Dining Table Tales with…Rachel Roddy
Despite being one of the UK’s most widely read writers on Italian cuisine, Rachel Roddy says she doesn’t speak “brilliant Italian”. Talking from her home in Rome, which she shares with her Italian partner and their child, the writer and author – famed for A Kitchen in Rome, her weekly column and recipes in The Guardian – moved to Italy by accident. “I’d always wanted to speak another language, so I decided to come to Rome to language school, but I didn’t have any intention of staying.” Sixteen years on, the British expat is now fully embedded into the world of Italian cuisine – not just writing about Italians but for them too: “Sometimes Italians have said to me, ‘It’s so nice to sort of read things that you’ve seen that we take for granted’.”
It’s credit to Roddy’s style; constantly striving to recall the perfect facet of life and food. “I love details about places or things or people,” she explains. “I just think that’s where truth and recognition is, isn’t it?” .
She describes the column she’s been writing for The Guardian for the past eight years as “little stories” – mixing a recipe with a fleshed-out observation of her life in Rome.
Recently, she’s published An A-Z of Pasta – an intricately woven tapestry of 50 individual stories about 50 different pasta shapes. Arguably one of Italy’s most famous exports – neck-and-neck with pizza – Roddy says that to tell the entire story of pasta is to tell the entire story of Italy. Which is to say, a daunting task for any writer. “I thought, what the f*** are you thinking, Rachel?”, she says. “But then I thought, ‘No, if I pick and choose…’ and when I started thinking about it, it was like doing a jigsaw.’, whittling down over 350 different pasta shapes to a crisp 50. “It’s a picture of pasta, not the picture of pasta.”, she stresses.
Her dedication to examining the finer details in life was around long before Roddy became a writer. While at drama school she wrote plays, observing characters, scenarios and set-ups. It wasn’t until aged 33 that she began writing a blog – something she used to be ashamed of but now sees as the perfect vessel to cut her teeth and hone the practice of putting pen to paper: “I wasn’t self-conscious back then. I’m much more self-conscious now.”
Her blog, Rachel Eats, began off the back of her impromptu trip to Italy. “It was sort of quite an unlikely trip because I hadn’t been to Italy before,” she explains. “I didn’t have any particular yearning to come. I just wanted to travel.”
At the time Roddy was living in London where she says it felt like everyone had their lives carved out in front of them. Surrounded by what she describes as people who had “definite career direct trajectories, and then jobs” (“I’ve got quite a lot of doctors and architects in my life. And my little sister’s a lawyer,” she adds), life didn’t feel as straight forward for Roddy.
Aged 15, she developed an eating disorder which caused her to leave school and culminated in a long period of time spent in hospital. “That was why I missed that big gap of life.” She describes her formative years as “suspended” and felt like she needed to catch-up on lost time. “I don’t really understand it,” she says when talking around her eating disorder. ”I don’t have the words for it.”
Looking back on her career in food, what role did that period play? “I used to think that the sort of happy childhood years and my Italy time were the sort of most important elements of my food writing. At least that’s what I’d tell everyone,” She notes. “I now realised that it was that middle bit – that was the most important bit.”
Since arriving in Italy, Roddy has certainly made up for lost time. With three books under her belt and countless columns, she’s found a career, passion and family; a trifactor others spend a lifetime in search of.
Her way of thinking about food isn’t wrapped up in the language of rules and restrictions. Roddy recalls a recent night in with her son and partner, watching the end of the 2017 Baywatch film while eating flat green beans, onions, fresh peeled tomatoes with olive oil, basil and potatoes. “But I’m just as happy to have crisps and fizzy pop, or a bowl of cereal,” she adds.
Whereas Roddy has spent the first decade and a half of her writing career illustrating the miniature of life, it seems now she’s keen to put those observations into a wider context. “I think I do need to dig a bit deeper,” she says reflecting on her career and the next stages in her writing. “I’m only writing about lunch, but actually, that can be an interesting place to sort of explore bigger, bigger issues, maybe.” Asked if her want to dig deeper comes from a personal place or is a societal one, she seems to think it’s a bit from column A and a bit from column B: “It’s where I am. And I think also sort of also where we are.”
Recently, Roddy has been thinking a lot about it through the lens of tomatoes. “We do need to think about where stuff’s coming from and where do we start? And actually the tomato on our plates is probably sort of quite a good place.” Despite being a staple of Italian cooking, the humble tomato is a foreign import. Barely Mediterranean or even European, the round red fruit was first introduced to Italy by Spanish colonisers to the Americas in the 15th and 16th century, but now their plump rich flesh has come to define how the world perceives Italian cooking . “Tomatoes in Italy are like chickens in England – or chickens in Italy,” Roddy explains, “It’s a dark, complicated tale.”
Roddy is referring to how they’re grown. The Italian mafia have made millions from modern day slavery rings where foreign migrant workers are forced to work under gruelling conditions . Roddy recalls driving around Sicily with her partner, whose grandfather was a Sicilian tomato farmer, and seeing greenhouses protected off by packs of dogs and wondering what was going on – a sight, she says, is a clear indicator of “murky business”: “And yet there is me sort of churning out these 800 words about the wonderful, salty, volcanic tomatoes from Sicily,” she explains. “Food matters. Doesn’t it? It’s politics and people and culture and life and it’s sort of everything really.”