Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or, Food and the Nation

  • By Massimo Montanari, translated by Beth Archer Brombert
  • Columbia University Press
  • 128 pp.
  • Reviewed by Charles Caramello
  • September 6, 2013

Italian cooking and how it helped shape Italy’s culture and national and political identity.

An expanded revision of a previously published essay, Massimo Montanari’s Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or, Food and the Nation represents a kind of writing associated with French and Italian intellectuals and exemplified by Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco. Marxist in ideology and semiotic in methodology, it scrutinizes cultural phenomena from Balzac to steak and fries (Barthes), from medieval aesthetics to the game show host Mike Bongiorno (Eco). It tends to be provocative, elegant and pellucid.

A historian of food, Montanari wants to ken how a “land called Italy,” with a people and culture called “Italian,” came into being centuries before Italy became a nation in 1861: how did the unification of Italian presage the unification of Italy? Looking to “alimentary and gastronomic models” for an answer, Montanari speculates that an evolving “Italian” gastronomic identity shaped an equally evolving “Italian” cultural identity that, in turn, both reflected and inflected the national and political identity of “Italy.”

Montanari’s premise is that Italy evolved socially and politically as a decentralized “network” of multiple urban centers, each surrounded by a number of rural communities. Issuing in a social and political order that favored fluidity over fixity and diversity over uniformity, this relationship of city and country encouraged an integration of popular and elite cultures, including aristocratic and peasant food cultures, that shaped the “Italian gastronomic tradition.” (By contrast, Montanari’s bête noire, France, evolved with Paris as the city and everywhere else as an undifferentiated “country,” with a more fixed and stratified social order, and with a “rigorous codification” of cuisine.)

Montanari begins with the encounter of Romans and “barbarians,” representing agriculture and “forest life,” and the integration of their two food cultures: “the culture of bread, wine, and oil” and that of “meat and milk, lard and butter.” With this “European” gastronomic identity as context, he proceeds to key points in the development of its Italian constituent. These include the “importation and industrialization of pasta” in the Middle Ages; the importation of corn, potatoes and tomatoes from the Americas beginning in the 16th century and leading — thanks to the incubus of “hunger” and succubus of “agrarian capitalism” — to a cuisine based more on vegetables than meat; the dissemination of Italian eating habits in the 19th and 20th centuries, externally via mass emigration to the Americas, and internally via mass mobilization in the Great War; the fascist imposition of a policy of “using everything” with maximum efficiency, including scarce food supplies; and the later transition of Italy “from a traditional rural society to a modern industrial society,” with the demise of “the historical alimentary divide between north and south, urban and rural.”

Pasta plays the leading role, with the Middle Ages marking “the decisive moment in the evolution of a pasta culture.” Beginning in the 16th century, tomato sauce became the preferred accompaniment to meat and fish (“a monumental event”); while, in the 17th century, pasta grew sharply in importance, still traditionally paired with cheese. In the 19th century, tomato sauce joined pasta, which “changed color” from white to red, and the “national stereotype” of Italians as “macaroni-eaters” was born. When Italian immigrants brought pasta with tomato sauce to America, they added meat and invented “spaghetti and meatballs, the prototypical Italo-American dish.” Along with similar culinary inventions, this dish created “an Italian style of eating” that in many cases “preceded similar experiences in the home country” — not all of them welcome. (Recall when Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri of The Sopranos, visiting “the mother country” for the first time, orders “macaroni and gravy.” His Neapolitan host mutters to an associate — in Italian — “And you thought the Germans were classless pieces of shit.”)

Italian cookbooks play the supporting role in Montanari’s story. He invokes them to document his thesis and, more important, to demonstrate how cookbooks do double cultural work: they not only record a cuisine that reflects a culture, but they also spread the “rules” of that cuisine and thereby help to shape that culture. In 1901, for example, 40 years after the political unification of Italy, Pellegrino Artusi compiled a wide array of local recipes in La scienza in cucina e l’arte mangier bene (Skill in the kitchen and the art of eating well), producing “a genuine ‘national’ cookbook.” Cooks throughout Italy then submitted more recipes, incorporated into subsequent editions, making Artusi’s book “a collective enterprise” of national identity shaping. Reflecting the Italian cultural “principle of a network with regard to the circulation of local experiences, each of which maintains its individuality,” the Artusian cookbook enshrined “diversity as an indivisible element of national identity.”

Montarani’s boffo final chapter and epilogue unpack, respectively, the charged signs “regional cooking” and “home cooking.” The “postmodern” vogue for the former, Montanari agues, reflects an authentic “attachment to tradition” but also represents a “fashion, masking interests that are not always innocent.” First codified in La nuova cucina delle specialità regionali (The new cuisine of regional specialties) in 1909 and later incorporated into “the national-populist rhetoric of fascism,” “regional cooking” remains today “an invention that fulfills political, commercial, and tourist requirements,” while masking the true identity of Italian culture, “‘local’ nature” that is also “‘national.’” “Home cooking” openly celebrates that masked identity. It also represents, however, an ideological paradox — no recipe is authoritative, but “each recipe will be ‘the best,’ jealously guarded as a secret, a part of a family’s identity” — and it reflects a sociological paradox — the “home has become the preeminent site of industrial cooking,” and the restaurant the nostalgic “surrogate for ‘home cooking.’” Not peculiar to Italy, one might add, those paradoxes define “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” the Food Network’s ongoing paean to the resolve of idiosyncratic, local “family” restaurants in the face of standardized and globalized fast food chains.

Charles Caramello is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Dean of the
Graduate School and Professor of English at the University of Maryland. His
current book-in-progress is 
Riding Late: Essays on Horsemanship, Cavalry, and the
Great War.


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