Tag Archives: Italy

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.


Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies, Italy

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 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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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, disaster, Food Studies, Italy

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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Italian Football Hooligans and Little Shoes

Markus Bell

In Italy, many working class men feel that the EU and the Italian government have abandoned them. In such desperate times, these men cling to each other, and to football (soccer), as a force that gives their lives meaning. Much ink has been spilt on the hard drinking habits of so-called football hooligans, but little has been said about the gastronomic preferences of the legions of the “beautiful game”.

Several months with a small group of Ultras (the Italian equivalent of football “hooligan”) in Perugia, Italy offered me insight into the intimate story of Italian football fans’ lives, the centrality of food and drink to masculine sociality, and why it matters to Italy’s future.


The Ultra groups of the Curva. Photo by Markus Bell.

The art of football hooliganism

Italy boasts a long history of football-related violence both at home and abroad. In 2004, Daniele De Santis, a far-right Roma Ultra leader, known amongst supporters by his pseudonym, “Gastone,” strolled onto the pitch during the Roma-Lazio derby and demanded that Roma captain, Francesco Totti, cancel the game.

De Santis deemed this a suitable response to a (false) rumour that police had killed a local child. “We decide if and when you play,” he informed a baffled Totti, before turning on his heel and marching back across the field. The game was called off. The Ultras had made their point.

Going beyond filling seats in the stadium and adding flair to occasionally lacklustre games, the almost mythical status surrounding Ultras in Italy have made them as much a part of football as the game itself.

Home grown in Perugia

The landscape of the Ultra groups changes with the times. Over several spritz-Campari, Dr. Marco Milani, a University of Bologna researcher, explained,

“During the 1980s and 90s, rightist Ultra groups started to appear across the country. At first, the rightists and the leftists battled each other for control of the Curva (the sector of the stadium behind the goal reserved for Ultra). Especially in the last decade, however, the political emphasis weakened and the Ultras have joined forces against the police.”


The Ultra groups of the Curva. Photo by Markus Bell.

Battles for the Curva take place between Ultras supporting different teams and Ultras supporting the same team but divided by politics. The team you support and the Ultra you join is further dependent on the team your father, brothers, and friends’ support.

Perugia, Umbria has long identified as working class and politically left of centre. The Perugia Gryphons football team, founded in 1905, has spent much of its existence in Serie B, the second division of the Italian league. Its reputation for hard, grinding football is matched by the zeal of its Ultras.

Perugian Ultras’ latest claim to notoriety came via pre-match “riots” with Lazio Ultras in the summer of 2014, and then further violence directed against the Pescara Ultras in December of the same year.


Two Ultra members wearing Perugia Griffo hoodies. Photo by Markus Bell.

“Do you like to fight?” Fabio interrogated, clearly testing my resolve. I declined what I worried was an offer. “We used to get into some scraps with the fascist supporters. But these days,” he hesitated, “we’re too old.”


Fabio and I had known each other a total of 12 hours, since we’d met in a Perugia bar and he’d invited me to join him at the Perugia-Ascoli football match the following day.

As we unloaded from the Fiat mini for what would be round one of gin infused spritz-Campari, Fabio introduced me to around 15 men in their forties and fifties, and I was offered my first glimpse of a genuine Italian Ultras organisation.

The ritual of each home game started with drinks and was followed by the pre-game feast. Around the table during our first meeting, members of the “Lunatic Asylum Ultras” – Manicomio Magno Magnini, founded in 1991, passed carafes of Umbria red wine and traded plates of steaming handmade pasta with one another.

“Try this one – Perugina tartufo (truffle) infused pork, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese,” Fabio insisted, as he forked a bale of carbonara my way. Men who had known each other since childhood devoured mountains of local produce while prognosticating on the game to come.

Ripping up a loaf of bread, Andreo used the pieces to scoop up globs of tomato that lined his plate like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. “We call this “little shoes,” he told me, waving a little bread-shoe triumphantly above his head. I dutifully manufactured my own “little shoes” and wiped my plate clean.

“Our problem,” Mario interrupted, earnestly, “is that the Italian economy is broken and we’re in the middle of an immigrant crisis. We used to have the church, and the Italian family used to spend time together, but now that’s all gone. Football’s all that’s left. The 3M Ultras are like my brothers. We’ve known each other since we were born.”

The bonds that keep members of the 3M Ultras together run deep. For men who have grown up with each other, the Ultras group is a vehicle for reproducing a likeness of the traditional community and facilitating masculine solidarity.

Perugia vs. Ascoli

“You’re lucky, Fabio informed me, as we slipped in the side entrance of the stadium, “you don’t need to pay, you’re our guest.” Fabio and several other Ultras guided me into the throng of red and white Perugia supporters. The game had started in earnest. Chants ripe with obscenities filled the air.


The Ultra member tasked with leading the chants. Photo by Markus Bell.

The chants quickened. Rows of men tightly packed against one another swayed from side to side. Vendors selling shots of Caffè Sport Borghetti –coffee liquor–snaked in and out of the crowd. The hypnotic sight of a sea of bodies bobbing up and down in unison was accompanied by the pungent scent of marijuana, clouds of which trickled down to edge of the pitch, from where they would have a front row seat until full time. We threw back several more shots of Borghetti.

“We’re left wing, working class, and we hate fascists,” explained Giovanni, above the din. “Ascoli are fascists. It’s as simple as that,” he concluded, before gesticulating aggressively to the Ascoli supporters on the far side of the stadium.


A football supporter sporting a Mussolini tattoo. Photo by Markus Bell.

More Caffè Borghetti. Someone in the front row unfurled a giant red and white flag.

Leading the Ultras’ chanting, a topless man with a large potbelly balanced precariously on top of a railing. Grasping a megaphone in one hand he called out chants that the Ultras echoed back to him.

More Caffè Borghetti.

Just after half time Ascoli scored. One-nil. Someone in the crowed lobbed a burning flare into the air. It landed at my feet and rolled lazily into a pile of newspapers under the stand. The papers caught alight. “Look, Markus,” came a cry. “Fire!” The flames spread under the seats, offering momentary distraction from a losing game.

Then, as if competing with the fire for our attention, Ascoli scored again. Two-nil. The leadership of the Insane Asylum Ultras headed for the exit tunnel.

Football makes family

A week later we gathered again, this time for a Gryphons’ away game. In Fabio’s apartment, outside the Perugia’s old town, ten Ultras, including Fabio’s elderly mother, the “Prima Ultra of Perugia,” jostled for space around a table buckling under the weight of piadina, asparagus pasta, and homemade wine.

“In Italy,” Fabio informed me, “women cook but men are chefs.” Ultra members arrived with arms full of prosseco. “Here we knock with our feet because our arms are full of gifts,” I was told.

Fabio hovered his glass over the centre of the table. “To friendship and to the Gryphons, Salute,” he toasted.

“Friendship and the Gryphons!” Echoed the others.

Perhaps age had mellowed Fabio and his Ultras. While the priorities of the “Old Guard” had shifted from violence to the subtleties of the perfect ravioli, their passion for the game certainly hadn’t subsided.

Who are the Ultras? And what is it that keeps them returning week after week to back their team? Food? Football? Fraternity? In his 1990 football ethnography journalist Bill Buford captured the raw energy of the hooligan; the unrestrained hatred fermenting inside the right-wing racist, and the channelled frustration of disenfranchised youth.

My experiences with the Perugia Ultras showed me that instead of violence comes family. And you can’t separate family from football. Football makes family and family continues to be held together with bindings of the “beautiful game.” Like football, in family there’s love, anger, and outbursts of raw fury. And passion. So much passion.


The Perugian Ultra’s drink of choice:

Gin infused Spritz Campari (on ice)

One third Campari (about 80-90 mls)
One third Prosecco (about 80-90 mls)
A glug of gin
A dash of sparkling water
Garnish with a slice of blood orange

Consume while basking in the Umbrian sun.


Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Italy

Gustolab Summer Internship

A note from Salem PaulosGustolab International Institute for Food Studies:

After last year’s successful internship program, Gustolab International Institute for Food Studies is pleased to launch the second edition of its summer internship program in Italy that is open to students (undergraduate and graduate), scholars and any other person that may be interested.

Why intern abroad at Gustolab International:

gain invaluable insight into the many aspects of agriculture, food business, food habits and policy issues in Italy.

have an excellent opportunity to work at a food-related site such as a farm, shop, research institute, nonprofit association, vineyard, cheese factory and cheese-producing farm, association for refugees, organization working on food recovery, hospitality and tourism field such as hotels, restaurants, cafés and food markets, and more.

live in Rome or in various other sites in Italy, and be immersed in the Italian culture (internship positions are offered in different parts of Italy)
Through the Gustolab International Internship, you will

have the support of an academic mentor who will follow your progress for the duration of the internship.

acquire knowledge about the organizational, cultural and social dynamics of organizations present in the food field in Italy.

get the opportunity to develop and complete a personal research project.

present your work to professionals and experts in the food field.

Gustolab International is committed to working closely with you to match you with the best possible internship based on your preferences and experience, and available positions at the time you apply. We will support you before, during and after the internship to fulfill your career and academic goals. Gustolab can work closely with your home university to help you to receive credits.

Summer Internships are available for the following periods:
From June 25 to July 16
From June 25 to July 23
From June 25 to July 30

Read more about the internship at http://www.gustolab.com/internship-program/

For applications or more information, please write to info@gustolab.com.

Extended deadline to apply: May 15

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