University of Turin
With her book Authentic Italian (2018), author Dina M. Di Maio aims to disseminate The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, as the subtitle explains, among American readers (and, presumably, also diners). She wants to dispel the prejudices and biases about Italian immigrants and their food by demonstrating and reclaiming the authentic Italian identity of the dishes prepared and cooked in the kitchens of Americans of Italian descent—as she calls them. The chapters’ titles (What is “Italian” Food?: The Italy They Left; Is Cucina Moderna the True Food of Italy?; They Came to America; Spaghetti and Meatballs; Italian Food in America; Pizza; Italian Food Around the World; Italian Food in Italy; The Legacy of Italian Food) well describe the ample itinerary undertaken by the author. For Di Maio, the story of food and foodways of Americans of Italian descent cannot but intertwine with the history of the Italian South and its people, the emigration of millions of Southerners to escape poverty and lack of prospects in their homeland, the exclusion and prejudices suffered by those who landed in the United States (and that are still suffered by their descendants, according to Di Maio). It also includes the cultural resilience and creativity they practiced by succeeding in making their cuisine popular and highly appreciated by Americans. Thus, though she warns readers that “Italian history is convoluted,” and reminds them that the unification of Italy was achieved only in 1861, Di Maio thought it necessary to go into it in order to give “an understanding of how this history pertains to the food history of the early Italian immigrants”. Most of her references are the works of English authors, since not many Italian texts about the history of Southern Italy or Italian foodways are translated in English: her decision seems unavoidable, but I think that the contributions of Italian historians to the study of the post-unification conditions of the South would have been very valuable.
With regard to immigrants’ foodways, they brought them to the new land, as Di Maio documents, and initially they kept their cooking traditions within the family and neighborhood circles. Immigrants also grew their own vegetables and fruits (a habit some of them still maintained in 1974, when – to my surprise – I was able to buy some Roman chicory from an old man in New Haven). Furthermore, accustomed as they were to olive oil for cooking, they started to import it from Sicily as early as 1907, together with other specialties. Later the production of American made Italian food was launched, and restaurants and pizzerie were opened. Most of the enterprises were family based, capable of making and distributing products of high quality, and of impacting positively on the food industry in the United States, until “the local Italian-American business became corporations or died because of competition from corporations and quality subsequently degraded”. Many of those newly arrived to American shores shared the cooking and eating traditions of the South. Yet the Italian immigrants were a diverse group, both in terms of social status and specific history, as is testified by Di Maio’s research among the descendants of the Waldensian immigrants. The latter – as the Author explains – came from the steep valleys of Piedmont where they, as an Italian religious minority, had settled in the XIII century. The dishes that the descendants of the early immigrants still prepare testify of the strong relationship with the Piedmontese food traditions, notwithstanding their long exclusion from the surrounding Catholic society. And it is with a communal lunch, after a religious ceremony, that every year, on February 17, in the valley “capital” Torre Pellice, the Italian Waldensians celebrate the civic and political rights (Lettere Patenti), granted to them by the Savoia Carlo Alberto in 1848.
Di Maio’s commitment to attest that “spaghetti and meatballs make up the story of the Italian people in the United States” is inaugurated by asking if such a dish, as well as pizza or eggplant parmesan, are perceived as authentic Italian, rather than as Italian American. The latter is a mistaken perception many Italians run into (especially if they are from the North) and it is due – as she explains – to the characteristics of the Italian cuisine that is divided by North and South, is regional, and characterized by important variations in produce and recipes, engendering a certain confusion with regard to the authentic origin of the dish. In fact, I can testify that, as a Northern Italian student in the United States in the early 1970s, I shared that confusion. It ended only when, in 1976, the Arberësh family from which I rented a room during fieldwork in Calabria decided to prepare a special treat – to wit: spaghetti and meatballs. Thus, that meal was not only tasty, but it also gave the ethnographer the opportunity to learn about the diversity of Italian food and the limited familiarity many Italians had with dishes prepared and eaten in other Italian regions.
However, things are changing, as Di Maio notices, and the concern of the Italian government to validate “authentic products” underlines how the Italian food identity (or authenticity) is transmitted not only by recipes or internationally popular dishes such as pizza. This also happens now through the DOC and DOP designations (as well as those of the Slow Food Presidia) of local or regional products that thus become known and appreciated both at the national and international level. Pizza is one such dish, and the pages the author devotes to it and to its diffusion are quite interesting, though her claim that “the Southern Italians brought it to the United States who in turn brought it back to Italy” does not do justice, in my view, to the many Neapolitan families who introduced pizza and pizzerie in the towns – big and small – of Northern Italy.
Di Maio’s aims, in short, “to prove that the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in the United States is indeed Italian cuisine based on real dishes from Italy”. And further, “to show that classifying and interpreting the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in any other way but as ‘Italian’ is discriminatory”. This goal required not only research among the food habits of those Italian Americans, but also an exploration of Italian food cultures, cooking and eating practices, and of the changes they and the Italians have undergone in Italy. Her research places the topic of Italian American foodways and their authenticity in a wide perspective that comprises not only the past but also the present of Italy, and provokes memories as well as questions in Italian readers. While her efforts are devoted to establish the authenticity of the food of Americans of Italian descent, an Italian reader would point out that immigrants from all parts of the world are now part of the Italian population. Many of them collect tomatoes and oranges in the South (and the padrone system the Author mentions is remindful of the caporalato and of the heavy toll it takes from the field laborers), so that traditional food such as pasta al pomodoro or other dishes requiring fresh or processed tomatoes are now maintained also thanks to them. It is possible – as happens in the oldest pizzeria of Padova (in the Northeast of Italy) – that pizza is made to its usual perfection by a young Indian immigrant, or that Bangladeshi sellers of fruits and vegetables extol the freshness of the radicchio varieties, the tastiness of the fondi di carciofo (artichoke bottoms) as ably and convincingly as the next stalls’ local vendors who celebrate their goods in local dialect. With very few exceptions, neither grow the vegetables and fruits they sell as was often common in the 1960s and 1970s, however the immigrants too have learned to shave the artichokes and keep them in fresh water for the satisfaction of the customers. If the authenticity of the pizza or of the fondi di carciofo cannot be questioned when they reach the table, regardless of who cooked or prepared or sold them, will the meaning of “authentic” widen or, on the contrary, remain exclusively defined by historic origins? In my view, the etymology of “authentic” (from late Latin authenticus, and from the Greek authentikós, derived from authéntës, author, doer, master, cfr. Devoto 1968, Onions 1966) suggests that what is proved as true, genuine, or not false, implies the recognition of a maker, and of his/her activity, who relates to the original source in terms of inspiration and creativity rather than of respectful replication.
Devoto G. (1968), Avviamento alla Etimologia Italiana. Dizionario Etimologico, Firenze: Le Monnier.
Onions C. T. ed. (1966), The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.