Feb 102012
Logo for Coldiretti

Logo for ColdirettiThe Mediterranean Diet remains, as we have seen on this blog on other occasions, a matter of some controversy. However, it is interesting that it has been taken up Coldiretti, the national farmers federation, as its battle standard in its war on trash food. ‘Coldiretti claims that Italian food education is going downhill because of the abandonment of the Mediterranean Diet. Younger generations are more at risk of illnesses because of fizzy drinks and fatty foods full of sugar. About a third of young Italians are obese because of bad dieting that derives from the lack of daily fruit and vegetables.’ Coldiretti has also reacted to the proposal of the new Health Minister Renato Balduzzi in his attempts to tax junk food – non-Italian readers might note that the Italian government is in a taxing mood at the moment. ‘A poll carried out by Coldiretti suggests that 8 out of ten Italians would support such a tax if the resources were used to support genuine local foods’. Coldiretti have loaded the dice here with the form of the question. SY

Oct 142011
cover of Edible Ideologies

Edible Ideologies, Naccarato and LeBesco's first volume.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of the essay “Food Channel,” which will be published in the forthcoming book Blue Collar Pop Culture. Peter Naccarato and Kathleen LeBesco, co-editors of Edible Ideologies and Culinary Capital (the latter forthcoming from Berg), have in both volumes tackled the problem of food and the social value attached to its consumption. The present essay is a fascinating analysis of the class implications of several food shows on the Travel Channel. As the authors say, “despite the egalitarian impulse expressed by the TC on its website, subtle differences in how it utilizes a variety of reoccurring tropes, including exoticism, excess, and nostalgia, demonstrate the extent to which its food-related programming rehearses a number of problematic assumptions about the working class.”

Naccarato and LeBesco hypothesize that in a time of economic distress (the general erosion of real income, and even the looming threat of foreclosure and even bankruptcy),  the American middle-class has an expanding appetite to indulge in fantasy. One version of this is “exotic eating,” typified by TC programs No Reservations and Bizarre Foods. While appealing to a bit of old-time highbrow snobbery with exotic destinations, both programs also deliver on a new kind of class marker, “elite omnivorousness,” which is marked not by expensive eating but by a search for the authentic and the real. Just as these shows allow middle-class viewers to identify with the rich and famous, others like the Paradise Series and Man vs. Food, let them set themselves off from the working class by indulging in the fantasy of excess. Episodes are filled with both extreme food experiences (e.g. hamburger eating contests) and another version of the “authentic,” this time small-town real America’s culinary offerings taking the place of the foodways of the New Guinean native.

The relevance of this essay to Italian food culture is in its possible use in an explanation of the recent explosion of interest in the so-called “Mediterranean Diet.” As we’ve already noted, Eric Ball points out that some of the products of the Mediterranean Diet are elitist (e.g. olive oil, real feta cheese) despite the pretenses of being a cucina povera (peasant fare). Using Naccarato and LeBesco’s analysis of the two fantasies of the middle class (i.e. exotic foods, authentic foods), we can see how the Mediterranean Diet allows its enthusiasts to satiate both simultaneously, a line of inquiry that we think merits pursuit.  ZN

May 132011

As we reported last November, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Morocco had submitted an application to Unesco to have the “Mediterranean  Diet” added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The request was then granted at the Unesco meeting in Nairobi in November 2010. There are several questions to ask about this inclusion.

First, just what is “intangible cultural heritage”? According to Unesco’s website, “Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Second, who made this request? On the face of it, judging from both the first line of the application (“States Parties: Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco”) and all of the government ministries and agencies who filed the request, it was a formal governmental request. Unesco’s  own rules, though, “intangible heritage can only be identified with reference to communities, groups, or individuals that recognize it as part of their cultural heritage.” Four identified communities are then listed in the application: Soria (Spain), Koroni (Greece), Cilento (Italy), and Chefchaouen (Morocco). A brief description of how the Mediterranean Diet fits into the cultural heritage of each community follows, though one has to wonder how exactly four small-to-medium municipalities decided to contact one another and initiate this request. A skeptic would wonder if it were the governments of these four countries that had initiated the process, finding the appropriate communities ex post facto.

What is truly striking, though, is the lack of a definition of what exactly the Mediterranean Diet is. In part C of the completed application form, “Characteristics of the Element,” we find references to the Diet as “traditions and symbolisms based on food practice,” “a major component of identity,” “the close relation from the landscape to the cuisine,” but no actual definition of the Diet. I can’t say I expected percentages and Recommended Daily Allowances because I downloaded the document precisely because I doubted it would have any sort of definition, but the Diet enthusiast would be disappointed.

There are vague references to olive trees, vineyards, and cypresses, food products linked to a seasonal calendar, eating together, but no specific statement of what this Diet is. The closest we get is on page 6: “The Mediterranean Diet offers a nutritional model enriched by diverse cultures which, over centuries, has essentially maintained the same food structure and the same proportions: olive oil, grains and derivatives, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and to a lesser extent, fish, dairy products and meat, with an essential presence of condiments and spices. There is also a moderate consumption of wine or tea during meals while respecting religious rules and beliefs.”

While I would not contend that some of these food elements, in the broadest sense, are a) common to the whole Mediterranean Basin, and b) have been for centuries, the absence of a firm definition of the Diet is because despite the earnest desire for multiculturalism, the various countries’ diets are different, and any similarities are not historical in any meaningful sense, in that the majority of these countries’ inhabitants in the past centuries had extremely limited access to these products. Olive oil is the first product most people would list as part of the Diet, yet also the easiest to show as not meriting entrance to the list. Olive oil, starting arbitrarily at, say, 200 b.c.e., has only in periods of economic expansion been a product available to the masses. If grains have been part of the common man’s diet, they have been too prevalent in it, representing too much of his calories: gruels and poor breads have been a sign of want and malnutrition, not a happy memory of plenty. While some fruits that are eaten today were common in ancient Greece, others that are today fundamental (citrus fruits) to most Mediterranean cuisines were either unknown or, following Alfred Andrews, introduced only in the first century C.E.

Where there are similarities (lamb is widely eaten today in Greece and Morocco) there are also differences: lamb is eaten only for holidays and as a rare treat in Italy, while pork is only popular (for religious reasons) in three of the four States Parties. As far as the condiments and spices are concerned, even the beginner in the study of food history knows that what has been put on food—garum as the “ketchup of the Romans,” medieval vinegar-based sauces, sugar on pasta in the Renaissance, harissa in North Africa—knows that this is simply not true. Then, just a personal postscript, the application lists (without specific citation) Flandrin and Montanari’s Food: A Culinary History and Marvin Harris’ The Sacred Cow and The Abominable Pig, neither of which, I am quite sure, would give any credence to this myth of a common Mediterranean diet.

Where does this leave us? With a very attractive story about a very healthy diet (if one believes the “lipid hypothesis”) that has been eaten by happy, bronzed people on the beaches of the Mediterranean? One should note too that many of the state departments submitting briefs in support of this diet are tourism offices. The Mediterranean Diet, since its “discovery” by Ancel Keys in the 1950s and rediscovery two decades ago, has been a boon to the tourism industry of the country’s involved, as well as to all the ancillary industries: restaurateurs, airlines, and anyone in food writing and publishing. It is precisely this last group we should be wary of: some are earnest and careful researchers, while others are hardly more than shills for an industry, in this case, the industry of tradition inventing.  ZN

For more information, see the Patricia Crotty article as well as a surprisingly-balanced Wikipedia article on the Mediterranean Diet, which points out that the Diet is based on culinary patterns of Southern Italy and Greece in the 1960s. Gillian Riley also has two excellent articles on the subject on her Oxford Companion to Italian Food: see “Mediterranean Diet” and “Cucina Povera.”

May 112011

This book purports to be the first “Diet Novel,” and it a mix of polemic against the carbohydrate-laden Italian diet, supposedly the healthiest in the world but in reality, according to Paolo Guzzanti, a recipe for nutritional disaster. The book is a mix of research on the nutritional downsides of eating lots of pasta and pizza and rice and a personal polemic, motivated it seems by Guzzanti’s personal experience with diabetes and the premature death of his father from the same disease. Those expecting a highly analytical critique of the historical veracity of the so-called “Mediterranean Diet” will be disappointed, though the book is a good starting point for an examination of the wisdom of eating pasta every day. Available only in Italian. (Aliberti Editore, 2009)  ZN 

Grazie ad Elgin Eckert per la segnalazione.

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

Feb 172011

Ball, Eric L. ‘Greek Food After Mousaka: Cookbooks, ‘Local’ Culture and the Cretan Diet’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21 (2003) 1-36. An interesting exercise employing Cretan cookbooks to gage changes in local identity. Italian references are limited to a single Italian cookbook. But the author’s comments on the Mediterranean Diet makes for important reading for any student of Ancel Keys’ revolution and local reception of the same. SY

Dec 152010

In the November 2010 edition of the Italian State Railway’s magazine La Freccia (distributed onboard its luxury high-speed trains), one could find an article entitled “Le vie dell’olio” (“The Oil Routes” was the best, albeit still awkward, translation I could come up with). The article offered production background and geographic indications for the peninsula’s best olive oil, giving some specific mills to visit in each of the main olive oil producing regions.

As if we’ve never heard it before, the article sounded the tired trumpet to the tune of the Mediterranean Diet:”one of the fundamental products of the Mediterranean Diet, apart from being a food, olive oil has been used over the course of the history for medicinal purposes, for skin care and personal hygiene, for lighting and as a form of currency.” Telling the fact that only this paragraph was translated into English (the rest of the Italian text remained silent for anglophones).

I have to confess that my skepticism about the “Mediterranean Diet,” reinforced by reading Patricia Crotty’s article on the subject, is developing into a healthy suspicion. While I love olive oil, and I agree that it seems more nutritious than some other fats, I am wary of the idea (driven ahead as gospel by this article and many others like it) that the MD is actually some sort of artifact of a simple life of long ago. Olive oil was until very recently (read: the the early twentieth century) a luxury item inaccessible to most Italians. To take a simple example, the average Umbrian peasant diet of the late nineteenth century was based on polenta, a limited range of garden vegetables, and (twice a year!) meat. This data comes from the parliamentary inquest known as the Inchiesta Jacini, carried out between 1881 and 1886.

Jacini found that for the Umbrian peasant, the average number of grams of fat per day was between 20 and 30 (roughly a tablespoon). We can put aside the fact that likely all of those grams were fat from pigs: assuming that even half of that fat was from the luxury food olive oil, we can estimate that in a year the average Umbrian peasant ate between 3,650 and 5,475 grams of fat. Assuming olive oil has a mass of about 970 grams per liter, we get a total yearly consumption of between 3.8 and 5.6 liters. My mother, a 68 year old woman of Irish-German stock who has only just recently begun to use olive oil in her cooking, uses about a bottle (750mL) every two months, for a total annual consumption of 4.5 liters. How fundamental, then, can olive oil have been to the diet of the vast majority of poor Italians (and, by extension, poor Europeans) in centuries past?  (Gian Paolo Collacciani, “Le vie dell’olio,” La Freccia, Anno II, Numero 10, November 2010)  ZN

See a summary in English of the Inchiesta Jacini here.

Dec 022010

In a recent insert of the Corriere dell’Umbria (16 Nov 2010, p.5), an unnamed author reported the following:

“The Mediterranean Diet the patrimony of humanity? Just a few more days of waiting, then the Technical Committee of UNESCO will sift through the candidacy presented by Italy, Greece, Spain, and Moracco. The examination began Monday, 15 November, in Nairobi. For Italy, the Mediterranean diet (the expression was coined in the Fifties by American nutritionist Ancel Keys), as a lifestyle based on genuine food products, could be the third element on the list, after Sicilian puppets and Sardinian Tenor Singing. For the first time the gastronomy of a country could become global patrimony.’It’s not about making gastronomy into a museum, but rather assuring the transmission of our culinary culture and the gastronomic dish, above all ones from holidays, from families, of which it is an essential element,’ said Pierre Sanner, director of the French Mission for Patrimony and Alimentary Cultures (MFPCA). And Italy, with its cultural baggage of cured sausages, oils, wines, cheeses, bread, and pasta has all the criteria for a specific candidacy. And a winning one.”

There’s no mention of Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Isreal, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Algeria, all of whom presumably share this diet. For an article that is a critique of the concept of the “Mediterranean Diet,” see this post. ZN

[Update: The Mediterranean Diet was indeed awarded the "Immaterial Human Heritage" title on 23 November 2010.]

Grazie a Daniela Buglione per la segnalazione.

Oct 312010

Today a minority opinion on health and diet in relation to some little known studies of an immigrant Italian community in the United States that may inform how we look at and understand immigrant food and the Mediterranean Diet.

The place: the borough of Roseto in Pennsylvania – named for Roseto Valforte in Apulia – with an overwhelmingly Italo-American population. The time: the 1960s through to the 1980s. A team of scholars under the direction of Stewart Wolf began to look at Roseto’s mortality rates. What they found was fascinating. From 1935-1965 Roseto had had strikingly lower number of myocardial infarctions, i.e. heart attacks, than the neighbouring towns of Bangor and Nazareth despite them sharing the same health infrastructure and the same water system. However, from 1965 onwards the numbers of heart attacks in Roseto climbed to meet the numbers of heart attacks found in the previously-mentioned neighbouring communities.

Roseto had an overwhelmingly Italian population, but Wolf and his colleagues did not, interestingly, explain the difference with reference to food. Roseto they claimed was unusual: ‘Unlike inhabitants of most American towns, Rosetans were found to be cohesive and mutually supportive, with strong family and community ties. The men in Roseto appeared to be the unchallenged heads of their households. The elderly were revered and, unlike most oldsters in America, they retained their influence on family affairs. Problems were customarily solved in family conclaves where each person took responsibility and often made some sacrifice. Less intimate, but nevertheless very close, were ties to neighbours and others in the local community. There was great civic pride. Roseto held an enviable record of always ‘going over the top’ in community drives and in providing prompt financial assistance to flood-torn or other disaster areas around the world, especially in Italy. The overall atmosphere of the town was one of mutual support and understanding, and unfailing sustenance in time of trouble.’ (Wolf et al, ‘Roseto Revisited’, 100-101)

And the change? The scholars studying Roseto believe that it was the collapse of this spirit in the early 1960s. ‘The earlier beliefs and behaviour that expressed themselves in Roseto’s family-centred social life, absence of ostentation even among the wealthy, nearly exclusive patronage of local business, and a predominance of intra-ethnic marriages gradually changed toward the more familiar behaviour pattern of neighbouring communities. Roseto was shifting from its initially highly homogenous social order – made up of three-generation households with strong commitments to religion and to traditional values and practices – to a less cohesive, materialistic, more ‘Americanized’ community in which three-generation households were uncommon and inter-ethnic marriages became the norm.’ (Egolf et al, ‘The Roseto Effect’, 1090-91) The result: a rise in heart attacks including among the young.

Of course, it would be possible to begin to attack this model: so many of these points are difficult to measure empirically, some have claimed (unreasonably) that the statistical base was too small. However, the Roseto Effect might be a useful corrective or warning, let’s say, for those who wish to explain life expectancy on the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. How long you live and how you die depends on so much more than just what you put in your mouth… SY

B. Egolf, J. Lasker, S. Wolf, and L. Potvin, ‘The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates’, American Journal of Public Health 82 (1992), 1089-1092 – read here in pdf

S. Wolf, K. L. Grace, J. Bruhn, and C. Stout ‘Roseto revisited: further data on the incidence of myocardial infarction in Roseto and neighboring Pennsylvania communities’, Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 85 (1974) 100-108 – read here in pdf

Sep 232010

Nestle, Marion ‘Mediterranean diets: historical and research overview’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61 (1995), 1313-1320. Efficient general overview of the Mediterranean Diet – as Nestle takes it the Cretan peasant diet c. 1960 – from the earliest times through EURATOM. Final pages consider consequences of the MD for public health both in the Mediterranean heartlands and in the United States. SY