When in Rome…

It’s not very often that we post about Italy here on the Slow Food Portland blog. While we love our Italian founders (and we’re quite partial to Italian cooking), we feel that American eating deserves just as much attention. We might be young here, but we’re pretty scrappy, and we have our own, unique culture worth championing!

That said, sometimes it can be easy to feel like food is better appreciated elsewhere outside of the US. Frankly, as an organization with such a European pedigree as Slow Food, it can be hard not to end up comparing ourselves to the Old Country, and romanticizing their cuisine and culture. Two recent articles point out that this isn’t always such a good idea. Apparently, even Italy – that bastion of gastronomy – can have struggles over food.

A few weeks back, The New York Times reported on changes being made to the American Academy in Rome, by none other than Alice Waters! The respected institution was apparently as renowned for its bad dining hall as it was for its prestigious educational programs. Enter Ms. Waters, who over the past few months has helped the school to sow a garden and to develop connections with local farmers and food purveyors. Many of the Academy’s attendees now volunteer with food prep and service, and the communal meals have been transformed from a dreaded ordeal into a time for the scholars to exchange ideas and build community, all founded upon good food. Apparently it took an American chef to teach an Italian school to cook!

Also last month, the city council of Lucca, a walled Tuscan village, voted to ban any new ethic restaurants. The New York Times shared the details of the decision:

In this deeply conservative city, where even Sicilian food is considered ethnic, there are already four kebab houses, testaments to Italy’s growing immigrant population and the fact that many Italians, especially young ones, like eating non-Italian food. Offering kebabs at $5, the restaurants are also a bargain in difficult times.

Under the new law, these four can stay, but the banning of new ethnic and fast-food restaurants within the city walls has struck many here as contrary to the rules of free-market capitalism and the notion that Italy can offer more than visions of its long-dead past.

While the move purportedly stems from a desire to preserve the city’s cultural heritage (mainly for tourism), many are accusing the council of veiled racism. These accusations are particularly pointed in light of the fact that no one has ever criticized the tourist knick-knack shops for harming the historical appeal of the city center. New foods, however, seem to have crossed a defining line of the region’s identity. Lucca’s current conundrum raises an number of interesting questions – can you legislate the protection of a food tradition, at the exclusion of other cultures? Does this sort of ban merely force city residents to live in an increasingly romanticized historical parkland? Is it regressive to cling to an old lifestyle as the cultural makeup of a city evolves? And, while one Italian food critic defends the kebab shops, his statement raises a provocative question:

“It’s crazy today to put limits on kebabs, hamburgers, hot dogs,” said Davide Paolini, the food critic for Il Sole 24 Ore and author of the Gastronauta blog, which explores Italian regional cuisine. “By now these aren’t connected to any particular area. They belong to the world.”

If these foods are, in fact, so globalized that they no longer have regional or cultural affiliations, can you even blame Lucca for refusing them? Or is trying to resist them simply titling at windmills?

Thanks for sharing

  1. Linda J. Morgan
    Linda J. Morgan04-11-2009

    As much as I sympathize with Lucca’s city council’s efforts to keep cuisine true to the Tuscan heritage, this will be difficult if not impossible to enforce. Will they have the food police out? Have they not realized that all food preparation has been in some way influenced by cultural contact?

    If they ban any new ethnic eateries then they should also ban the knick-knack shops selling tourists what is surely not authentic Tuscan artistry, rather mass-produced junk.