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The politics of food in Italy

There is a saying in Italy, “a tavola non si invecchia” – at the table one does not age. If this is the case, then I have not aged a day since my arrival.

From the panforte of Siena, strewn with rich dried fruits like orange and purple sapphires, to the creamy mozzarella pizza of Naples, Italy has been a constant festival of taste. During a recent retreat in Ferrara, I joined an intimate group of study abroad students who had gathered with a food writer and supporter of the Slow Food movement to explore the city while discussing the political dimension of what is Italy’s most famed quality – its cuisine.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of a food culture,” observed British author Matthew Fort during a discussion at our hotel, a converted 15th century Jesuit cloister. After having spent most of his life at an advertising firm, Fort retired and traveled across Italy to gain a deeper understanding of the country through its food. The trip resulted in his travel memoir, “Eating Up Italy, Travels on a Vespa,” and a renewed appreciation for the highly localized lifestyle that defines Italy’s culinary landscape.

The responsibility, however, of preserving food as diverse and developed as Italy’s is a serious one. This is the mission of Slow Food, an organization begun in Italy in 1989 by Carlo Petrini to support traditional cuisine and local culture across the globe. Challenges to traditional cuisine in Italy are still emerging, from commercialization and government alike. One especially prominent example of the perceived endangerment of local cuisine has played out on the public stage in the past few months. In January of this year McDonald’s, whose golden arches are visible behind a gallery of brick Gothic arches adjacent to Ferrara’s town cathedral, launched a new pair of sandwiches christened McItaly burgers. These sandwiches are assembled using Italian produce and ingredients such as olive oil, Asiago cheese, Italian beef and smoked pancetta.

The publicized debut of the sandwiches, however, produced an unusual sight – donning a McDonald’s apron, Luca Zaia, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, cooked the ceremonial first burger before a crowd of photographers. Zaia’s sponsorship was particularly politicized by his choice of location. The Roman McDonald’s he held the photo-op at was the same one Petrini had protested in 1986.

I had noticed the advertisements for the sandwich around Florence and I was surprised by the feigned nationalistic angle of the American company’s campaign, but had grouped the sandwich in with my list of European quirks. Not so for Fort.

Fort published a scathing review of Zaia’s partnership with McDonald’s in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, calling the alliance a “monstrous act of national betrayal.” McDonald’s represented serious opposition to Italy’s diverse food culture, argued Fort, and the government’s alliance did nothing but strengthen an opponent of Italy’s cultural essence.

Zaia quickly released his own response , ascribing Fort’s view to a “sterile moral orthodoxy, which impairs any kind of development and hinders a clear vision of reality.” He asserted that the new menu option would encourage European youth to embrace healthier eating options and would buoy the hardships faced by European farmers whose products constitute the McItaly burger.

From this heated exchange rose a chorus of supporters and detractors. Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, challenged Zaia’s assertion that the McItaly would globalize the Italian palate.

“We can safely say that there is no such thing as an Italian taste identity … because there are hundreds, thousands of different Italian identities,” wrote Petrini in a letter released through La Repubblica. Meanwhile, Zaia insisted €3.5 million was being pumped into the pockets of struggling Italian farmers through the restaurant’s initiative.

Meanwhile, as my group dined on sumptuous cuts of cow’s tongue, cappallacci and red wine at I Tri Scalin, a traditional Ferrarese trattoria outside the city center, I had the opportunity to talk with Fort and Alberto Cordini, a professor of sociological economics, about Italian food.

“Poverty forces a great deal of creativity,” Fort explained, “and that’s what is most responsible for Italy’s cuisine, especially in the south. There is always a reason that food is on this plate at this time. The Italians’ food is intertwined with the life of peasants, labor and hard work. It has resulted in a fantastic precision of flavor, but right now it’s under threat.”

Cordini, a native of Naples, had another perspective to share. “Italy is a very small country and the food defines community life and relationships, but it is also a biological and cultural diversity meant to be cherished. Furthermore, cuisine is the natural capital of Italy. To produce without quality is to lose competition. By keeping the economy rooted in independent farmers and small restaurants, and avoiding the agricultural industrial business and large state controlled banks, money can be brought into Italy that reaches the farmers and restaurants directly – the very people that the food represents,” he said.

What emerged from the evening’s conversation was an impression of an author and a food movement that was not, as Zaia suggested, arbitrarily averse to development, but rather committed to inventing new ways to preserve Italy’s culture legacy through grassroots movements that respected agricultural practices.

In his book Fort describes his tours of the homes, restaurants, shops and farms of Italy. The memoir’s sense of place is a testament to the infinitely magnifiable food culture of Italy, a country where in the south one can gain genuine access to the country’s cuisine, not through its supermarkets or McDonald’s, but only through its denizens.

Up until this point in my stay, I had observed through my travels what appeared to me as an outdated system of services and production in Italy – one in which everything is highly compartmentalized and specific. Only now have I began to revise my immediate survey and trace it back to the thing that makes Italy so unique and enduring. I realize that the cuisine of the country is as concise as the lives the Italians themselves lead, lives that are conditioned by a specialization of meats, cheeses, wines, grains and vegetables because it represents the variety and quality of Italy.

If Luca Zaia was so concerned with bringing money to Italy’s farmers, why didn’t he confirm a commitment to the magnificent distinction found on each farm, each city and region – rather than demonstrate a willingness to distill thousands of cultures into a pair of McDonald’s sandwiches for a projected income he has yet to provide the basis for?

The strength and intricacy of Italy’s cultures have preserved themselves against the tides of industrialization and commercialization, while still allowing the country to surface in the 21st century as one of the most developed nations in the world. Will the poverty that created the astonishing flavors of Italy now be used as a threat by its government to embrace what is thought by some to be corporate exploitation, and thereby diminish the quality that cements Italy’s premiere position in the culinary rankings?

Perhaps, if the Ministry of Agriculture is so concerned with invigorating the agricultural economy, it might have looked more closely at the tourist industry, which contributes one-third of the country’s overall GDP each year – a whopping €30 billion. As any tour guidebook, and my own travels, can attest, what lends the most meaning to a trip to Italy is its cuisine. This is at the heart of the sense of enjoyment and pleasure that people seek here. It animates the static frescoes, the heavy stone edifices and the distance of history while empowering the dialogue and curiosities of visitors. The authenticity of that cuisine is essential to its feature as a tourist attraction.

Most importantly, in a country as fiercely nationalistic and diverse as Italy, cuisine provides a consistent sense of place and self. Yet the legacies and traditions of Italy’s cultures are certainly at risk without the support of its government. The Slow Food movement is committed to supporting Italy’s diversity. The question is when and how does the government plan to articulate its own commitment – and to whom?