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
Tags: Artusi, Cucina povera