Oct 072011
Chestnut Harvest in Italy

These people are subsistence farmers, not tourists.

In this past Saturday’s edition of the Italian newspaper La Stampa (1 Oct 2011, p.36) I found a full-page advertisement for a month-long festival in the Mugello, a mountainous area inbetween Florence and Bologna. The festival revolves around various sagre (local festivals, usually food-themed) dedicated to the Mugello IGP marrone, a sweet chestnut product. In addition there are various photographic exhibits, fairs with old-fashioned tradesman, and a reading of Artusi’s recipes that have to do with the Mugello. To boot, vacationers can arrive by steam-powered train from Florence, Bologna, or Rimini.

I found all of this to be interestingly ahistorical. I have talked before about what I would call “philological food,” food products that pretend to be historical and yet really are not, or at least are not in the way we want them to be. I have a problem with this festival, above and beyond the goofiness of steam-powered trains and accountants-turned-blacksmiths (which is harmless and fun, if curious). In our rush to relive the past, we impose our modern desire to ignore class differences on earlier times.

Let’s start with Artusi. Artusi, though a great borrower of peasant recipes, knew who his audience was–indeed, he states in his introduction to Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well that he is addressing “the comfortable classes.” Artusi might have drawn on the Mugello, but the Mugello risks “historical truth-stretching” if it draws on Artusi. We can continue this class-based analysis if we look at the main product, chestnuts. It’s interesting to note that the sagre for these things start in the 1950s, after chestnuts have ceased to be the “bread of the poor.” These foraged foodstuffs were the sign not of happy times, but of misery and malnutrition. It’s fine if we give these foods like chestnuts other meanings in the present, but we shouldn’t project them into the past. ZN


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  2 Responses to “Chestnuts, Tourism, and Misery”

  1. While I have in the past supported your desire to avoid what you gloss as “philological food”, I think you should allow today’s food culture the same complexity and fluidity as the past’s. The phrase “risks ‘historical truth-stretching’” seems curious to me; why shouldn’t a currently more-affluent region like the Mugello use something from the past that was meant for the better-off? As you yourself point out, the sagre were initiated only after the beginning of the miracolo economico. They themselves are ahistorical: a way of celebrating something which was once suffered through. (Maybe also think Passover, etc?)

    • Jake, thanks for the comment. I think my problem in general with philological food celebration is not so much that someone is inventing tradition, which is in general more or less harmless. I can include both the scottish kilt (I wouldn’t have believed it either, check out Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition) or Paul Bunyan in this tradition-inventing. What bothers me much more than some middle-aged American woman communing with her Italian forbears while drizzling olive oil on a steak is the forgetting. Not so much “false remembering,” then, but the forgetting is the bad part. Or the bad part is forgetting the bad part. Passover is powerful precisely because it is remembering the difficulty of before, not celebrating how great the past used to be. I didn’t go to that festival inthe Mugello but my guess is that the poverty is invisible, not in any way celebrated. A caveat here: when I visited the Slow Food salt producers in Trapani, all of whom are working-glass guys just trying to sell some salt to upscale markets, I wasn’t sure how honest food had to be if it meant helping out the primary producer. Thanks! Zach

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