The Italian Way: Food and Social Life

The Italian Way: Food and Social Life

by Douglas Harper

ISBN: 9780226317243

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology, Arts & Photography/Photography

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


THE CHAPTERS TITLED "LOVE," "POWER," AND "LABOR" EXAMINE HOW Italian women create and are created by their family foodworlds. Our discussion of love describes how Italians use food as currency in their intimate friendships and relationships; regarding power we show how women's social identities are in part derived from their command of the kitchen. Our discussion of labor sees food preparation as one part of domestic labor, monopolized by women even as they have entered the labor force and as Italian families have changed in size, composition, and ideology.


In Italy, food is a means through which to express affection. Patrizia says simply: "In our culture if you want to express love, if you want to thank someone, food is the way to show these sentiments. I open my house; I share my food with you. It is more than a gift."

But love is not simple, with or without food. In the following we explain how Italian cooking communicates messages of love and friendship. We examine how food evokes memories of family, how it enables the mother to be fully Italian, and how eating holds families and couples together. We also look at how food affects arguments in couples and, finally, how social life outside the family is created around and through food.


Cooking is more than combining ingredients; it becomes meaningful through the sentiment it expresses. Maria expressed it this way: "If a person puts love into making a dish and offers it to you in a certain manner, there is warmth inside. Those who throw a dish together without care have a detached, superior attitude. I can't explain it very well. It's a matter of more or less love, not for people but for food."

Patrizia asks, "Maybe you see an act of love in the food preparation and the offer of the food, rather than in the food itself?" and Maria says, "Yes, there is a certain passion, for me."

Cristina expresses it very simply: "I want to have a big house, with an enormous table, with a lot of people and a lot of pasta. For me the pasta is the love. Not the meat, just the pasta and the bread. I don't know why."

Do you necessarily enter into affectionate or even loving relationships when you accept food prepared by Italians? Well, perhaps! When I return to Italy my friends immediately want to feed me. I like the food—it is tasty because it is made well from good raw materials, but there is something more as well. The food is a way to say "Hello, welcome back; we're glad to see you again!" It is an expression of friendship, in a country where friendship and love count for much.

And while the book is not about restaurant food, many visitors to Italy sense this quality even when the food is prepared for sale. It is not everywhere; I have had cynically prepared food (ill-prepared, made from inferior ingredients, carried to the table with indifference, and priced exorbitantly) in trattorie in the center of Rome. But one block from the buzz of Termini, the Osteria da Luciano evokes scenes from a film made decades ago: friendly formality, engaged and interested waiters, and food that compares favorably to what I was served in the Italian homes I've visited. In fact, Luciano's has been the rule rather than the exception.


Memories created by the smells and tastes of food are not rational recollections of places or events but connections to things past. For the Italians we spoke to, the importance of memories was not in the recalled food but in recollections of people who made the food and of the circumstances shared with them. The old people now living were then young; the elderly of that day are now gone. And those who remember return to when they were young and innocent, full of life's wonder.

Stefy remembers her deceased grandmother, from Lombardy, when she cooks. She follows her recipes exactly as they are written, and "they arouse memories of when we prepared them together and when we discussed them, talking and eating. So I make them identically, as she handed them down to me."

Patrizia said that it sounded like a rite, and Stefy agreed: "Yes, that is true regarding my grandmother's recipes. I can modify the recipes that do not have any affective value, such as the ones I read in magazines, but not my grandmother's."

For Cristina, the memory of food takes her to her beloved grandparents and the generous sociability that she re-creates in her life, around the same table she sat at then. (It is interesting that in Italian tavola means not only the physical table but also what happens around the table.) Patrizia sat at Cristina's table discussing the party she had invited us to the week before, and Cristina said, "Every night when I was a child there were fourteen of us around my grandfather's table. He sat at the head of the table, and my cousin and I sat at his sides. I was four or five and my cousin was three, and this was my grandparents' table, where we now sit. When I married, I claimed this table. For me, the table represents a lot of things: my childhood and my great love for my grandfather and my grandmother. Unfortunately, I had two absent parents, because they had to work. The people who were present were my grandparents, who took care of me until I was eight.

"I like to cook very much, and I like the idea of cooking what there is at home. So in my house there are always some onions, potatoes, pasta ... If I come home and there are ten of us? One kilo of pasta! I like to live life spontaneously. Yes, I also like to prepare a special dish, but I am more bound to the idea of having all the things I need at home to prepare a dinner at the last minute. Because I remember my grandmother improvising—I remember the potatoes peeled at the last minute when people came to the house in the evening. So my grandmother would say: 'Well, you stay here to have dinner with us!' And we added a place at the table and shifted the chairs. It is a very beautiful memory."

"How many times a week do you have dinners like this?" Patrizia asks.

"Well, Patti, if it were possible, I would do it every night! Anyway, I do it at least one or two times a week."

"And are dinners organized that day?"

"Yes, quite on the spot!"

Patrizia shows Cristina the photos. "Typical, always a mess, informal," she says.

"How did this party come about?" Patrizia asks.

"At the last moment, as usual. Because of my life, everything is always at the last minute. So much so that there was the skillet on the table, as you can see. Usually I try not to have the skillet on the table! That night was really organized at the last minute, so it was very informal, and there was what there was. I do love the properly set-up table, with nice glasses, etc., but this one was organized at the last minute. Anyway I like the improvisation, because it is a nice, familiar feeling. I like it when a friend comes to our house at the last minute, telling me he is hungry. So I make what there is at home. I take some eggs; I take the skillet; I take the pasta. There is always food in my house. I can improvise a dish of pasta with sauce or things like that. So I like to think that my friends can call me at the last minute: 'Cristina, I'm coming and I am hungry.' There is a piece of bread, understand?"

Patrizia says, "There is more than a piece of bread!"

In fact the party at Cristina's was quite informal, warm, and entertaining. It began with an unannounced invitation. Could I take photos? Yes. Would the other guests mind? No, of course not! Other guests included two families with children and young colleagues of Cristina's. The food was typical—that is, varied antipasti and a simple pasta. Friends crowded into the kitchen while the food was prepared; people reached across the table to serve themselves or pour more wine. No one paid special attention to me, as I practiced Italian and photographed. Eventually guests watched a strange video about homeless dogs in Romania, and then there was an hour or two of quiet conversation. On the way home Patrizia said only, "Typical!"

* * *

All cultures connect memory to taste and smell, but in Italy there are factors that make these connections unusually strong. Eating takes place in family settings, and families are strong in Italy. Sentimentalism in Italy is expressed in opera, a pronounced sense of the romantic, and idealizations of the mother figure. But taste and smell are connected to memory in Italy because of the things Italians cook and eat: Bolognese ragù is a simple dish, but it is cooked slowly, continually stirred for hours, filling the house with aromas. Polenta is just cornmeal, but you cook it for hours, again filling the room with aromas. A finger is inserted in the sauce; the grandmother tastes and offers a sample to the child. Even the daily pasta, not particularly aromatic, fills the room with an inviting moisture, the sound of boiling water, and faint smells of wheat glutens. The kitchen becomes a place where the grandmother entertains the granddaughters, teaching them esoteric arts of the kitchen. It leads to what Jon Holtzman called "prospective memory": Cristina looks forward to an experience because it reminds her of the past; the smells and experiences she creates transport her to a version of those events. But the cast of characters has changed, and experiencing the food she previously ate with the others makes their loss more poignant. This is what Roland Barthes referred to when he wrote of how photographs seem to fly you back in time and in the meantime remind you in exquisite clarity of what is gone. Here it is, and now you remember it absolutely, but you cannot have it again. So the beauty of memory is also the basis of the tragedy that surrounds it, whether encouraged by images or by smells.


Silvia was about to travel to Ravenna to see her mother. What would she cook for Silvia? Hopefully melanzane alla parmigiana: "She makes the best ever in the world. Whenever I would tell my friends, 'Valentina made melanzane alla parmigiana' [they'd clamor,] 'Can I come?' 'Can I come?' We always had, like, ten people for dinner. My mother never had any problem with that; she would say 'Sure!' "

"How does she make them?" I ask. "Does she soak the eggplant in salt first?"

"No, you fry the eggplant and layer them with a lot of paper, so that they are not soaking in oil ... and then you make layers with tomato sauce, eggplant, and two different types of cheese."

This seems to be a very easy recipe; I ask, why is it special? "She's changed the type of cheese," Silvia says, "One is parmigiano. I'm not sure what other cheese she's using now. And she makes the tomato sauce, so it's not the kind you buy."

"What's in the tomato sauce?" I ask.

"Nothing!" she answers, and I am a bit startled. "Nothing? No garlic?"

"No garlic," Silvia says, "just some salt. She buys the fresh tomatoes and makes it."



Patrizia adds, "My mother does it the same way. Just the tomatoes and salt."

Silvia continues: "You cook them with a very, very low, low flame for a long, long time. Just tomatoes and salt. A low flame for a very long time ..."

With these directions any one of us could make a close approximation of Silvia's mother's eggplant parmesan. In her hands, however, it becomes "a true act of love." Silvia says that her mother "wants to please me because we don't get to see each other all that often. And she knows that there are dishes that she does very well. That make me very happy, and I enjoy that a lot."

I ask again, "Why is this special?" and Silvia has no real answer: "I don't know, I've tried to make it the same way she does, and it never comes out the same way. There's something she does; I don't know why, but they're just wonderful. They're famous. When I was a kid and I would tell my friend that she had eggplants, we had always guests, friends, coming over to share. And she would always be happy to have more people: 'Sure, bring them over, no problem.' She was always very open about that."

Silvia continues, "It makes her immensely happy to see I'm happy! That's why I say it's a true act of love—the preparation, the time she takes to make everything, and the fact that she knows exactly what I like the best. I think that's what makes it so good—why her eggplant recipe in the end always tastes better than anybody else's. Because there's her affection involved."

Pino, who had overheard the conversation, explained, "As I told you before, there is a particular relationship in Italy between family and food. I told you that it's usual for mothers to give food to sons or daughters to take home when they visit, when a son or daughter lives outside the parents' house. And it is not because they are worried that the son or daughter doesn't have anything in the refrigerator to eat. It's just a way to reinforce the link. It is not dependency; absolutely it is not a question of dependency. It's a question of, I think, renewal."

"Renewal?" I ask.

Pino answers, "Exactly. And a link. The mother is the person that gave you her milk—"

Patrizia: "—food ... nourishment—"

"When you were a child," Pino says, "the mother fed you, and the mother wants to continue this because it's a part of her maternity. It's very easy to see in both the north and south of Italy. There is no difference. Absolutely. This habit is observed everywhere in Italy. For example, it is incredible that you can observe on Sunday sons and daughters, with wives and husbands, going to their parents' house for lunch. The same people, coming home, carry packages. These packages are not for leftovers but for freshly made food. Because mothers say: 'I prepared this cake for you.' 'Oh come on Ma, I'm on a diet.' 'No, please, this is a cake; it is very good for you. You have to eat it. I made with my hands this day.'

" 'I made it with my hands,' " Pino repeats. "For example, let me talk to you about the eggplants my mother prepared."

"Which I ate all of tonight," I say.

"Exactly," Pino says. "Those eggplants. For a while my mother gave me eggplants, and she prepared them with a lot of garlic. And I don't like a lot of garlic. So I told that to my mother:

"'Mom, please. Don't prepare melanzane with garlic.'

"'What do you want me to do?'

"'I don't know, Mom, prepare melanzane easy, simple. Just cook it. No dressing, no dressing, please, because you put in too much garlic.' Then for some time she made us plain melanzane, just cooked. But my mother, after a while, began to tell me: 'Oh, come on—just melanzane cooked—not a little bit of oil?'

"'Sure, Ma, just as long as you don't put in too much garlic.'

"Now she's happy because she doesn't give me just cooked eggplant; she gives me her melanzane, made with her recipe. She uses less garlic because she knows that we don't particularly like a lot of garlic. Before she would add a lot of mashed garlic; now she puts a whole head of garlic on the melanzana so we can remove it. But the idea is not to give me food to eat at home; it is to give me something that she made."

Patrizia adds, "A piece of her."

Pino agrees, "Yes, a piece of her."

I tell them I understand with regard to their mothers, but I still don't understand why the housecleaner also leaves food.

Pino explains that it is because "she feels like she is a member of the family. Absolutely. Because I can give a friend of mine a piece of cake, just seeing him. 'This is my cake, I do it for you.' "

"Does this last for your whole life?" I ask, speaking of the mother's food gifts. "When does it stop?"

Pino, "Never."


"Never. Only when she dies."

Often when I stay with Patrizia, we eat food her mother Francesca or Aunt Agnese has prepared. Patrizia says, "I have no shame!"

I add, "Sure, it's pretty easy: 'Mother, I need a torta. I need a plate of lasagna. I need some melanzane!' "

Pino says, "Yes, absolutely. And my mother is very happy to do it, too. She'll say: 'Oh, sure, you want _______ also?'"

"What about when the mother dies?" I ask.

Pino pauses. "Oh, maybe ... I will be very slim—we'll be fat no longer!"

"So when the food no longer exists, what is that like?" I push a bit harder.

Pino says, "Well, maybe, in the case we have a son, we'll continue the tradition with the food. But we have no son; yeah, I understand what you say, okay."

"In my case," I say, "my relationship with my mother has nothing to do with food or these things you describe."


Excerpted from "The Italian Way: Food and Social Life" by Douglas Harper. Copyright © 0 by Douglas Harper. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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