Gypsy Cuisine on the Road

Mamaliga, a cornbread served with melted cheese and sour cream, is part of a nomadic gypsy culture through which we might see ourselves. Wood fires, communal cooking…not so far from the alfresco dining that you and I covet when we invite friends over for a BBQ.  Like polenta in Italy or southern cornbread in the USA or Mexican tamales we unwrap barehanded while still hot from an open flame, mamaliga’s origins involve the blending of many cultures and the crunchy sweetness of corn.

Romani, the gypsy cultures of Europe who were originally driven out of India, count adaptability, independence, displacement, creativity, and poverty among their distinguishing features.  photo by Ian McKell th-5 th-1

Plenty of people will tell you to watch out for the gypsies, prone to street cons, begging, child-and-drug trafficking as some may be.  But I have a different view.  At 16, I took a camping trip through France and England on a 10-speed bike.   The value was to smell haystacks before a thunderstorm, navigate a foreign terrain semi-solo and to drink up the freedom that every 16-year-old longs to taste.

We shared the road with gypsy caravans. These were the back roads of the Loire valley, peppered with wine caves and rustling summer vineyards.  The gypsies moved between harvests and rural carnivals. To me, they were the lucky ones.  They had horse-drawn carts; they traveled at a smooth, patient pace; older men and women usually held the reigns with one hand and offered us a friendly salute with the other as they pulled past us and passed no judgement.   They had specialty signs for the back of their rigs: orange triangles with images of horses and warnings for cars to slow it down for the gypsy travelers. More than once, a child’s face peeked out the back, puzzled by the view: a tribe of sweaty teenagers in gym shorts whose bikes were packed (considerably less well than their wagons) with orange panniers and sleeping bags; camp stoves, pots and pans clanking around with every bump. Strange mirrors of strangers.  One big wave or silly smile to the children and they would whip the curtain back, then peer out again with, finally,  a committed half-smile as we faded away from each other on the hazy road.

A romantic view, you scoff, as the bias against this population sings a different song. Or maybe you’ve heard it the way Cher sings it so memorably: gypsies, tramps & thieves.  Yet maybe you’ve been camping, too.  Maybe you’ve been a traveler with a problem – no matches, flat tire, sick friend.  When you scan the the hopeless, empty road – night approaching – don’t you wish for a horse-drawn caravan of resourceful people with fire, food, and handyman skills to appear on the horizon and save your ass?  I had to turn this complex gypsy conceit over in my mind for a while as I developed this blog.  Was I hijacking the romance of a nomadic culture, as the novel and film Chocolat did so well (thank you, author Laura Esquivel, Johhny Depp and Juliette Binoche)? Was I disrepectful to a people I didn’t understand?  What drove them from their homeland? What is their cuisine?  Photographer Iain McKell asks similar questions and answers them through his photographs, full of social commentary.  Compare his work with Bazaar magazine’s style-watcher snaps from indy music festival Coachella. There it is: the eternally blurry line between authenticity and showbiz.


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Gypsy heritage includes theater people and shares an ethos with Shakespeare’s early career in a traveling troupe. Many artists have represented this lifestyle (Corot, Pissaro, Rodin). Others transform it to religion (Tolstoy). So a contemporary bias is probably better placed on the ravages of poverty than on origins, castes or ethnicities. Gypsy cuisine is communal – shared food is part of a willful cultural language.  In some regions, that means a meat-based diet of stews and chops; in others, it is based on seasonal vegetable harvests and foraged fruit.  These are meals between grape pickers, circus workers, pick-pockets and fortune tellers. But also grandparents, children, artists, carpenters, and young families holding on. When you have made your way on an open road and finally settle in to your campsite, guitar at the ready, and find the satisfaction of  your smoky campfire and your hot food, isn’t theirs the culture that you sought?  Isn’t theirs….ours?


Corn itself is something of a traveler, too.  Originally brought from Mexico to Europe with the explorers, it speaks to the Indian-European-Mexican-Romani-Italian-American gypsy in all of us. Pass along a piece of southern cornbread or a bowl of Mamaliga to people you meet on the road.




Italian Polenta with Wild Mushrooms

Southern Cornbread & Sea Salt:

1 cup yellow corn meal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt (plus 2 pinches more for dusting)

1 cup milk

1/3 cup melted butter

1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 375  degrees.  Lightly spray a 9″ pie pan with olive oil.  Combine the corn meal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.  Add the milk, vegetable oil and egg and mix until combined.  Pour into the prepared pan, dust with remaining sea salt,  and bake until golden and firm on top (about 20 minutes.)

Research Resources:

Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and their Journey

We Are the Romani People

The Gypsies

Gypsies: Wanderers of the World

Gypsies: The Hidden Americans

From Reid’s Italy:  Here are a few articles and resources where you can learn more—and learn why, yes, this is all a concern for the tourist who doesn’t want to be pickpocketed, but the real concern should be over what has led to this state of affairs, and how egregiously backward and racist most official policies about the Roma remain:

The Guardian’s article on the plight of gypsy children.




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