Tag Archives: solidarity

Fear, Fire, and Solidarity in New Orleans

David Beriss

Someone tried to burn down the Flaming Torch restaurant last week. The restaurant, flaming-torch-menu-signlocated in my neighborhood in New Orleans, is a French bistro that has been in business since 2004. It is small and friendly, with good French food, a little bit fancy (they have tablecloths), but very much part of the neighborhood. It is a reliable place for locals seeking classic French dishes (they make a great coq au vin), not a tourist destination. I have eaten there many times, but I especially remember eating there soon after Hurricane Katrina. The Flaming Torch was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to reopen and although they were desperately short-staffed, their presence was deeply appreciated by those of us who had come back to the city, because they provided a much-needed place to reunite with neighbors around good food and wine.

The fire, according to news reports, was deliberately set. The owner, Zohreh Khalegi, says she was upstairs, doing inventory, when someone broke into the dining room, doused the place with gasoline, and set it on fire. At least some of this was recorded by a security camera. She escaped to the roof and was rescued by the fire department. The interior damage is apparently quite extensive, so the restaurant’s future is uncertain.

flaming-torch-doorThe arsonist’s motives are unclear, but suspicions have been raised that this may have been a hate crime. Zohreh Khalegi, who started the restaurant with her late husband Hassan Khalegi, is an American citizen who immigrated decades ago from Iran. Although their origins were no secret, until recently there was very little in the restaurant that might have indicated the owners had any ties to Iran. In the last few years, the restaurant had begun to feature occasional special menus with Persian food. Certainly, for many people, this only made the restaurant more attractive, since there are not many other places to eat Persian food in the area. But the current American political context seems to have encouraged and given legitimacy to prejudice against people from countries like Iran (one of the countries subject to President Trump’s immigration ban). Could such prejudice have motivated someone to act against the restaurant? As far as I know, nobody has claimed responsibility for this act. But there have been threats and incidents of violence against immigrants and minorities all over the country since the presidential election. All of this is of grave concern and if the fire at the Flaming Torch is any indication, such things must be taken very seriously.

We do not know if this crime was related to anti-immigrant prejudice. But the fact that people are ready to believe that it is suggests that the political climate in the United States has reached a point (not, of course, for the first time) of critical danger. From fine dining to neighborhood diners, immigrants from many countries play a major role in the American restaurant industry. In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the United States, there are many restaurants owned and operated by people from predominantly Muslim countries, serving food from those regions. There are also many immigrants (perhaps most) who prepare and sell foods that have nothing to do with their origins, so they may not be visible as sellers of foods associated with immigrants. All of them may be targets for people who want to advance the nationalist agenda that has accompanied the rise of President Trump.

flaming-torch-thank-you

There has been an outpouring of support for Zohreh Khalegi and for the restaurant. People have posted testimonials and statements of support on the restaurant’s doors. Money has been raised to help with expenses. There are many people here in New Orleans who are eager to show their solidarity. The stakes involved are very high. By choosing to stand by owners of restaurants and other businesses that are targeted by racists and nationalists, we make a statement about what kind of community and nation we want to live in. We must all consider where we stand at this moment and what we will do to make sure that heated political rhetoric is not turned into more violence.

So why document this on an anthropology blog? There is a lot that anthropologists and other social scientists can do—and are doing—to help us understand the rise of nationalism and fear around the world in recent years. For anthropologists, this sort of incident can be an opportunity to think about how institutions like restaurants tie communities together, as well as about the ways violence, fear, and terror, can work to tear communities apart. We can call attention to the way such acts are named and discussed. President Trump recently claimed that many acts of terror are not adequately covered by the media and that, as a consequence, people do not take the threat of terror seriously enough. This act of arson, if it turns out to have been motivated by politics or hate, is an act of terror, but one that Mr. Trump will probably not define as terror, either because it is too small or because it had the wrong sort of victims. Yet acts of mass violence, including attacks on restaurants, schools, or religious communities, create exactly the kind of fear that terrorists try to achieve. We need to document the impact of these events and examine why they are interpreted by people as acts of terror. And, in this case, we can also show people coming together to resist and to show solidarity. In doing all of this, anthropology can help increase understanding and help resist those who would sow fear among us.

flaming-torch-rebuild

Resistance.

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Filed under anthropology, food activism, Food Studies, New Orleans, restaurants

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