Category Archives: Italy

Review: Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Media of Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Carole Counihan. Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia: Place, Taste, and Community. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. Pp. i-176. ISBN 9781474262286 (hardback) 9781474262309 (epdf)

Abigail E. Adams (Central Connecticut State University)

This review of the book by SAFN’s own Carole Counihan, based on her decades-long work in Italy’s Sardinia, is overdue but perhaps timely as we keep in mind the Italian people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Counihan has helped me “ethno-graph” more deeply my own engagement in urban New England food justice and agriculture movements during a period that overlaps with her 2011-2015 research, and with a similarly necessary focus on the 2008 worldwide Great Recession. She writes of Italy’s marginalized south and islands, whose residents value their agro-pastoral economies, histories, traditions and who struggle “against competition from increasingly globalized foodways manifest in expanding distribution networks and high density of supermarkets” (2019: 1).

After her introduction, she structures chapters with case studies focused on particular places and communities of “food activists, food advocates and food rebels” (2019: 3). She draws throughout the ethnography on three themes signaled by her book’s subtitle (Place, Taste, and Community): the significance of place, territorio; the appeal of taste as a strategy for action; and the goal of forging community (2019: 1). Another unmentioned but valuable theme throughout the book is the local impact of state policies and practices.

I came into anthropology’s food studies from the social justice angle, rather than our discipline’s nutrition or even embodiment subfields. Counihan’s book put these two approaches together for me, demonstrating how people and communities can re-claim their experience, standards, and senses from the crazy-making gaslit maw of industrial food and agriculture. Her book was a form of “taste activism” for me, a term Counihan coins to express how “the social, sensual bodily engagement with food can be a wellspring of civil society participation” (2019: 65). And even her coining observes territorio, as it is grounded in the insight of Sardinia’s native son Antonio Gramsci about the vital “movement from knowing to understanding to feeling and vice versa …you cannot make history and politics without passion” (cited 2019:66).

Counihan sustains a close focus on cross-class interactions, alliances and solidarities among the region’s middle-class, its farmers, other food producers, processors, and purveyors, teachers and elementary school children, starting with the book’s first case study—of a Slow Food chapter or condotta — to one of the closing studies about the “teaching farms” and its elementary school partner.

In Chapter Two, “Middle-Class Activism and Slow Food,” Counihan takes on the elitism charge leveled against Slow Food and explores how the members of Cagliari’s condotta promote access to “good, clean and fair food.” She describes these as middle-class activists, “those with financial means, interest, and critical thinking to make consumption choices towards more sustainable and equitable food” (2019: 10)—but the members are from all walks of Sardinian life, including farmers and butchers; she encounters no food snobs in their midst. They are an active group, have just established two new “food communities between consumers and producers around regional varieties of capers and watermelons. A butcher member radically changed his meat ordering business to promote small and local meat producers. But they feel the disconnect between their efforts and the sharp decline in their region’s small-scale farming, as well as their own struggles to maintain the founding passion of their movement.

In Chapter Three, “Food and Territorio,” a study of three agricultural “communities of resistance” (citing Pratt 2007), Counihan’s top concern is whether these groups have spurned exclusionary reactionary “defensive localization” while aiming for food sovereignty, celebration of territorio, and self-reliance. The first of the three communities is Domusamigas (English: “house of women friends), a women-led group focused on local self-sufficiency, re-skilling and teaching, local varieties, and women producers). The second group is working through AGRIS (the Sardinian Regional Agency for Research in Agriculture) to recognize Sardinian bean varieties on the official government list of traditional species. The last community is gathered around the Cagliari urban garden whose creators restored an abandoned quarry/dumping ground using permaculture techniques developed in Japan and Spain. The Domusamigas founder defines territorio as follows: “You have a place in the world, you are part of something” (2019: 25) and Counihan finds that all three groups welcome newcomers, new ideas and techniques to “have a place.” For example, the urban gardeners want to qualify for social agriculture, the “catch-all name for farming used to provide work and social integration to ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” (2019: 37).

In Chapter Four, “Resistance Farming and Multifunctionality,” Counihan uses four case studies of “resistant” farmers to explore the contributions of alternative agriculture to food democracy: a wine cooperative, caper farmer, organic olive oil producer and teaching farm. Each of these producers aimed at making a living for themselves and others in agro-ecological (even organic) farming of historically important crops often on re-territorialized farmland. Each of the farms appears to be a success in resilient small-scale farming, successes perhaps best defined by the caper farmer: modest income, hard work, but satisfaction. Three of the case studies featured those Italian new young farmers whose 35% increase in numbers over the previous year lifted hopes for “a sustainable new peasant economy distinctively different from entrepreneurial and capitalist agriculture” (2019: 64).

Chapter Five, “Taste Activism and the Emotional Power of Food,” features another stakeholder in food democracy, the consumer. Three “tasting” events sponsored by the organizations and producers met in earlier chapters include a Slow Food caper tasting, the wine cooperative’s wine tasting, and a tasting of the organic olive oil farmer’s product through a thrice-weekly outdoor market sponsored by the Cagliari GAS (Solidarity Purchase Group). Although a shorter chapter, this is one of the more “ethnographic,” as Counihan explores the interactions among the producers, taste event “hosts,” and tasting participants. The strategy of these events is to recruit new activists by “grabbing them by their senses.” At each event, she documents how tasters develop their own critical conscious pleasure and experience of the flavors they sample .aThey thereby cement their commitment to local producers; no one is pushed to conform their palates to some imposed “universal” standard.

Chapter Six, “Restaurants,” shifts to full-time sites of “taste-making” with interviews in three restaurants: a high-brow white linen establishment, a vegetarian buffet, and a deli or gastronomia. The owner/chefs are militant supporters of local food and small farmers, innovators who introduce or resurrect new or forgotten tastes; two of the owner/chefs are younger returnees to their Cagliari birthplaces.

Chapter Seven, “Critical Food Education: Place, taste, and community” (perhaps my favorite chapter) is a tour of Sardinia’s “teaching farms” (an official designation!). Both the teaching farms and the participating primary school principal she interviews are guided by the mantra, “If I hear I forget; if I see I remember; if I do, I learn.” The principal wants her pupils to develop as critical citizens and consumers.She modeled this critical awareness for me when she discussed both her plan to achieve zero food kilometers for her school lunch program but also raised her concerns about the impact on her pupils, many of whom are immigrants, of an exclusionary assumption of localism that residents of the same locale share the same culinary culture (2019: 108-109).

Counihan’s final topical Chapter Eight, “Commerce and Activism takes us to those Sardinians directly confronting global capitalism. She introduces us to owners of three Cagliari organic food businesses including a producer coop, a store, and a home-delivery business. While she cites Heather Paxson’s economies of sentiment (2013), these owners use the explicitlypolitical solidarity economy concept. These are not “boutique” entrepreneurs claiming organic’s niche market, subsidies, and higher prices. These are alternative democratic merchants who use Sardinia’s Sardex alternative currency, promote territorio through local products that yield slim to no profit margins, and struggle to eke out a meager living in a region with Italy’s highest per capita supermarket saturation (2019: 125). They leave prestigious well-paying jobs in Italy’s metropolises to undertake these ventures; while the coop opened in 1982, the other two businesses were established by young returnees in 2003 and 2006. And the obstacles are considerable; the home-delivery service closed during Counihan’s research.

The Conclusion, “Italian food activism and global democracy” briefly summarizes her key points placing Italian food activism in the broader context of global efforts to promote food democracy.

This is a delightfully well-written volume, with generous and almost treasure-hunt-like literature reviews in each chapter as Counihan engages with colleagues for the terms and approaches that best help us understand what Sardinia’s activists accomplish in taste activism, food justice and participatory democracy. She lifts up the voices of the activists and so comes close to achieving one of the definitions of food democracy she cites, which is to represent “all the voices of the food system” (Hassanein 2003: 84, from 2019:3)).

Some of the chapters are driven by interviews rather than interactions and participant observation ethnography. For example, patrons and ethnography of dining are missing in the chapter on the restaurants . The strongest ethnographic chapter is Chapter Four about the tasting events. Other missing voices are those of Sardinia’s most marginalized—those “ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” served by Italy’s social agriculture (2019: 37). Given that so many of her interlocutors are returnees (in other words, Sardinians coming from a core Italian “immigrant” experience), returning to an island that is the first soil that scores of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants set foot on, I (along with Chapter Seven’s wonderfully woke elementary school principal!) would have liked more attention to immigration, territorio, and community.

The Italian immigrants living in the poorest neighborhood of New Britain, Connecticut, where I researched the flourishing and failure of an urban organic farm, transformed their tiny urban yards into vertical and horizontal horticultural miracles–in the midst of general blight. While carrying out research, I co-founded an urban food justice non-profit (New Britain ROOTS http://www.newbritainroots.org) and so I mined nearly every paragraph of Counihan’s book for more ideas for our work and with longing that our public schools were supported by critical pedagogical principles and principals. And teaching farms! Counihan adds new concepts to my activist vocabulary, such as Italy’s social agriculture, the teaching farms and the CSA variant, “your garden at a distance.” COVID-19 and quarantine coincided with Spring here, and a record run on gardening supplies. It’s not clear yet what industries and commerce the pandemic will pruned or clear-cut; perhaps we can transplant some of Sardinia’s alternatives and challenges to the global agro-food industrial complex.

For a recent video interview with Carole Counihan about her career in food anthropology, see:

https://foodanthro.com/2019/11/19/i-remember-the-day-i-said-okay-ive-read-everything-an-interview-with-carole-counihan/

References:

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni dal cacere, vol. 1. Turin: Einauldi.

Hassanein, Neva (2003) Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 77-86.

Paxson, Heather (2013) The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Jeff (2007) “Food Values: The Local and Authentic,” Critique of Anthropology 27(3): 285-300.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, culture and agriculture, food activism, Italy, taste

“I Remember the Day I said ‘Okay, I’ve Read Everything,’” an Interview with Carole Counihan

David Sutton

Here is the second in my series of video interviews with food anthropologists. This one is with Dr. Carole Counihan, who probably needs no introduction. In it she reflects on her career, her research in Italy and southern Colorado, and her role as editor of Food and Foodways. This interview was conducted at her summer home in Antonito, Colorado, and was followed by a delicious Tuscan soup that Carole prepared, which unfortunately I cannot share here. See also Carole’s “Proust Questionaire.”

More interviews to follow soon.

 

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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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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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There is no such thing as spaghetti bolognaise: The rights and wrongs of a ragù

Markus Bell

Arguably Italy’s most famous dish, certainly the one most likely to appear on the children’s menu in your local family diner, spaghetti bolognaise is globally consumed and widely misunderstood. I spent a Bologna evening in the company of some hungry Italians to find out what’s so special about bolognaise, why the rest of us are getting it wrong, and what this quintessentially Italian food can tell us about ourselves.

The rules of ragù

Rule #1: There’s no such thing as spaghetti bolognaise.

Like every good meal the evening starts with some hunting and gathering. A team dispatched to the local store, owned and staffed by a friendly Pakistani family, return with ingredients for the feast to come. Beers are cracked and diced vegetables thrown into a pot that already plays host to a generous splash of olive oil.

Busy hands stir the onions, celery and carrots for 20 minutes before adding first the pork and then the beef. “It’s so the meat breaks up. Later we’ll add the wine and the tomato sauce and let simmer,” our host explains, wielding a spoon stained at the end with evidence of a lifetime of mixing.

“So, dinner in half an hour?” I ask, recalling family ‘Italian nights’ as a child.

“Dinner in 3 hours,” comes a terse reply. “The first thing you’ve got to know,” our host informs us earnestly, measuring out flour and eggs for crafting the pasta, “is that there’s no such thing as spaghetti bolognaise. We don’t use garlic, there’s no cherry tomato in here, and it’s not fast food. This is tagliatelle al ragù.”

Rule #2: It’s not an exact science

IMG_0338Flour blankets the table like snow on a Hallmark Christmas card. Mimicking Mr. Miyagi’s ‘wax-on, wax-off’ motion, our host sweeps it up and shapes it into a miniature volcano. Into the crater he cracks several eggs. “How much flour is in each volcano?” I ask, notepad in hand.

“The second thing to know, Markus: making tagliatelle al ragù isn’t an exact science. You’ve got to feel when the dough is ready to roll. You need to taste the ragù before you add the wine. And you just know when it’s all ready.”

I reluctantly discard my pen and paper.

Our host kneads the flour and eggs until it becomes firm and stops sticking to a rolling board that resembles a dance floor in proportions. Locating an oversized, police baton of a wooden rolling pin he leans with his weight on the dough and lunges back and forth, flattening everything in his path.IMG_0345

“They were my grandmother’s,” he explains, hair pulled back, shoulders pinned forward as he mercilessly shunts dough around the dance floor. “I learnt to cook from watching my grandmother. There were no recipes. Nothing was written down. We learn by watching and doing,” he tells us, brushing flour from his hands and reaching for a beer.

Culinary co-presence

Our host, like so many young Italians, grew up a countryside kitchen. He stood with his grandmother as she cooked every meal for the family using tools she later gifted him. And like so many young Italians, our host had left the family village and left Italy to find employment that had eluded him at home. Indeed, as we watch him boil clutch after clutch of frIMG_0347esh pasta, we realize that of the guests at the feast that evening, all were preparing to go overseas to find work.

A sensation of loss characterizes the performance of the properly cooked ragù. The bubbling ragù and the tools baring grandmother’s hand indentations are trans-temporal objects facilitating an imagined reunion for families separated between rural and urban, Italy and the US, life and death. Like the best performances, the audience participates in nurturing the sentiments of longing for absent people, the desire to be close to kin and an imagined return to the sweetness of a nostalgic past, to a ragù gone by.

In those moments, our host embodies his grandmother through dicing, stirring, rolling and tasting the food as she taught him. In further staining the mixing spoon he fostered a co-presence by-proxy with his kin and family home. During an impatient wait for sauce to reach an unscientifically defined readiness, a heady mix of braised meats and high-tannin red wine elevated the cooking process for participants. Smells, sounds and stories collapsed time, overlapping the now and then into a sensual communitas.

Rule #3: Slow to cook, quick to eat

Thick pasta snakes are encouraged onto plates and swamped with a rich, dark sauce that pulls at the tongue. Around the table, glasses rise and a chorus of the hungry give thanks to the chef and to grandma.

The moment of consumption is short lived. The ceremony of commensality breaking down as the ragù is devoured before I can observe the necessary niceties (‘It tastes just like the real thing, mom’). Forks hit the ceramic and I’m confronted by quizzical expressions.

‘Did you even taste it?’ I ask, incredulously.

‘Rule three, Markus: A good ragù is slow to cook and quick to eat.’ My host smiles, wiping the sauce from his beard and pouring the dregs of the wine.

And this makes perfect sense. It’s through hours of preparation and waiting that a ragù is performed. Consumption is a just a bridge of reflection between the ritual of cooking and being cooked for and the calm of sitting, wine in hand, waiting for the next performance.

The Performed ragù:

1 x Onion, diced

Several sticks of celery, diced

Enough carrots, diced

Ground beef (75%)

Ground pork (25%)

Red Wine

Tomato Sauce

No garlic!

Cook the vegetables in a large pot for twenty minutes with olive oil. Add the meat. Add wine once everything is simmering nicely. Add tomato sauce. Simmer for three hours.

Fresh Pasta:

Flour (100 grams per person)

Eggs (1 egg per person)

Glass of water (if needed)

Author profile:

Dr. Markus Bell is a social and cultural anthropologist at Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies. He lectures on food and anthropology, North & South Korean society, migration, and history.

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The Amatriciana per Amatrice Campaign: Reflections on Food, Solidarity, and the Earthquake in Central Italy

Elisa Ascione and Michael A. Di Giovine

In the early hours of August 24, 2016, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Central Italy. Its epicenter lay below small medieval towns on the mountainous border of four regions—Umbria, Latium, Abruzzi, and The Marches. The earthquake was so intense that it was felt from Bologna to Naples, and soon the world would awake to the previously unknown town of Amatrice flattened into a pile of dust and rubble. Bearing the brunt of the earthquake, Amatrice lost 236 lives that day; another 51 deaths were reported in Arquata del Tronto and 11 in Accumoli, as well.

Together with rescue teams organized by the Italian State, a multitude of volunteers spontaneously organized themselves, sending goods, money, and medicine to relief efforts in the affected areas. Indeed, earthquakes have a destabilizing effect on communities, but they are also events that characterize change and mobilize different kinds of work, both material and symbolic (see, for example, Silvia Pitzalis’ recent Italian-language book).

amatricianaOne of the most significant spontaneous solidarity movements following this earthquake had food at its center: the “Amatriciana per Amatrice” campaign, proposed on the internet by a blogger, and then publically applauded and sponsored by Carlo Petrini, president of the Slow Food Movement. Long hailed as one of the quintessential dishes of the Roman region of Latium that was impacted in the earthquake, spaghetti all’amatriciana consists of long spaghetti in a sauce based on olive oil, tomatoes, white wine and guanciale (pork cheek). Importantly, its name comes from the town of Amatrice, which has jealously guarded its recipe against imitators; once, the mayor even sued MasterChef Italia’s Carlo Cracco for divulging an inauthentic recipe for the dish. Ironically, when the earthquake struck, Amatrice was in the final days of preparation for its amatriciana sagra, an annual festival celebrating the dish.

The “Amatriciana per Amatrice” movement began by encouraging restaurants across Italy to put amatriciana on their menus and encourage customers to consume it in solidarity; restaurant owners would also donate €2 of each dish sold to rescue efforts. This was then taken up by voluntary associations and community groups, which organized amatriciana feasts in public settings like town piazzas for fundraising purposes. The movement has also spread abroad, and an interactive map was created to aid customers find a participating restaurant from New York to Scotland.

Yet this movement is not without its tensions as it is claimed by different groups. Such phenomena push actors to debate and negotiate the fundamental cultural components of the dish. What is important? What should be preserved? Can food unite people in a time of crisis, or is it a means to state particular identity claims—as food so often is in Italy?

In the Umbrian capital city of Perugia, which fortunately was not damaged in the earthquake, people have attended those events to show concern and to donate money; participants have said that the act of eating together with others has been a way to share feelings of mourning and loss, creating a sense of identity and intimacy with those that have been affected by the nearby earthquake. One cultural association in Perugia, which aims to promote the revitalization of public spaces through food and small scale, local production and agriculture, took part in the campaign, cooking gnocchi all’amatriciana one night in the main square. Vats of Italian potato dumplings smothered in amatriciana sauce were sold to patrons in Perugia’s piazza, and the organization donated all of the proceeds (3,850€) to volunteer groups working for reconstruction in the affected area. Yet the chef and organizer, “Sergio,” said this event was intended to foster solidarity not only with the earthquake victims, but with people around the world who have lost their homes and security at the hands of catastrophic events:

We’ve come here in the main piazza with pots and pans to cook this famous dish based on tomatoes, onion, bacon, pepper and a lot of love. This dish represents Italy abroad, and this country has a lot of love to give, really wants to have a sense of community, and wants a comeback. We eat this dish in the piazza thinking about those populations that do not have a kitchen and a stove anymore, but not only in Italy, also in Syria and in those places where there are conflicts. Ours was a conflict given by Nature, but we, as humans, are so stupid that we create conflicts ourselves.

However, the same processes also may serve to reinforce localism, as illustrated by the case of “Antonio” a restaurant owner in Perugia. His family is from Amatrice, and clearly “Amatriciana is a serious thing” for him; he once challenged Carlo Cracco to an amatriciana cook-off against his grandmother, in a symbolic assertion of amatriciana authenticity. After the earthquake, Antonio also joined the “Amatriciana per Amatrice” campaign, but while he’s pleased that there have been many solidarity events in Perugia, he was annoyed that some organizers haven’t followed the original recipe. For him, the often subtle changes are more significant than they might appear, and represent a greater threat to his community’s collective heritage:

The risk, for such small places, is of course that they’ve lost hundreds of lives, but also that they could lose their identity. Holding onto Amatriciana is like an act of personal defense. If my granny, for example, has a guest at home for dinner, she will always cook Amatriciana; it’s the first dish that she would cook: you have to know the dish, it’s a way for her to tell you who she is, and guai a dire che non ti piace—don’t you dare to say that you don’t like it! She would go crazy!

norcina-per-la-solidarieta

Norcina per la Solidarietà

Amatriciana per Amatrice has also triggered a sort of regional competition, stimulating other groups to also focus on their typical dishes for creating solidarity, as well as for promotional purposes. That is the case of “Norcina for solidarity,” which served to collect money for reconstruction efforts in Norcia by serving its quintessential pasta with a sausage, mushroom and cream sauce. But it was also specifically conceived as a way to re-attract, through the seductions of food, those tourists who fled Umbria after the earthquake. “We are Umbrian; we should also take care of our people in need, as well as our traditional dishes,” said the organizer.

The flurry of activity—some of it competitive—in utilizing food to mobilize people demonstrates the core relationship that Italian identity has with food. This was not overlooked by the irreverently satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, whose insulting images of Muslims prompted last year’s tragic terrorist attack at its head offices in Paris. In response to the earthquake, the magazine published a cartoon depicting “earthquakes the Italian way” with the three severely damaged Italian towns portrayed as commonly eaten pastas in France; one, clearly depicting Amatrice, shows people under ruins as if they were layers of lasagna. Italians were outraged by this cartoon, publicly denouncing what they perceived as a tasteless and “irresponsible” act. Doubling down on their stereotyping, the newspaper answered with another cartoon saying that the Mafia, not Charlie Hebdo, built their houses—identifying the totality of the nation with organized crime.

These tensions reveal that, even in emergency situations, food is never just a biological necessity, and heritage food is used to mobilize identity claims and responses at different levels.

Literally minutes after we submitted this post on October 26, two more earthquakes rocked the region in quick succession. While there have been literally thousands of small after-shocks, these two were quite shallow and strong, and caused more damage to other mountain villages and towns in the region, but fortunately no lives were lost. The longer-term effect these new quakes will have on both the social fabric and the foodways of this area are uncertain, and we will be following these developments as they unfold. Will the Amatriana per Amatrice movement intensify, take on new meaning, or perhaps dissipate in favor of other more tangible efforts? Will this new disaster, which once again affected the city of Norcia, strengthen the nascent Norcina per Norcia movement? Will it spawn new food-based movements for solidarity, for food security, or to draw domestic and foreign tourists back to the land?

For more information on the Amatriciana per Amatrice program, including ways to participate, see: http://www.unamatricianaperamatrice.it/english-version/

For CNN’s list of charities and NGOs to whom you can donate, see: http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/24/world/iyw-italy-earthquake-how-to-help/index.html

To donate to the Italian Red Cross: https://www.ammado.com/fundraiser/italy-eq/donate

Elisa Ascione is the Coordinator of the Food & Sustainability Studies Program at the Umbra Institute, an American study abroad program located in the historic center of Perugia, Italy, that hosts nearly 400 students from more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities each year, including Italian students from local universities. Elisa teaches courses on Sustainability and Food Production in Italy, Anthropology of Food, and History and Culture of Food in Italy. She has received a MA in Refugee Studies from the University of East London, UK, and Ph.D. in Anthropology for The University of Perugia. She has conducted research and published on heritagization processes of foods in Central Italy, and on the intersection of migration, work and gender relations in Italy.

Michael A. Di Giovine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania (USA) and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A board member of the American Anthropological Association, Michael is the Convenor-elect of the Anthropology of Tourism Interest Group at the AAA, and the director of West Chester University’s Ethnographic Field School in Italy, in partnership with the Umbra Institute. The editor of the book series, The Anthropology of Tourism: Heritage, Mobility and Society with Lexington Books, Michael is the author of The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage and Tourism, and the co-editor of Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage.

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BOOK REVIEW: PORTA PALAZZO

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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