Review: Food Festivals

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Food Festivals and Local Development in Italy: A Viewpoint from Economic Anthropology. Michele Filippo Fontefrancesco. London: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN #978-3-030-53321-2. Xli + 179 pp

David Sutton (Southern Illinois University)

Food festivals, or sagre (plural, singular sagra), have grown tremendously in number in twenty-first century Italy; a 2017 assessment puts them at over 18,000, ranging from festivals to celebrate particular pasta dishes, to those dedicated to products ranging from local wines to pink asparagus. While the vast majority of Italians consider these festivals to be an appreciated summer attraction and “one of the main drivers to visit rural areas” (xviii), their ubiquity also leads to debates over the authenticity, or the quality, of particular sagre. Fontefrancesco’s book traces the rise of these festivals, and asks questions about their impact on the mostly rural landscape in which they take place. Ideally they are “devices” for rural communities to ”attempt to slow down their ongoing socio-economic marginalization…[while] urban dwellers look at the countryside and find in the festivals easy solutions that satisfy the cultural need for authenticity and tradition” (xi-xii). But how successful are they?

Food Festivals is based on ethnographic research conducted in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, a region known for its grape growing and wine production, among other things.  While there have been a number of studies of particular food festivals, this book stands out in being multi-sited, taking in over thirty different festivals, though only a few of those are highlighted for extensive discussion in the text.  Fontefrancesco’s research also stretched from 2005-2017, beginning with grape harvest festivals and moving to some of the food festivals explored in the book. This extended time period allows, in a number of cases, the author to explore changes over time, and in some cases the loss or revitalization of particular festivals.

Fontefrancesco draws theoretical inspiration from a broad literature in the anthropology of tourism and the Mediterranean, critical theory and classic sociological concepts. He raises questions about “terroir” and the “invention of tradition”  without falling down the rabbit hole that the latter concept often leads to. While he’s wary of the possibility of sagre becoming “ethno-commodities,” the term coined by Jean and John Comaroff, I get the sense that he is essentially sympathetic to the projects entailed by sagre, in particular the attempt to counter processes of rural economic and social decline relevant not only to Italy, but a larger condition of globalization documented by many scholars. Fontefrancesco is also attentive to the food in food festivals, and does not marginalize food scholarship in his study, as explored below. After his extensive literature review in the Introduction, Fontefrancesco settles on the concept of “assemblage” to explore sagre as devices that are made up of human and non-human actors, constantly adding and shedding components:  “…this book considers the festivals as assemblages of dynamics enacted, embodied and experienced by individuals and communities at large” (xxiv).  

Chapter One explores the expectations that local communities bring to thinking about festivals, based in their ambivalent attitudes towards tourists and tourism. Fontefrancesco captures the sense of hope and desperation that motivates local perspectives. As one informant describes it: “’We tried to be factory workers, but we failed. We tried to open factories but what remains today of that promise of progress is just ruins and abandoned shelters…If we have a future, it is in the land, in its fruits and in the people that will like to visit it.’” (5). Here we see the “resignation” in people’s recognition that tourism may be the only way forward, and the “hope” that the beautiful landscape will provide a counter to ongoing marginalization (11). I couldn’t help but think of the dashed hopes within the “rust belt” in the Midwest of the US, which shares with rural areas in Italy a “scarcity of public and private services, great distances…from main urban centres, scares infrastructure regarding ITC, services and mobility…” (27). These issues were much in the news in the U.S. as I was reading this book,  with the latest travesty of Chinese Foxconn reneging on promises to build a massive factory in Wisconsin,[1] and very little hope of wine and cheese trails as the alternative to save such communities.

Chapter Two, titled “The Anti-Marginalization Device,” explores these issues in greater detail, with a focus on the San Rocco Ravioli festival, which Fontefrancesco describes as “a device the community uses to cherish their vision of an alternative, positive future, helping the local people to face the uncertainty of the present and the effects of the transformation they went through in the past several decades” (23). It is here, in the participation of the broader community in the organization of the festival, that Fontefrancesco suggests that sagre can work to promote the integrity of local communities while using food to “create[] a mundane form of sacrality around the event,” a point further developed in subsequent chapters.

Chapters Three and Four, “The Socialization Device” and “The Reterritorialization Device,” dive into the details of particular festivals to show how sagre can work their effects on particular communities. In Chapter Three, Fontefrancesco compares the Trofia Festival (a local pasta) of Castellino with the Grape Harvest Festival of Lu. The former is a rather recent invention that has managed fairly successfully to create a sense of collective community through the participation of many locals and other residents in the preparation and execution of the festival meal (indeed it is helpful that the locals are open to the participation of newer residents in the festival). In this ethnography we see the role of sagre in building community, not simply reproducing it, in Durkheimian fashion, and as one organizer notes, they “’make the community come together, discovering itself as a community…to restart our villages, food is essential’” (41). The Grape Harvest Festival of Lu is described in similar terms, but what is interesting here is that it is a festival that evolved from an older religious holiday (August 15th, the Festival of Our Lady). Over time it became more associated with food. Fontefrancesco traces the festival over the course of nearly 50 years as it grew and then eventually ended in 2014, as some explained, because it failed to continue to adapt over time, and participation became increasingly obligatory and perfunctory (50). Chapter Four focuses on local knowledge in showing how festivals can revitalize interest in the meanings attached to place and geography, what Fontefrancesco labels “reterritorialization.” A particularly interesting case is that of the Fasola of Oltrepasso, a sagra involving a soup made from pasta, beans and garlic. Fasola (a word from local dialect) is both a touristic success and the basis for a revitalized sense of community memory and identity that extends well beyond the festival itself. What is striking here is that Fontefrancesco shows how the dish itself, and the festival around it, were largely created in the 1970s, based no doubt on common culinary practices, but with no particular history of a special dish in this place. Local history and memory are combined with an aura of secrecy surrounding the recipe used, and stereotypical claims about recipes “handed down from mother to daughter,” for the festival in order to create a sense that, as one organizer put it “’It does not matter the actual origins, whether or not it is a medieval dish. Fasola is Oltrepasso, and Oltrepasso is Fasola’” (71). This example clearly shows the process of inventing tradition can still create meaningful knowledge for the community to reorient itself around. To quote, again, from an organizer: “’…fasola created a strong link between the people of Oltrepasso and the history of the village, in a moment when everything seemed lost” (71).

The final substantive chapter returns to the question of economic impacts of sagre, and the relationship of local embeddednesss of the products promoted at food festivals and market logic, and the “fragile equilibrium” that goes into using festivals as devices for local development (103). Fontefrancesco once again compares the history and current practice of several festivals (one involving hazelnuts, and the other, the pasta dish tajarin) to draw the conclusion that cultural embeddedness is not the key factor in the economic success of festivals. More important is “the localization of [the festive food’s] entire life cycle (from production of the ingredients to sale and consumption” (113). That is, when the production chain of a product is global, rather than local, this can dissipate community resources and diminish the tourist experience (116), even if the sagre do have some beneficial effects on local food enterprises. This chapter also shows the changing economic nature of sagre over the past century, and in particular how they have shifted “from being the key moment of the local market economy of the rural community, otherwise based mostly on a household economy, to just an interesting opportunity for intensifying the exposure of local producers, who are embedded in a wider market economy, to the final consumers” (123).

The Conclusion reiterates the main points of Fontefrancesco’s argument, which has political importance in its stress on the value of a broad and inclusive understanding of community (including migrants), and a recognition of the dynamic and shifting meanings attached to particular foods and shared food consumption. As Fontefrancesco sums up: “the volume suggests that the value of a sagra lies not in its philological search of a truth, but rather in its ability to activate a community, to establish new relationships within the borders of the village and with the vast outside world: this is what makes a saga indispensable in face of rural marginalization and its consequences” (125).

A brief coda written in the Spring of 2020 considers the impact of losing the year’s sagre to Covid-19, and the implications of this for the future of sagre in the face of a pandemic that “leaves empty squares behind” (145). Food Festivals provides an excellent resource for scholars and students who are interested in pursuing the impact of these events on local communities. In a short amount of space, Fontefrancesco lays out the theoretical and ethnographic landscape of understanding sagre with a holistic approach that combines concerns with sociality, meaning and materiality. My only complaint is in relation to the publisher, Palgrave. I read the e-book version of the text, as they would not send a hard copy for review. There were a number of copyediting and proofreading oversights that the publisher should have caught, though I find that these are simply and increasingly par for the course of academic publishing these days. On the positive side, the photos taken by Fontefrancesco are extensive and vivid, bringing to life some of the sights, tastes and smells that no doubt were an important part of the author’s fieldwork. This compelling and clearly-written, multi-sited work, is an excellent contribution to the study of food festivals that should shape the agenda on this topic in anthropology and food studies for the foreseeable future.


[1] https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/21/21526765/foxconn-lcd-factory-not-real-confirmation-wisconsin-report-exclusive

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