Porta Palazzo

Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market. Rachel Black. Foreword by Carlo Petrini. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014

Renata Christen (University of Amsterdam)

In her book, Rachel Black explores social interplay on the stage of Porta Palazzo in Turin, one of Italy’s preeminent open air markets. Approachable for all audiences, this is a descriptive ethnographic account of political, social and gendered relationships: the market is a hotbed of cultural diversity. As Black convincingly argues, it’s the most visible entry point for social admission. Through several case studies, she highlights the market as an edge habitat between pre-established (Italian) and pre-eminent (immigrant) cultures.

By no means an exclusive focus, Black’s Introduction states how “This book will investigate the loss of social life in provisioning and how this situation occurred, as well as the repercussions” (5). She outlines the various philosophical and anthropological questions surrounding an attempt at studying food markets, namely, the universality of shopping at markets, being “complex spaces of commerce and sociability that often contradict modern use of public spaces; they are remnants of the past lodged in the hearts of modern cities.” (8) The introduction also successfully lays a foundation for understanding our current existential crisis of provisioning, and how markets like Porta Palazzo offer a viable platform for unstructured socialization and mingling.

At times, a number of trite observations and redundancies distracted me from full engagement with the storyline; certain phrasing and clichés made it difficult to flow with this text. Take the following excerpt, for example, which is subsequently reconstituted in various forms throughout the book:

Farmers’ markets are local food at its most immediate: they are points of contact between city dwellers and farm folk and one of the last connections between consumption and production.  The meaning of local food is shaped and negotiated by the market itself but also through interactions between farmers and consumers. (11)

While Chapter 1 claims to provide “a general discussion of markets as a field of study” (9) its slim pages read more as an overview of Black’s personal feelings towards the market and her approach to entering the field than a robust character study of markets throughout history. To her credit, Black notes that the market “evaded a straightforward ethnographic description” through its complexity, offering vignettes and “snapshots” of the environment in its stead. Only later did this approach seem integrated and whole in its telling of Porta Palazzo – initially I was frustrated as a reader, because it felt like the meat of what makes a bustling market come alive lacked its pulse in Black’s ethnographic and historical framing of the context. Ever a reminder that patience can be a virtue.

Chapter 2 delivers on the historical shift from open air shopping to the predominance of supermarkets that trailed after Turin’s emergence as a center of industry post-WWII: “these new types of stores were important settings for conspicuous consumption and social mobility, mainly for the growing middle class” (27). It’s interesting how Black mentions that Porta Palazzo was historically located on the periphery and associated with “transient people and undesirable trades” (31), a place that has always eluded conformity. The market’s boundary status transitions in the late 19th century as a result of sanitation regulations to covered structures, reflecting the values of commerce in the age of modernity, “orderly, efficient, and hygienic” (39) began bringing some elements to order, but not all.

Chapter 3 is a foray into the physical environment of the resellers market, where vendors buy in produce or other goods and resell them at a cost. Black describes the “sensory perceptions of space” lacking in supermarkets but rampant in open-air markets (stronger and more striking smells, visuals, audio). In Chapter 4, we see how she navigates Porta Palazzo through the complex lens of gender, and the continued role of women in provisioning; the playful banter and sexualized ‘discourses of exchange’ that characterize many interactions between vendors and customers (where sexuality is ‘played up’ in order to emphasize the appealing nature of produce or other wares); and the way vendors connect over food and alcohol as social lubricants. Anxieties about body image and food insecurity are more readily on display, surrounded by jostling exchanges, on-going negotiations, and the overt choices one makes by participating in the market community.

Black offers vignettes of different migrant vendors that provide a vivid and effective ethnographic account of the market in Chapter 5, and the way these individuals have navigated their experience with integration (or not) into Italian society. Live animals sold at the market highlight the contrast between how Liberian women view processing chickens “wholly intact” means being a good “homemaker” and how sanitation officials conceive of propriety. Solidarity among ethnic groups is noted in correlation to Arjun Appadurai’s concept of the role imagination plays in new forms of globalization, whereby the Moroccan vendor, Mustafa, views his life in Italy as a form of “exile”—a  means to an end of eventually (and more successfully) returning home, provisioned with more resources to support on-going nostalgia for his homeland and dreams of a better life.

Chapter 6 is devoted to Chef Kumal (whose real name is Vittorio Castellani) a character who sells ‘foreign cuisine learning’ packages i.e. ethnogastronomic tourism, and whose presence raises many questions about outsider attempts to influence and bridge Italian provisioning and immigrant culture artificially. In spite of the potential pitfalls, which Black examines thoroughly and successfully, Kumal is analyzed overall as a mediator; someone who exists to bridge the divide and garner inclusion of the exotic “other” into the everyday, so that it becomes accepted rather than dismissed in the way market-goers provision. Food is a common bond, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Kumal’s itineraries; they exist to support the more intrepid Italians who wish to experience migrant communities without necessarily needing to connect in-depth. As Black notes, “Are we really eating at the same table together, to use Castellani’s words, or do we want takeaway culture that can be consumed in the privacy of our own homes or the controlled environment of a restaurant without giving it further thought?” (136)

The final chapter ends strong, tying together all the other chapters with dizzying efficiency. It would have been superb to initially set the tone with the sweeping insights offered here, but we as readers are saved the best for last; poetic descriptions of merendina (“a little snack”) improvisational picnics shared among certain vendors, and theoretical analysis of the centrality of time in the market reflecting the heart of Slow Food principles, are only a few of the riches offered. Overall, Black’s book lends many fascinating insights, and offers a worthwhile reflection on the meaning of locality in our globalized world.


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Sidney Mintz Celebration


On Friday, Nov. 18, there will be a celebration of Sidney Mintz at the AAA meeting in Minneapolis. For more information and to RSVP, please go here…

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How To Make A Place

David Beriss

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of food in turning a place into a cultural landmark. This is the mirror opposite of the process through which foods acquire their reputation through a linkage to a place. That, of course, is what we refer to these days as terroir. The implication is that the place, through soil, climate, or traditions, is reflected in the food. The process in either direction seems to require that people be self-conscious about making the link work. This is the work of culture and history, not nature.

This is particularly true when the place in question is a store or restaurant, rather than a farm. In the spirit of such things, I want to call attention to a tale of a New Orleans wine shop and its relatively successful efforts to use wine to make a place. I think this is a particularly interesting process because, in a society in which many things are mostly sold in large big box chain stores, success for small-scale local retailers often draws on place-making strategies. This is true for bookstores, hardware stores, bike shops, and, of course, wine stores and other food-related businesses.

The wine shop in this instance is Bacchanal Wine, which is located in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward, also known as Bywater. It was started in 2002 by Chris Rudge in what was then a slowly (perhaps even very slowly) gentrifying neighborhood in a ramshackle building. I visited a few times back then, mostly because it was near the original location of The Joint, which was a similarly ramshackle barbecue joint just up the street. I visited more often after the 2005 hurricane and floods, when Bacchanal became a bit more than a wine store. There was music in their courtyard, chefs cooking creative foods in an outdoor “kitchen” of sorts, sometimes food trucks. It was a lively and, it turns out, somewhat illegal scene and a sure sign that the neighborhood was changing much more rapidly. Having sorted out their legal issues a few years ago, the shop had to deal more recently with the death of the founding owner.

The wine store remains a lively scene. There is, of course, retail wine for sale in the store. And like a number of other New Orleans wine shops, Bacchanal also serves drinks at its own bar. There is also food, some of which is quite ambitious. And there is live music in their courtyard nearly every evening. There are other wine shops in New Orleans that engage in similar strategies (Swirl and Pearl, for instance), although Bacchanal’s full program may be a bit more ambitious than most (Do wine shops do this in other cities? Tell us about it in the comments.).

In just the last week, the store has added another element in what seems like a distinct effort to create what might be their very own terroir, if such a thing can exist in this sort of setting. They released their own wine, which Rudge and his partners had blended on a trip to California. They have also made a short documentary celebrating both Rudge and the history of the shop. The whole story has been told in interesting detail by Brett Anderson, on the website.

All of this comes together, then, to make a distinct place. Terroir is really not the right word, but it is perhaps the right spirit. Clearly, much of this is self-conscious place-making by the owners of the shop. Given their success, it seems like they have hit upon a strategy that resonates with people in New Orleans and beyond, as this article and video makes clear. This success also raises questions about what this signifies for the neighborhood and the city in general, since there are no doubt those who would prefer a different kind of place making. Yet the process of self-conscious place making itself is fascinating. How else can a small retail store succeed when the very thing they sell is easily available in big grocery stores? By selling place, rather than just wine.


Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, New Orleans, wine

What FoodAnthro is Reading Now, October 12, 2016

A few of food and nutrition-related items that have caught our attention recently. Do you have items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

This week’s digest is late because here in South Africa there are massive student protests related to the many issues of rising costs to students, unequal access to education, and so much more. Of course, protesting students need food, and faculty have been showing their support by doing grocery shopping for the students who occupied the executive offices of our university. No articles on that yet, but I’ll keep looking!

Our big food story this week had a much lighter note: South Africans with smartphones (that is, everyone except me) were outraged to find out via a viral WhatsApp message that bananas were infected with HIV… except… wait…that can’t be, right? Right? Well, yeah. Bananas can’t be infected with HIV, and this is a pretty old hoax. But the rumours caused a serious enough panic that the National Department of Health had to issue a statement, entitled, “A malicious statement circulating about bananas and the ministry of health” (yes, I did have to include the full title of the statement)  assuring the public that they could, in fact, continue to eat bananas. Whew.

Although the banana story may seem like a bizarre anecdote depicting our own gullibility (and something about social media), I wonder if it speaks to common fears about a global, opaque and disconnected food supply, where all the unknowns that big agriculture make anything seem possible. The scale of big agriculture was depicted recently in a NYTimes Series “Can Big Food Change”, with one article showing these grand pictures of large-scale food production.

In this age of global food, people spend a lot of time fighting to retain the unique story, taste and quality of their food, as described in this story from The Atlantic of a specific brand of East German pickles. Global agriculture has also led to a rapid decrease in the number of species of foods we consume, yet there’s also a vast array of foods that have spread from continent to continent, as described in this article about the spread of African crops.

Connecting big agriculture, diet, and climate change is a hot topic, and rightly so, given the major part that agriculture plays in global warming. This week, there was an article in The Guardian about the potential high yields of agroecological farming, arguing that current farming practices in BigAg are not the only way to feed the world. Also in The Guardian was an article about the UN recommendation to decrease meat consumption for the sake of the planet. Indeed, eating less meat is one way of decreasing the emissions related to agriculture. Civil Eats writes about a study relating U.S. masculinity and meat consumption, with the conclusion that men shouldn’t need meat to feel manly, but they might currently feel like they do given a broader social context.

Lastly, check out this wonderful article about high quality bread in the face of war in Syria.

Have you written something interesting about food this week? Tell us about it!

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Mentoring event with Karen Kelsky at the AAAs


The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) and Culture&Agriculture (C&A) are excited to announce that we will jointly sponsor two workshops led by Dr. Karen Kelsky from “The Professor Is In”. These workshops will provide fora to consider career development strategies along with peers who share interests in matters food/agriculture/ natural resource-related. They will take place on Friday, November 17th at the AAA Annual Meetings in Minneapolis, MN. We thank the AAA for a Mentoring Award in support of these events. We will also hold a Mentoring event between the workshops (at noon) for registered participants and interested members of C&A and SAFN.

ACADEMIC AND POST-ACADEMIC CAREER DEVELOPMENT FOR PRE-DOCS: KAREN KELSKY TAKES ON PROFESSIONALIZATION In this workshop I walk you through the conditions of the current American job market, the most common mistakes made by job-seekers, and the ways you can maximize your chances of success while looking for a tenure-track job. We’ll cover: The big-picture conditions of the U.S. tenure track job market, How to think like a search committee, The four core qualities of a successful tenure track job candidate, The all-important 5-Year Plan, The ethos of job market documents, The most common mistakes made by job seekers, The keys to academic interviewing. We’ll also touch on the non-academic option. You’ll leave with a broad understanding of the real (as opposed to fantasy) criteria of tenure track hiring, and how to tailor your record and application materials to maximize your chances of success. Friday, 11/17- 10:30 AM-12:00 PM

ACADEMIC AND POST-ACADEMIC CAREER DEVELOPMENT FOR POST-DOCS: KAREN KELSKY TAKES ON PROFESSIONALIZATION This workshop shows you how to 1) track out a research and teaching trajectory across the 5 years of the tenure track probationary period in an anthropology or related social science position; 2) manage postdoctoral fellowship years while seeking an eventual tenure track position. Focuses on creating an effective Five-Year-Plan, and managing your time to maximize productivity (i.e., working backward from your tenure year to plot out specific publishing goals, or making a postdoc writing schedule with an eye to the job hunt). Also looks at departmental politics, managing colleagues, handling the demands of teaching, and calculating appropriate levels of service. Addresses children and work-life balance. Based on Dr. Karen’s years as a department head mentoring a number of faculty through successful tenure cases. Friday, 11/17 2:00 -03:30 PM
The AAA workshops are all listed on the website, but the active link for workshop registration is only visible from a member’s personal profile (under “My Payments, Receipts, Transactions & Events”).

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11th Annual Wine Economics Conference

We recently received the following announcements, which may be of interest to all of you wine anthropologists:

The 11th Annual Conference of the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) will be held from Jun 28 – Jul 2, 2017 in Padova/ItalyWe consider all wine topics related to economics, statistics, and business including submissions that overlap with adjacent fields such as (but not limited to) psychology, neuroscience, history, linguistics, viticulture, law or oenology. Submission Deadline: Dec 15, 2016(Details).
AAWE is offering 3 Research Scholarships. Each Scholarship pays US$1,500 and grants free admission to the Annual AAWE Conference in Padova/Italy. Submission Deadline: Nov 15, 2016. (Details)
From 2017 on, the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) will publish a new Journal called “Journal of Wine Economics: Selected Proceedings”. JWE:SP will appear once a year, immediately after AAWE’s  annual conference, and will draw on selected conference papers, which are typically short (up to 3,000 words) and may be non-technical. For JWE:SP, the editors will consider single papers as well as entire sessions. 

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, October 4, 2016

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

Let’s start this week with a rumination on the meaning of “sustainability” across languages and cultures. This piece, from María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza and Emily Yates-Doerr, raises questions about how to think about this term while we are rethinking the tropes of modernity. From English, to Spanish, to Mam, in highland Guatemala, this brief-but-provocative article is part of Cultural Anthropology’s “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.”

The same companies that supply your campus food service probably also run food services for American prisons…and they do so, in many states, for very little money. This article looks at the monetary constraints that have been imposed on prisons, even as the U.S. incarcerates a growing population. Is there anything wrong with running a prison food service as for profit enterprise? Is it important for prisoners to receive good nutrition? Apparently these are not rhetorical questions.

On a more upbeat food service note, the National Museum of African American History and Culture recently opened in Washington, DC and it has a restaurant. Writers from Smithsonian Magazine provide an overview of some of the foods served there, along with their history, here.

How essential is online media to the success of restaurants? How much has the development—in just the last decade—of web sites and blogs devoted to chefs and restaurants changed the business of providing food to the public? This short piece from Grub Street (one of those sites) explores these questions.

There have been a number of articles about the dismal wages many restaurant workers make in the U.S. and about efforts to remedy that by moving away from tipping. But much of what we have read on this topic is New York-centric. Want to know more about how this is playing out in the rest of the U.S.? This article, from Helen Freund in the New Orleans Gambit is a good place to start. How is this debate going on where you live?

What kinds of organizations advocate for farmers in the United States? There are many, of course, with a lot of different political perspectives. Read this interview with Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union to learn about that particular organization’s approach to various food and agriculture issues.

Trade agreements have been getting seriously bad press in the current U.S. presidential campaign. It is possible, however, that not all trade agreements are bad. Read this short article about trade agreements on organic foods that recognize organic standards in other countries. And for a more in depth analysis, here is a link to the report referred to in the article.

You have probably seen all the advertisements for services that will deliver meals directly to you, with ingredients that you can easily prepare. Is this a healthy alternative to actually cooking? Is it a gateway to real cooking? Ankita Rao tries one service, then explores some other interesting ways in which people are being taught how and what to cook. Also, Krishnendu Ray is interviewed.

Many of you probably have deeply researched ideas about why some foods are kosher and others are not. But have you ever wondered how wine gets to be kosher? Or why most bourbon and some Scotch is kosher? From “The Alcohol Professor” (in this case, Amanda Schuster), a handy guide to and analysis of this fraught topic.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies