Apr 272011

Does food need a pedigree?

“The Left’s classic utopian telos of a placeless futurity becomes replaced—for good and ill—by an image of the good society remembered in time and grounded in place, mapped onto specificities of history and experience. ‘Memory’ supplies the language of this move.” (The Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, p.151)

I have made frequent reference in various posts on this blog to the concept of “philological food” without ever really defining it. This post will do just that. I borrowed the phrase from the butcher-philosopher Dario Cecchini of Panzano in Chianti. I had asked him what his hamburgers had to do with traditional Tuscan cuisine and he quite rightly told me that while tradition was the earth that he grew out of, he felt obliged to let his branches reach and spread higher. “I’m not interested in doing ‘philological food,’” he said.

It’s taken me almost a year and a half to truly process what he meant, or what I think he meant. The Italy of today is obsessed like no other country with yoking what it eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to what Italians ate in the past. On some level this is nothing terribly different than the persistent and vaguely annoying habit that Italians have of archeological one-upmanship: “Yes, indeed, this is a great building, but the Romans had done this style in the first century before Christ,” or “It was a great book—you can see Livy’s influence on him.” Were this limited only to graduates of the liceo classico (the high school where one learns Latin declensions and the Greek aorist), it would be bearable, but the whole society loves to drawl out examples of Roman first-ness.

What is different—indeed, almost opposite—with food is that rather than linking the present to a high-culture past, Italians seem bound and damn-well determined to find their culinary ancestors not in Roman statesman or Renaissance artists, but in anonymous farmers of their collective rural past. This attempt is philological, retracing back through dog-eared copies of Artusi and calfskin-bound registers of customs dues the geneology of what’s for dinner.

Despite the month, in February of 1786 Sir William Jones (part of the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent) spoke in the stifling heat to the Asiatic Society Kolkata, demonstrating that Sanskrit, the precursor to the various languages of northern India, was intimately related to Latin and Greek, which the poor chap had had to study at Oxford. Jones had noted the many similarities between the basic vocabulary of the three languages, for instance the words for the numbers and the names of family members. Italians will not have the luck of Jones or the Grimm brothers or any other greats of comparative linguistics.

Italian food philology leads back either to a dish of banality, or (even worse) to an empty cupboard. I do not mean that there are no dishes that strongly resemble their culinary forbearers. Polenta, made from cooked mais flour, does indeed resemble the polenta of the Roman legions, other than the fact that is made with a grain that was only introduced to Europe in the 1500s. Furthermore, what are we saying when we call olive oil part of Italian tradition, that it is “traditional food”?

If “tradition” means a belief or practice handed down from one generation to the next, can olive oil really be a tradition? As a food it had been, until the period after the Second World War, something reserved if not to the elite than at least to a small fraction of Italians. If in fifty years wine is drunk in the United States on something like a daily basis, can we consider it—by virtue of the fact that a small portion of the US population now drinks it frequently—an American alimentary tradition? If measured by this popular ruler, how many “traditional” foods—I’m thinking here of many meat products, cheeses, even fruits—could still stand up tall enough to merit the adjective “traditional”?

Even in the cases where we can connect a present-day dish to widespread consumption in the past, is this necessarily a meaningful exercise? Take polenta: isn’t a tasteless bowl of cooked coarse grain meal a “traditional” dish everywhere? Indeed, it’s called gruel. When I ponder the fact that Italians have eaten this mush for millennia, I have to ask myself: who cares? Obviously I am being polemical: there is an importance, but it’s certainly not a happy one. As Gillian Riley points out in her entry on “Cucina Povera” in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, these dishes are oft-romanticized. Polenta for a farmer in the 1600s was not a hearty meal he was happy to come home to: it was the symbol of misery, of malnutrition, even death (from pellagra). Indeed, the poor knew that a diet of only mais caused the disease long before the rich were able to admit pellagra’s genesis.

Massimo Montanari, commenting on the current rage for local, in-season food, that in the past the “meaning” attached to this kind of food was poverty. Only the rich could afford strawberries in January, or lemons from afar. Thus while we still eat these foods today, both strawberries and lemons, neither corresponds to the same semiotic ground. In other words, when one sees a strawberry on the table at a dinner party in January, one doesn’t think, “How wealthy my hosts are!”

Even barring a lack of widespread popularity, many foods are made in different ways today than they were centuries ago. Platina instructs us to boil our pastaciutta in broth for at least two hours: no al dente here. And his suggestion that we garnish the pasta with sugar would horrify modern tastes. Indeed, our many traditional pasta dishes—linguine al pesto, l’amatriciana, la carbonara—are very recent inventions, or at least have only recently become popular all over Italy.

Why the obsession with food’s supposed former lives, and denial of the facts? An excellent case study would be the so-called Mediterranean Diet. What supposedly is the health food born of the rural poor’s necessity is simply the meal of a very brief historical window: the post-war period when rising incomes allowed the working class in Greece and southern Italy to vary their diet a little more (substituting olive oil instead for pig fats, or drinking inexpensive but halfway decent wine instead of low-grade vinaccio, for example), but before the economic boom that allowed them to substitute meat for legumes. That the phrase “Mediterranean Diet” returns more than 1,790,000 results in Google and many millions more in revenue for “food writers,” tourist boards, and travel agents does not surprise me.

All of our foods have a past: that of a successful innovation. We should let taste and nutrition decide what’s good to eat, not culinary mythology.  ZN

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