In Italy, 'tomato' will never be the same as 'tomahto'

Globalization poses new challenges for Italy’s food culture

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Ben Hitchcock 

Ben Hitchcock | Cavalier Daily

In an iconic scene from Martin Scorsese’s classic 1990 film “Goodfellas,” deposed and imprisoned mobster Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) has a selection of Italian delicacies delivered to his prison cell. The gangster lovingly slices garlic with a razor blade before his fellow mobsters join him around the table for wine, cheese and prosciutto. 

In a movie full of ridiculous stereotypes, this scene stands out as one which contains more than just a kernel of truth. I’ve been in Italy for more than a month, and no one has stabbed me and thrown me in the trunk of a car. I can confidently report, however, that Italians love their food.

In Italy, food is not just an important part of national identity — it is the entirety of the national identity. Italy is a country with a fractious and turbulent past. It was not a republic until the middle of the 19th century, only to be torn apart again a hundred years later in the Second World War. Regional loyalties have always been stronger than national pride. There is no abstract patriotism to unite Italians. There is only food. Americans are proud to be American because of freedom and justice. Italians are proud to be Italian because of wine and olive oil. 

The food is one of the reasons I came to Italy in the first place. I love Italian food, and I couldn’t wait to try it at its source. Last month, I spent a day in Bologna, and the main event, of course, was trying real, bona-fide bolognese sauce. Bolognese is one of the Italian dishes most often replicated by Americans, and for good reason. It’s simple and delicious. I’ve eaten it a million times. When I sat down at the table of a fairly nice restaurant in Bologna, my expectations were through the roof, and, of course, the dish was rich and satisfying and delicious. 

But, to be brutally honest, it was just a bowl of bolognese. I was a little upset! I expected the clouds to part and to hear Bocelli start singing upon taking my first bite. Yet, despite my desire to be blown away, I could not help but accept the fact that this Bolognese bolognese was really quite similar to all the American bolognese I have had over the years. 

In the globalized age in which we live, recipes, products and techniques are all exportable. Thousands of restaurants in the United States make handmade pasta. I can buy succulent, ripe, fresh tomatoes from the Charlottesville farmers’ market. The best olive oil in the world is Italian, and it’s on sale at Foods of All Nations. Fifty years ago, the only place in the world to get a perfect bolognese was Bologna. Unsentimental as it may sound, that’s just not true anymore. 

When the physical objects that make up the food culture become replicable, what remains is ritual. A food tradition can survive even without unique dishes, because often, the rituals related to the preparation and consumption of the food are just as important as the food itself. Regardless of what you’re eating, having a meal in the authentic Italian way is still a cultural experience. The only problem is that, just as it has made Italian foods less distinctive, modernity has eroded the rituals associated with eating in the Italian way. The pace of life is faster. Fewer and fewer families have time for three course meals every night. Mealtime, the most sacrosanct time of the day for Italians, is losing some of its significance. My Italian roommate Giada regularly watches TV while she eats — a transgression unheard of not long ago. But can you blame her? Giada — having just graduated from college — is working three jobs. 

All this seems to evidence a culture in crisis. Italy depends more than most countries on its food tradition, and that tradition is being worn away by the globalization of physical goods and the unrelenting pace of modernity. For Italians, it seems, there is reason to be afraid. Their culture looks to be falling apart at the seams.

Yet the Italians I have spoken to are not afraid. A Florentine professor of mine, Federica Andrei, was quick to point out that while bolognese is everywhere, there are plenty of Italian foods that still can only be eaten in Italy, and many of those are available only in certain provinces and towns. Tagliatelle from Bologna, pici from Siena, supplì from Rome, lampredotto from Florence — these dishes remain unfamiliar to American audiences. Globalization is powerful but not necessarily all-encompassing. It lacks nuance. 

Young Italian people are aware of the challenges their traditions face. University of Siena student Alessandro Maggetti complained to me about how every week his mother expects him to return home for a three- or four-hour meal. It’s inconvenient to say the least. “The whole day is f—cked,” as he put it. But when I asked him whether or not he would eventually make his kids go through the same torture, he didn’t disown the tradition of the weekly meal. His family will eat together “perhaps every other week.” 

A pessimist would say that this erosion is how traditions die, but I think it’s more realistic to say that this is how traditions survive. Every tradition is constantly forced to adapt to modernity. When Christmas comes around, we no longer party like it’s 99 (“The Elf on the Shelf” didn’t even come out until 2005), but the tradition remains as strong as ever. The 21st century poses new challenges, but the reason we have our modern traditions is because they’ve proven adaptable over time. There’s little reason to think Italian food culture should be any different. And of course, in Italy, some rituals remain as deeply ingrained as ever.

Most importantly, however, I — and the Italians I’ve spoken to — believe Italian food culture will survive because Italians believe in magic. They believe in an intangible magic of geography that, in their minds, will forever protect them against the commodification of their culture. Parmesan cheese can only be made in Parma, cinghiale can only be made in Siena, and, yes, bolognese can only be made in Bologna. 

It’s not a matter of process or procedure or technique. It’s something in the soil, something in the sunlight, something in the air. Italians cope with the problem of globalization by denying its legitimacy altogether. It’s not that important if the rest of the world or the heartless global capital machine believes Italian foods truly are more tasty. Italians stubbornly believe in the inherent exceptionality of their cuisine, and this belief in the magic of their own land is enduring in a way external to the threats posed by modernity. 

The most important part of Italian food culture isn’t the food or the ritual but rather the weight ascribed to those things. Italians aren’t just proud of their food, they are proud of being proud. Olive oil can be exported, rituals might change with time, but what can’t be exported and what won’t fade is the steadfast belief that Italian things possess something supernatural. It may be naive, but that naïveté is not on sale in Foods of all Nations. 

No one can guarantee that Italian culture will survive the new threats posed by globalization. On the surface, it seems as though Italian culture is particularly susceptible to the harsh realities and dangers of the 21st century. Yet even in the face of these daunting new challenges, every Italian I’ve met still believes in the same fundamental truth — a perfect tomato from America will never taste as good as a perfect tomato from Italy. 

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