Category Archives: Authenticity

The Message(s) In the Bottle (or Keg)

Amy Trubek with Elisa Ascione and Manuel Barbato

Why am I in Umbria spending time with craft brewers and tasting beers such as an American Red Ale and a Porter infused with Coconut? There are any number of reasons this seems absurd. First, I am not an enthusiastic drinker of beer, let alone a connoisseur. Second, Umbria is one of Italy’s wine growing regions, with two internationally known Designation of Controlled Origin Guaranteed (DOCG) wines, Sagrantino di Montefalco and Torgiano Rosso Riserva, as well as other well-known wines. Personally and professionally, a visit to the wine regions of Torgiano or Montefalco and a conversation with the owner of Lungarotti or Terre Margaritelli vineyards, is much more in my wheelhouse. Third, I live in Vermont, one of the hubs of the American craft brew movement, where hipsters and bros from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts will drive up and wait in line for hours to purchase growlers of beer made by Hill Farmstead (named the World’s Best Brewery for the past five years)– or to hunt down the elusive Alchemist’s Heady Topper.

I had never researched beer, anywhere– until my colleagues, Elisa Ascioneand Manuel Barbato, asked me to join them in a research project. Both live in Perugia, work at the Umbra Institute (a study abroad program with a Food and Sustainabilityconcentration), and study the regional food and drink culture. They have witnessed a growing interest in craft beers among the younger generation of Italians, both those who want to produce them and those who want to go out for an aperitivo and choose from more than the long-time standards of Peroni, Moretti and Heineken. Who am I to say no? I am here for a short time and my knowledge is thin; theirs is thick and intimately connected to people and places.

Local beer is increasingly important to the culinary culture here. Umbria has local histories of making and drinking beer but these are not part of the food, drink and cultural heritage narratives crucial to the identity of the region, especially in relation to tourism. Those narratives celebrate Umbria’s wines, DOP olive oil, farro long grown in the region (which now also has protected denomination), and, of course, the salumeria and cheese. But, in the past 15 years, over twenty craft breweries have opened in region. When you go to a bar, trattoria or ristorante in the city of Perugia, there are now featured lists of local beers, almost an impossibility, in, for example, the late 20thcentury.

So, why is this happening? And what is the significance?  These are our questions. For us, anthropologists with previous research on culinary culture, cultural heritage, the connection to place and concepts of authenticity and quality, Umbrian craft brewers and craft beer are not reproducing or replicating other powerful narratives orpractices of this locality. The region is part of the identity, but it is not the primary inspiration. This is an intervention into a globalcraft beer culture, a transnational network of young people (primarily men) with a vision that integrates identity, quality, conviviality and a certain rebellion. One young man learned about craft beer during his European and American travels as a professional snowboarder. Another, a journalist by trade, realized that there had been a small brewer in the city of Perugia and wanted to bring that connection back to his home town. No one comes from multi-generational families of brewers. Only some cultivate and source their hops and malt from the region. Everyone wants to provide an alternative to the ubiquitous industrial beers. The shared zeitgeist concerns the scale first, the locale second, and tradition close to last. Foremost, the tastes of the beer involve the expression of the brewer.

Birra Perugia

We are in the preliminary stages of our research, but there is a shared sensibility between the craft brewers we have talked to here in Umbria and those studied in the United States. The current generation of craft brewers desire a connection to ‘somewhere-ness.’A beer that is generic or homogenous seems empty – of meaning, of calories, and of taste. Giovanni of Birrificio San Biagio, for example, talks about terroir in beer, referring to the health properties of the water of Nocera Umbra used for his beers. He wishes that, just as it happened for wine, regional beers could have geographical indications as a source of distinction in the growing craft beer market, even if parts of the ingredients are sourced from abroad. Antonio of Birra Perugia, connects his production to the history of the city, referring to the documents and pictures that he found about a city brewery that existed in the city center at the end of the 19thCentury. Interestingly, they all want to [literally] make the link between the beer and place, even when for now it does not really exist; in Umbria these brewers are not drawing upon a continuous peasant tradition, but rather a virtually connected community (for example, Instagram is a tool for both inspiration and information).  They rely on what anthropologists and sociologists call ‘networked ecologies.’ Many further questions arise that we intend to pursue: Does it matter that the narratives and practices for wine and beer are so distinct in Umbria? What does the fact that younger Italians prefer making beer over making wine bode for the future? Can you make the taste of Umbrian beer unique by slowly encouraging local agricultural production of hops and barley? So, although I continue to prefer a glass of vino to a pint of birra, in collaboration with Elisa and Manuel, I certainly see the message(s) in the bottle!

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, Authenticity, globalization, Italy

Review: Authentic Italian

Di Maio, Dina M. Authentic Italian. The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.  ISBN#13:978-0-9996255-0-7

Francesca Gobbo
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.

 

References

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology of food, Authenticity, food history, Italy, migration