Italian Food Traditions Aren’t so Traditional

carbonaraAre our concepts of Italian food traditions based on a lie? Apparently, many of those protected designations of origins and famous dishes with authentic roots deep in Italian history are younger than I am.

Alberto Grandi is a professor of food history at the University of Parma, so he knows what he’s talking about. In an article in the Financial Times entitled “Everything I, an Italian, thought I knew about Italian food is wrong,” (behind a paywall) Marianna Guisti reports on her conversation with Grandi who has made a career out of debunking myths about Italian food.

Grandi’s speciality is making bold claims about national staples: that most Italians hadn’t heard of pizza until the 1950s, for example, or that carbonara is an American recipe. Many Italian “classics”, from panettone to tiramisu, are relatively recent inventions, he argues.

Panettone was a hard flatbread with a few raisins eaten by peasants. It became a towering sweet bread with a plush buttery texture in 1920 invented by an industrial food brand called Motta. Tiramasu “first appeared in cookbooks in the 1980s. Its star ingredient, mascarpone, was rarely found outside Milan before the 1960s, and the coffee-infused biscuits that divide the layers are Pavesini, a supermarket snack launched in 1948.

The original parmesan cheese was much like the softer commercial stuff made in Wisconsin today rather than a crusty, hard cheese sold as Parmigiano Reggiano. And pizza is more American than Italian.

Before the war, Grandi tells me, pizza was only found in a few southern Italian cities, where it was made and eaten in the streets by the lower classes. His research suggests that the first fully fledged restaurant exclusively serving pizza opened not in Italy but in New York in 1911. “For my father in the 1970s, pizza was just as exotic as sushi is for us today,” he adds.

In fact, much of what we think of as Italian food in the U.S. came from Southern Italy, especially Sicily, due to the massive influx of immigrants fleeing the grinding poverty there.

Carbonara, now considered a staple of Roman cuisine, was probably invented to serve Americans during World War II.

…as the food historian Luca Cesari, author of A Brief History of Pasta, puts it, carbonara is “an American dish born in Italy” and it wasn’t born until the second world war. The story that most experts agree on is that an Italian chef, Renato Gualandi, first made it in 1944 at a dinner in Riccione for the US army with guests including Harold Macmillan. “The Americans had fabulous bacon, very good cream, some cheese and powdered egg yolks,” Gualandi later recalled.

Grandi takes a very dim view of “Gastro-nationalism” as he calls it:

“The philologic concern with ingredient provenance is a very recent phenomenon.” Indeed it’s hard to imagine that people who survived the second world war eating chestnuts, as my grandfather did, would be concerned about using pork jowl instead of pork belly in a pasta recipe. Or as Grandi puts it, “Their ‘tradition’ was trying not to starve.”

Of course, the food fights that people get into over “authenticity” are not restricted to Italians. Try ordering chili with beans in Texas. And never suggest to an Israeli that hummus was invented by the Lebanese. It’s all rather silly. Food traditions have always been fluid, changing depending on what people had access to and the movement of populations, and responsive to our human desire to taste something new and different.

For some reason, this idea of a static, rule-governed culture has a deep hold on people.

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