never been to Italy.
On my first day in Rome, I bought the Touring Club’s red guide. It cost 40,000 lire, half of my savings. I’d budgeted 10,000 lire per day for bus tickets, museum fees, and water. I’d never been so poor. I wasn’t poor in Moscow, but the Soviet regime would only let us take tiny sums with us abroad.
What do you remember about your first Italian meal? Where and what did you eat?
EK: Lucy, I’ll never, never, never forget it. Even when I’m dead, I’ll remember it. I ate coda alla vaccinara at “La Tana di Noiantri” in Trastevere. I was wearing a white blouse and, as you know, coda alla vaccinara is swimming in tomato sauce. I started to cut it because I didn’t know that you were supposed to eat codawith your fingers so my blouse got dyed red.
You moved to Italy in 1988, why? When did you meet your Italian husband? What are his origins?
EK: My second husband is Italian, but he’s also Russian because his ancestors escaped during The Revolution.
Like you I married an Italian, what were the most difficult things for you to adjust to?
EK: No major difficulties. Although he’s of Russian origin, he’s very Italian. He has more adjustment problems with Russia than I with Italy. He can’t understand how the Muscovites can bring themselves to eat what they eat. If he had to live in Moscow, he’d probably die of hunger. Since they bring back childhood memories, are part of my past, I can swallow those typical soups. He can’t. We are very compatible. We understand each other perfectly, are on the same wave length because we have the same intellectual and political opinions.
Did your husband compare your cooking to his mother’s? Did he want you to cook like “mamma”?
EK: My mother-in-law was already dead when we married, so I never had a mother-in-law problem. When we were first married, however, he used to say to me: “My first wife cooked much better than you do.” Yes, he used to say that, really he did and I used to answer, “Don’t worry, I’ll surpass her talents; just give me time.” She was Italian, Roman, very Roman.
You have written a some-500 page splendid book, Perché Agli Italiani Piace Parlare del Cibo, the winner of the 2007 Bancarella della Cucina Awardand the 2007 Chiavari Literary Award. Why Italians Love to Talk About Food was recently published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. So why do Italians love to talk about food?
EK: My answer will be a bit general, but at least I’ll explain what I think. I think that Italians like to launch positive messages to make themselves appealing, not like Americans who want to appear “cool,” “with it” or intelligent. Italians dream of falling in love with their “interviewer” but at the same time make everyone fall in love with them. Food is the best conversation piece. There’s nothing better. It’s a beloved, so neutral topic. It could be called “Peace Street.” For example, yesterday in Campo de’ Fiori, I made a new friendship with a priest while we discussed artichokes displayed at a stall there. In contrast, it’s very complicated to discuss finances. The person you’re talking to must be your intellectual and financial equal. OK, jobs and work are a possible topic of conversation, maybe, well not really. Italians talk about food even on the job. They talk about food almost everywhere and at any time. Another example: my daughter is an adolescent, and like all adolescents she often fights with me. The solution? When she wants to make peace, she asks me: “Mamma, what’s for supper?” Conversations about food even overcome political differences. Yet again another example: In Sardinia I even enjoyedcasu marzu (over-ripe sheep cheese) at acarabiniere’s house where the walls were covered with swastikas and nostalgic photographs of Mussolini’s retreats/defeats.
In what region are Italians the most foodie?
EK: You know all too well that this question does not have an answer.
EK: Without a doubt Liguria. In Liguria you find almost exclusively food and dishes that are typically Ligurian, but which nonetheless are delicious. Liguria is chauvinistic, fanatic about her food products. You find pesto, never tomato sauce, everywhere, even in school and factory cafeterias. In Molise and in Basilicata, the number of local dishes is limited for lack of demand, but not because of close-mindedness and chauvinism like in Liguria. In the Abruzzi, the number of typical local dishes is also limited, but an Abruzzese chef has the talent of being able to recreate whatever dish from whatever cuisine. I’ve been told that an Abruzzese chef is the only chef in the world who instinctively knows the right dosage of salt to add to a dish, even if the dish is unfamiliar. When Abruzzese chefs season with salt, they never mistake the amount. The reason for this is that the Abruzzi is not in the north and is not in the south. It’s a region where there’s an incredible sensitivity for every ingredient. In the Abruzzi the chefs know how to combine ingredients and that’s why you find them in cruise ship kitchens, especially the most exclusive.
What region’s food do you like the most?
EK: Sicily and Piedmont. I also love the food in Puglia, but according to me, Puglia doesn’t have a local cuisine; it has local foods. Puglia is a paradise for food products: olive oil, cheese, vegetables, fish, but not great chefs. Instead in Sicily and in Piedmont, the chef, not his ingredients, is the king pin. As far as the Abruzzi is concerned, people have to leave the region to become great chefs elsewhere; there are great chefs from the Abruzzi cooking all over the world. They don’t become great chefs at home; there are no great chefs in the Abruzzi.
The least? Perhaps Liguria out of monotony?
EK: No, I live in Liguria during the summer so I can’t criticize Liguria. Suffice it to say that Ligurians are close-minded when it comes to food. When I invite my Ligurian friends to dinner, I have to prepare pesto, asado, veal brisket oven-roasted for at least seven hours, or “la cima,” a stuffed breast of veal, a cut thick enough to slice in two horizontally to create an “envelope” or wallet for the stuffing.
What are your favorite Italian dishes?
EK: All types of pasta, which of course you know vary from region to region and even from city to city. Then fish.
Your least favorite?
EK: Italian ices and granite. I think I suffered the cold and ice in Russia to last me a lifetime.
EK: For obvious reasons I’d prefer not to list them here. Actually I have three favorites; they aren’t famous and their main merit is that they are all three near my home in Milan. A full meal at each typically costs around 30 Euros. Yesterday evening here in Rome I ate very well at “Agli Amici,” a trattoria in Trastevere; at lunch I’d eaten really badly at “Giggetto” in the ghetto.
EK: I admire Gualtiero Marchesi very much especially for his humanity. He’s a true gentleman.
Vissani intrigues me because he’s so imaginative, but I’m not a food critic. I don’t write restaurant reviews.
You are an essayist, a translator and literary agent. You translated Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose into Russian, which led to a long-term collaboration with him. Tell me please what’s it like to work with Eco?
EK: After The Name of the Rose I translated eight other books by Umberto Eco, all after I’d moved to Italy. I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone else. It bothered me, I found it awkward to establish a close friendship with Eco because I’m a woman and much younger than he. He too is a gentleman and so I couldn’t, and still can’t, get close to him the way I would have liked to because it could have become a destabilizing relationship and I’m a person with strong principles. I adore Eco. Perhaps if I weren’t a woman, I’d be his best friend. We even live near each other. I’d like to see him more often but I can’t insist; neither can he. I’m amarried woman. So that’s that. We’re very good friends. For the past 25 years we get together four or five times a year.
My husband and I have traveled with him and his wife. I even went alone with Eco to Estonia, to visit a school of semiotics where I taught when I was still living in Russia and which Eco wanted to see. I was his interpreter. It was a splendid experience. I consider Umberto Eco not only the best writer that I could possibly imagine, but also a person whom I like and admire very much. I’m envious of his German translator, Burkhart Kroeber, who’s a man and, like me, is very fond of Umberto. The lucky rat, he’s always over at Umberto’s house.
Did you write Why Italians Love to Talk About Food directly in Italian?
EK: No, in Russian. I always and only write in Russian.
Besides Russian and Italian, what other languages do you speak?
Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
EK: The initial spark was my love for Italy, the same type of love that inspires you to write your articles about Italian food and interview chefs for your magazines. This book was born and grew out of an article that was turned down. Let’s call it a flop. However, it was a catastrophe which turned out to be productive. In Russia they were putting together an anthology with chapters devoted to different aspects of Italy: politics, history, archeology etc., etc… I chose food. Until then I’d never written a word about Italian food. The editors answered: “The subject is vulgar. You are a refined and cultured writer. You should write about Dante, Raphael’s angels.” Instead I dug in my heels and stood my guns: “No,” I answered, “I’m going to write about pizza.” They forbade me and so Why Italians Love to Talk About Food was born. My research was well on its way: I’d already taken about forty pages of notes a day. Today the book is a best-seller in twelve countries.
What were the highlights of your recent book promotion tour in the US?
EK: The roundtable at NYU’s Fales Library, the evening at the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco, and meeting the food and wine writer John Mariani. After the roundtable we went to dinner at New York’s “Four Seasons”. I had a wonderful time observing a world-famous food critic on-the-job.
Did you have any exceptional meals?
EK: Yes, at the “Pizzeria Farina” in San Francisco. Its cuisine was genuine, Italian—fresh, with top-quality ingredients. The ravioli with pesto were to-die-for. Words can’t begin to describe how delicious they were. I also enjoyed excellent meals cooked by chefs Ivan Beacco in New York and Chris Cosentino in San Francisco and Michael Recchiuti’s pastries in San Francisco.
Do you like to cook?
EK: I’m a wife and mother. Everyone eats at home twice if not three times a day.
What is your specialty?
You are now writing a novel. What is its working title? Its publication date?
EK: The Man of Light. In the States Farrar, Straus, & Giroux has taken out an option on it, but they haven’t seen the text yet, so it’s not sure that they’ll publish it. In Italy my publisher will be Bompiani. Believe me, it’s an incredible story, overwhelming in fact because it’s not fiction; it’s about my family and the events even mentioned in some encyclopedias. It takes place during the Second World War. The story is a bit like Schindler’s List. It’s about an act of heroism with tragic aspects. It’s about Jews; my background is Jewish: Rabinovitch. The Nazis shot to death twelve members of my family in Kiev and buried them in a public grave. My grandmother, who today is 97 years-old, escaped carrying my mother and nothing else. They were the only survivors.
I’m also writing another book. Its working title is Italian Seasons. It won’t be about food or cooking. The idea is similar to Mary Taylor Simeti’s On Persephone’s Islandwhich describes Sicily month by month. Italian Seasons will include all of Italy, not just Sicily.
If you hadn’t become a lady-of-letters, what other career would you have chosen?
EK: A doctor. Seeing how so many people suffer — including my own children who both at different times have been in intensive care — with age and experience I’ve become more altruistic. After three months of sleeping on a chair in a hospital corridor when my daughter was sick, I asked myself why I’d never thought of becoming doctor. Only a doctor is vital to others in this life. Doctors become gods in moments of need. There’s no comparison with another profession. Of what importance are my books? They’re not life-saving.
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Lucy Gordan is an award-winnning travel writer and cultural journalist living in Rome, where she is Epicurean-Traveler.com’s Bureau Chief. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her website is www.lucygordan.com.