The Italian Way: Food and Social Life

November 5, 2009

Italians are different from you and me. They eat better. American sociologist and ethno-photographer Douglas Harper discovered this on his first visit to Italy. The food was fresher, the tastes brighter, the eating itself more exuberant than in America (or in Britain, he would argue). Why was that? He enlisted the help of Italian sociologist Patrizia Faccioli of the University of Bologna and designed a formal study. Apart from surveying the history of Italian food and social life generally, the two sociologists prepared a field study. Faccioli arranged for interviews and sample meals in the homes of 25 Bolognese families of various sizes and shapes. Over the course of five years, often accompanied by Faccioli, Harper visited his subjects during meals at home, interviewed them, photographed their kitchens and dining rooms and, along with his many subjects, ate. Sometimes he ate as many as ten research meals in the course of seven days.

Although daily habits in Italy are inevitably changing under the pressures of the global, 24-hour economy and the nearly universal entry of women into the workforce, those habits, Harper found, are changing only very slowly. Italians still try to eat their meals at home, together in family groups, once or even twice a day. They strive to eat food freshly prepared, including freshly made pasta, served with homemade sauces, and they have little interest in industrially prepared meals. They are knowledgeable about food and fussy, but they seem to take enormous pleasure in it, especially as they are eating it together.

What is going on? Harper discovered a number of factors that determine the unusually congenial food culture of Italy, including tradition, environment, social structure, regionalism, agricultural practices, connoisseurship, gender dynamics and emotion. The tradition, for example, goes back to Roman times; its focus on a kind of holy trinity of bread, wine and olives has taught Italians to cherish simplicity, subtlety, authenticity and balance. Regionalism, to give another example, is also extremely important. In spite of the development of a genuinely national culture, Italians still cling to regional dishes handed down from generation to generation, prepared as much as possible with regionally produced ingredients. So in Bologna almost everyone who cooks knows how to make a good tagliatelle al ragu, using freshly made egg noodles and a slow-cooked sauce made with tomatoes and locally favoured, locally sourced meats. But a Neapolitan spaghetti al ragu, using dry Neapolitan pasta and different meats, is considered in Bologna to be somewhat exotic and is seldom seen.

As for emotion, Harper discovered that his subjects invested enormous affective energy in their meals. Even among subjects who were not good cooks and more or less indifferent to food, he found a deep emotional commitment to the meaning of the meal. Food in Italy is a vital player in the family romance; it is a medium for the acting-out of the romance, and even an actor on its own account, full of sound and fury. Or to put it another way, food is something of a fetish, in a land of totems and taboos.

The Italian Way is an engaging and informative book, complete with photos and lively records of personal conversations. But it lacks intellectual rigour. Can a study of 25 families in Bologna, proverbially the "the fat, the learned and the red", really be enough to encourage generalisations about all of Italy? Harper would have produced a more honest book if he had stuck to what his evidence warranted, namely a profile of Bolognese habits. But then his subject would not have been the charming "Italy" of Anglo-American fantasies, or the "Italy" of modern Italian chauvinism, both of which he confirms here even as he attempts to apply something like sociological method. The book would have been more honest, too, if Harper had tried to make connections between the cultural life of food and other social phenomena. There is no mention of mass media, politics, economic policy or immigration. He does mention one of the most pressing social problems in Italy today, to be fair, but he doesn't do much with it: the low birthrate.

Italy has the lowest birthrate in Europe, and food-loving, communist Bologna has the lowest birthrate of any major city in the world. This "Italy", which puts such emphasis on family life, is proving itself incapable of reproduction. If food is wonderful in Italy, and a key to its wonders is the investment of food in the family romance, a sociologist might ask why the Italian family is nevertheless - or perhaps for that very reason - dying out.

The Italian Way: Food and Social Life

By Douglas Harper and Patrizia Faccioli. University of Chicago Press. 320pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780226317243. Published October 2009

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