On the connection between ethnic cuisine and nationalism. Or, What ‚Eataly’ teaches us.
“He's in the land where Anything can happen / Reach for the stars Grab that golden ring / Just remember he's Americano / Well watch it pal 'Cause he'll take everything”
—Americano (Brian Setzer Orchestra).
Views of a detour.
My brother was arriving that afternoon at Fiumicino and I was on a train to collect him. From the sunny beach enclaves at Santa Marinella, the train had to go into Rome first and then a jaunt back west to da Vinci’s airport. Whether by some error in translation, simply by carelessness, or by necessity, I ended up riding past Roma Ostiense station. Out of my south-facing window, looking across the tracks, something caught my eye that had never stood out to me before in previous trips, few as they were, to the eternal city. It was a large airport hangar-looking structure not far away, south of the Ostiense station. I watched it move from left to right in my view, contemplating how out of place it looked to me at that moment on the Roman landscape.
I’m no romantic traveler in Rome. Among my favorite views from Italian trains are the graffiti, an art form I almost always find beautiful even when it isn’t pretty. Likewise, it has always puzzled me how Rome’s Termini area contained so many immigrant communities but had managed for so many years to have so few commercial representations of those groups. Especially in 1998, my first trip, I never saw Chinese or South Asian or West African languages on business signs or restaurants—like some city-scale theatrical farce to convince visiting in-laws that only “Italians,” or as ridiculous, ancient Romans lived here. These visible diversities express more than a kind of honesty in an urban landscape to me, they imply a kind of liberty, as opposed to a precious and authoritarian regime of tourist imaginaries and tightly controlled, theme park Imagineering. So, the hangar-like building didn’t jar me because it disrupted a fairytale image that I’d amassed from Rick Steves’ programs or Hollywood romanticizations—of course, surely those are stuck in there too.
Instead, what shocked me appeared as we just passed this building and its façade was in view. Clearly it had been a defunct hangar or warehouse of some kind but was now been reborn and rebranded. Across the half-circle front of the building read, “Eataly.” Impossible to avoid talking or hearing about in New York and other American, European, and South American cities, this was a megastore and food court dedicated to Italian food for foodies. Eataly was a place no one could find cause not to love; certainly too, no one would tolerate it if you did! And, why should Italians be excluded from the pleasures of this re-presentation of Italian-ness, after all? Finally, the Empire had invaded its own capital. This was summer, 2015.
Mai! I’d never eat that.
The winter of 2009 was fittingly unpleasant. I wasn’t used to rain in Santa Marinella. And, since when did it get below fifty degrees Fahrenheit? My grandma’s hometown was normally hot and sunny in my experience. “Nico,” a shopkeeper on the piazza near my grandma’s apartment, would rush by her window making trips to his van or moving deliveries, sometimes waving or shouting salutations through the opening. The “Golden Girls,” so-named by my grandparents, would sit in plastic chairs outside the bar on a different corner of the piazza. And beachgoers would stroll into the various macellerias or pescherias or perfume shops, or the place where you could buy wine and oil in bulk out of tanks. In my memory, the cold clear sea water was always a relief to the sun and heat. But those were summer days. This trip in late-December made me shiver.
Five and a half years before my encounter at Ostiense, the Great Recession felt something like a cold rain on the feverish heat of the speculative and fictitious economy. Walking through New York City in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve with grandma, closed shops tormented my usual routes through the Upper West Side, Clinton Hill, and other neighborhoods. They arrived like sudden and contagious lesions on what, surely yesterday, seemed like healthy skin. And with these jarring vacancies came either a paradox or inevitability: a wave of Europeans with shopping bags. Could I have been imagining it? Had I spent too much time in small town Ohio? Or, did the growth of the euro against dollars in the spring, which peaked in November of 2009, offered wealthy Europeans an invitation to the Big Apple they couldn’t refuse? It’s all a blur now. But, this particular winter (and the summer before it), New York subways seemed especially crowded with Germanic and Romance languages and shopping bags accompanying couples and families, squeezed into crowded cars and clambering up from decrepit stations with the rest of us.
This impression is relevant only because it seemed validated by several conversations I had with my grandma’s friends. They had come by to visit my brother and me soon after our arrival in her little apartment on the piazza that cold and rainy December, all eager to share stories with us of their recent trips to New York. One couple, my parents’ age, had returned only two or three weeks before. In my broken Italian, I conveyed excitement and I asked them where they went and what they saw. Like others, they replied with, among the Empire State Building and other landmarks, a riddle.
“We went to Little Italy.”
My mind raced. What’s the right thing to say here? The museum giftshop? Seriously? Wait. No. Who knows, maybe they loved it. Can’t I just let someone love something I think is horrible?
Etiquette aside, it’s been nearly fifty years or more since Little Italy was occupied, en masse by Italian residents. Now, mostly a tourist trap for wannabe Godfathers (trinkets referencing the film bloomed on every corner), the neighborhood has had very little to do with its celebrated past for quite some time. But even in its day, “Italian” food in America was always a sad-ish (if making do is always a little sad) compromise with substandard ingredients and urban poverty. And one may expectedly wonder how a contemporary visitor from Lazio might react to the strange adaptations of Neapolitan and Sicilian peasant food practices that had accompanied some four million, fleeing famine and crisis in that newly formed (1871) nation’s south between 1880 and 1924. The Italian-ness of Italian-America was always qualified, of course (but, then, so was Italy itself!). Indeed, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that “actual” Italians might hate and feel a little saddened by Little Italy. It was a bind: sound too negative and you might appear rude; sound too positive and you might appear to have no taste. The latter being objectively worse than the former, I took a risk. Oh no, you didn’t eat there did you?
“Yes. The food was horrible!”
I repaid the honesty with a sympathetic expression and then, perhaps thoughtlessly, I pushed things. By the same logic that I knew Italians would likely hate the food in Little Italy, maybe I secretly knew what would follow if I leaned on the issue. Maybe I wanted to catch something—a lurking ugly thing—in the open or see if any shame came with it when brought into the light. You can’t eat there! The best food in New York is the Chinese food, the Vietnamese food, the Caribbean food, the Indian food, the West African food! Chinatown is right across the street. You should have gone there.
And so, I had baited the trap and fixed my scrutiny to see if what I thought lurked in the dark places of the Italian soul were actually there. Can one trap what gives itself up freely and makes no efforts at evasion? In any case, I got what I wanted or at least what I suppose I’d expected.
“Cinese?? Non. Mai!! I would never eat that!”
Oh dear. Where did you eat then?
“We ate prosciutto in Little Italy.”
The mood around me was now showing signs of amusement, whether with their own absurdity, out of consideration for grandma, or to spite my impertinence, I’ll never know.
Was it good then?
“No. It was terrible.”
That revealing winter I was forced to wonder harder why Rome—at least at that time—seemed to have no Chinese or West African restaurants, while cosmopolitan treats were so conspicuous and fêted in Paris and London. It wasn’t for a lack of these diverse groups in Rome. It certainly wasn’t because of some lack of racism or imperial snobbery in England or France. Perhaps because Italy was never even a second-rate imperial power, it has always appeared expertly parochial, finicky at the scale of the household or, better, the grandma. Distant relatives of my grandpa once chided me for inquiring about pecorino cheese from the wrong region. Not Romano, Abruzzese! They were from Celano, Abruzzo, in case you wondered.
This micro-parochialism conveyed something of the autonomous spirit of the people of that peninsula, never really conquered by “Italy,” sometimes still speaking in wild tongues from one town to the next, preferring the macelleria at this end of the block to the other, and whose best chefs emulate home cooking, not the reverse. We’ve traded this autonomism for brand loyalty in the US—do you like Sargento or Kraft?—in a way my Italian friends and family have a hard time fathoming.
On this December trip, at the end of a lovely dinner of two pastas and other delicacies, our host, “Flavio,” retrieved his homemade limoncello, a digestivo popular in the region, made from grain alcohol, syrup, and lemon zest. My grandma had shown us her recipe before, but one could never quite trust her recipes; she loathed the idea of men cooking (it made it look like their wives had gotten the better of them). Flavio recounted his secret to us: “You must use the local lemons from the tree.”
But our lemons aren’t the same as yours and it’s hard to find good ones.
“If you can’t find the good lemons, no problem. All you need to do is take the lemon leaves from the tree…”
But, Flavio, we don’t have any lemon trees.
“If you can’t find any of those things, all you have to do is go into the hills and find the flowers of the fennel…”
There was nowhere to go from here. But, Flavio, in America, the only food arrives at big grocery stores on trucks from far away or even other countries. There are no flowers on the fennel, no leaves on the lemons. And there is nothing delicious growing wild in the hills. Flavio relented, or didn’t know what to say to this melodramatic turn. All he could muster was a rather sympathetic expression.
“Well if worse comes to worst, just throw an orange in with the ordinary lemons.”
On the walk home I was reminded of the new storefront vacancies along the Via Aurelia, Santa Marinella’s main drag. Near Flavio’s perfume store, I recalled the former pescheria that had been shuttered (now occupied by a chain fish market). I noticed several other empty spaces but couldn’t recall what they previously held. My grandma told me that business had been “not so good.” And, that bigger stores were making it hard for the small ones in town to stay open.
Grandma said Nico would sometimes get mad when people shop at the discount mart, “Punto Simply,” a couple of blocks from the piazza, near the gated villas with their views of the sea. The tiny town is also surrounded by large grocery stores and discount grocers. Eurospin, Tigre Amico, Todis, and others like the “Punto” have been accumulating inside existing neighborhoods and around new developments for decades. And Italy’s not alone. Shoppers all across Europe, experiencing economic stress, have been pinching their pennies at these grocers. A considerably bigger Eurospin is just 9 minutes east from Santa Marinella’s on the Via Aurelia in Santa Savera. Northwest by 22 minutes, in the outskirts of Civitavecchia, there are two more Eurospins and plenty of other brands. In the US, we saw this same process unfold over decades much earlier, where large chains (think King of the Hill’s “Mega Lo Mart”) suction local wealth out of town and kill homegrown shops in the process. Marx and Engels once remarked, “cheap prices … are the heavy artillery with which [capital] batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.” As we know, this can only be true for “i barbari” (barbaros) if it is true for “i cittadini” (civium) within the empire too. Cheap prices are like a sharp knife that we use to cut ourselves free from the past, from inefficiency, and from difference; they always spell tragedy somewhere, in a world based in scarcity or dearly attached to its parochialisms. The other path to the future, to the end of scarcity, this world lost long ago and has yet to re-imagine.
A few days later we went to the New Year’s Eve party with grandma, Nico, Flavio, and their wives. Grandma pleaded with us to dress in a jacket and tie. So we did, though I knew everyone else would be in a polo shirt and jeans (and they were). For the party we drove deep into the woods, up a mountain, until we came to what looked like a house. In Italy, I discovered, restaurants can survive locating in the middle of nowhere if the food is good. And, it was. We had lenticchie (lentils) and cotechino (a sausage in rind, which I constantly misremember as its sibling, zampone, sewn up in a whole pig’s arm) and other season-appropriate gems.
Our conspicuousness as overdressed Americans had only fleetingly crossed my mind. That is, until the end of the night. At this restaurant-house on a mountain in the woods, there was of course also a DJ, playing pop hits and classics that I didn’t know. But, as all the revelers drank more and laughed more, an up-tempo song quickly twisted my whole view of the evening. Out of nowhere, the entire room began singing, “…Americano, Americano, Americano / He wants to drive a Cadillac / Now he's chasing showgirls / Smokin' Camels, whiskey & soda / Now he's never goin' back.” Easily embarrassed, this was especially awkward. Was the whole party making fun of us or celebrating us? Neither was ideal. Clearly our suits had not escaped notice. Was this some confession of their own American wannabeism? Or was it, more like the actual lyrics of the song, a biting criticism of American wannabes and, in the process, American wealth and power more generally? At least in that case I’d agree politically.
The DJ played the Brian Setzer, English version. But the song has a longer history from the post-war years. Recorded in 1956 by Renato Carosone and written in Neapolitan by Nicola (Nisa) Salerno, the song, “Tu vuòfa l'Americano!” lampoons poor Neapolitan guys who aspire to something they could never be. The song’s object of ridicule plays baseball, listens to Rock n Roll, but the money for their Camels comes from “la borsetta di mamma” (mama’s purse). It’s a sad song, really, stabbing derisively at the heart of Italian aspirations and corollary struggles with their reputed inferiority in post-war Europe.
Little Italy was still on my mind. In America, those economic and political refugees resettled in a hostile country. Suspected of political subversion and criminality, white American authorities isolated them, raided and deported them, limited their immigration, and lynched them, all in efforts to protect “American-ness” and/or the purity of the white genepool. When American writer and civil rights sage, James Baldwin noted on different occasions that people go from being French and Italian in Europe to being white in America, he marks something of a double tragedy. On one hand, in America it was clear that all the great diversity of those immigrants could be was merelyItalian. And, on the other hand, gradually this Italian-ness would become merely whiteand commit its own atrocities—like the gang of teens who murdered black sixteen-year-old Yusuf Hawkins in the Italian American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, NY in 1989. He was suspected of dating a white neighborhood girl.
“Italian” food in America traces this history. This land, mostly without lemon trees or fennel in the hillsides, held different comforts for those peoples escaping the fallout of the new Italian nation-state. And then, that simplification became an identity of its own—prosciutto or “Sunday gravy” that would never pass muster across the Atlantic, was now celebrated as an authentic culture, an identity to be cherished, or an essence to be proud of. In eating as in love as in politics, identity is not just always false, it’s always murder.
While poverty and isolation once commanded diversity, homemade-ness, and putting scraps to good use, what would become of that peninsula of difference when poverty now was offered discount Marts, cheap prices, and homogeneity that sustain poverty? Eataly posed an undeniable answer to this outside of the national borders. It was a delicious lie, discrediting the fiction of Little Italy so that it could live again. In 2009 such drama had not yet unfolded within that fictitious country itself, which at that moment had political movements in the north (the Northern League) dedicated to autonomy (even seceding) from those backwards and parasitic peoples in the south. But, one always find someone else to kick. When I returned home days later, I learned of the race riots and clashes between African citrus grove workers and white residents in Calabria. A thousand workers had been sent to immigrant detention centers. For immigration advocates within Italy the riots revealed the secret that the Italian way of life, much like the white American way, had come to depend on the exploitation and semi-enslavement of migrants, foreigners, and bodies even darker than those in Calabria.
I want to leave as soon as I can.
By 2015, conversations continually turned to the immigrants, the Chinese who cooked rats, the Africans, the unnamed killers who would come through your window and murder your family, and how all of them were getting more money from the government than the real Italians. The heat of July 2015 felt prickly and it was harder to find good food in Santa Marinella—all of it, of course, still made the Olive Garden look like prison gruel. In every bar, in every encounter, all problems hotly debated began with the immigrants and the corrupt government. My hotelier, who chatted with me one evening, remarked on the anti-immigrant atmosphere—small towns are dangerous places. When had she arrived in Santa Marinella? What had she seen in a small town long ago? This enigmatic remark kept me thinking and reminded me of my own hometown, my small southern place, where the traces of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and lynching can still be seen and whispered about. I occasionally chatted with traveling black merchants along the beach or at the piazza about the state of things. One man from Senegal said he hated it in Italy and he wished he never had to come back.
Maybe a day or two later, after my brother left, my dad and I got lunch in a place close to our hotel. Sitting by ourselves outside we wondered if our young waitress was of mixed race or just Sicilian or Sardinian. We struck up a conversation. Did she enjoy living in a beach town? It was exciting sometimes, she said, meeting tourists and new people. Perhaps because we were Americans or because in English she wouldn’t be understood by others, she confided in us. “I have lived here my whole life and because my father is from Gabon and my mother is from Santa Marinella, people treat me very badly here. I wish I could go to a larger city for college because I don’t think I will be treated the same. I want to leave as soon as I can.”
I was not surprised but still this broke my heart. When I said I was not a romantic about Italy, I meant it. I have always thought of Italy as part African, part Hun, part Norse, part Greek, part Arab…and one should go on. The concept of Italy, like America, has historically cut between being the deadliest technology of oppression and the starting point for a new community beyond nationalism. With the current Italian recession that some claim threatens the European Union, Italy searches for renewal. Yet, in the last decade, regionalist movements, who sought to miniaturize nationalism while only digging deeper into the empty earth looking for blood have returned to the nation as the alter upon which blood would be sacrificed since none could be found below. But I am reminded of James Baldwin’s warning to black and white Americans in his 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time: “renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not…One clings to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.” If Italy is a chimera, then we must wonder what to make of Eataly, its perfectly curated delicacies, its cleanliness, its focus group-tested charm, and that lurking ugly thing at its heart—in Rome, the US, and around the world.
Eataly appears in Rome two years after that winter of bloody race riots. The rise of branded Italian-ness corresponds with the rise of the Cinque Stelle and “Italy for Italians.” Perhaps I’m a bit sentimental about the mad diversity of ancient places like the Apennine Peninsula. This is not because I want things to go back to the old, better, ways—I don’t and they weren’t. But, I always hoped that from that diversity would emerge something like a global sense of solidarity with the small, the unofficial, the derided, the oppressed, and the miscegenated. Italians could become increasingly poor and miserable, gripped by their chimeras and betrayed by their privileges, as cheap prices melt all held as solid into air. But, they could also hold the revolutionary view that we witness now the death throes of nations, that we can end the deadly pact between price and slavery, and that we will dare to search for that country-less country that cherishes the words of those American intercommunalists, seemingly impossible and inescapable, “all power to all the people.”