This essay explores how food activists in Italy purposely shape food and language to construct meaning and value. It is grounded in years of ethnographic fieldwork on food and culture in Italy and looks specifically at the Slow Food Movement. The essay explores language and food activism through a detailed unpacking of the text of a menu prepared for a restaurant dinner for delegates to the Slow Food National Chapter Assembly in 2009. The menu uses descriptive poetic language to construct an idealized folk cuisine steeped in local products, poverty, history, and peasant culinary traditions. As I explore the language of the menu and the messages communicated by the food, I ask if they intensify people’s activism, advance Slow Food’s goals of “good, clean and fair food,” and promote food democracy.
Food activists in Italy mutually shape food and language in the construction of meaning and value. Food and language intertwine in many ways and pointed language can shape new understandings of cuisine and culture. This essay uses the Italian Slow Food Movement as an example of food activism and considers its goals and tactics, particularly as they are conveyed through alimentary language. Food activism consists of “people’s efforts to promote social and economic justice by transforming food habits” (Counihan 2019: 1) and includes buying organic and Fairtrade products, frequenting farmers markets, establishing community gardens, organizing against pesticides or GMOs, maintaining quality product designations, supporting legislation, and so on. Overall, it pursues food democracy: “the vision of an ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just system of food and agriculture” (Hassanein 2003: 84).
The essay examines the kind of food activism Slow Food promotes by performing a detailed exegesis of the menu of a restaurant dinner for delegates to the Slow Food National Chapter Assembly in 2009. It considers food not only as discourse created through the language of the menu but also as material substance on the plate, analyzing its symbolism in the context of Italian history and culture. The essay asks if the alimentary language of one menu in particular, and of food activism in general, can help produce the counter-hegemonic attitudes and behaviors fundamental to food system change.
Analysis of the menu reveals its construction of an idealized folk cuisine based on local, humble, tasty dishes grounded in historically important places and traditions.1 Folk cuisine is similar to what pioneering folklorist Don Yoder called “folk cookery…traditional domestic cookery marked by regional variation” (2015: 21). It includes “the foods themselves, their morphology, their preparation, their preservation, their social and psychological functions, and their ramifications into all other aspects of folk-culture.” For Italians, folk cuisine is cucina popolare, “popular cuisine, cuisine of the people,” or cucina povera, “humble cuisine, cuisine of poverty” (Montanari 2001).2 In Italy, folk cuisine has historically been rooted in the countryside and the peasant families who comprised the majority of the population for most of Italian history. Today folk cuisine is an idealized construct rather than daily fare. Since the 1930s, Italians have steadily abandoned peasant farming, and the percentage of the population employed in agriculture dropped from 47 percent in 1930 to 4 percent in 2008, where it remains today (Pratt and Luetchford 2013: 27). Since the 1980s, Italians have increasingly consumed processed, imported, and mass-produced foods in place of the locally raised foods of the past (Vercelloni 2001).
The folk cuisine depicted in the Slow Food dinner menu accentuated three threads. First, it was local food, rooted in place, with the implication that locality was crucial to (although not synonymous with) quality and environmental sustainability. Second, folk cuisine was steeped in history and tradition, which generated pride but also a potential undercurrent of xenophobia. Third, it was a cuisine of poverty, born from scarcity, hunger, and inexpensive foods, which raised issues of access and equity. As I explore the language of the Slow Food dinner menu and the messages communicated by the food, I ask what kind of activism they promote and whether they advance Slow Food’s overriding goals of “good, clean and fair food”—“good: quality, flavorsome and healthy food; clean: production that does not harm the environment; fair: accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers.”3
Founded in Italy in 1986, Slow Food is a global association claiming a million supporters and 100,000 dues-paying members in 160 countries organized into roughly 1,500 local chapters called “convivia” worldwide and condotte in Italy.4 The association is an important player in Italy’s landscape of food activism, taking place alongside of and sometimes participating in other initiatives including community or school gardens, solidarity purchase groups, farmers markets, Fairtrade, farmworker organizing, and so on. Slow Food has grown beyond its early focus on good food to “becoming a legitimate actor in the political arenas of food production and consumption…climate change…energy and biodiversity” (Siniscalchi 2018: 186). Some adherents, such as twenty-six-year-old Riccardo Astolfi from Bologna, described its evolution from the “old soul” (vecchia anima) to the “new soul” (nuova anima): “When I say the old soul, I refer to people who get together exclusively for hedonistic pleasure, for gourmet food for rich people. The new soul was born on the road to Terra Madre and is summarized…in the triad ‘good, clean and fair.’” Terra Madre is the biannual meeting Slow Food has held since 2004 for producers, consumers, chefs, and activists from all over the world, and within the association it represents the shift toward “eco-gastronomy” linking good food to environmentalism and labor justice.5 The evolution from the old soul to the new soul has not been without conflicts and tensions, which members told me have often played out in the condotte.
All Slow Food members become part of a local chapter run by committees of member-volunteers with guidance from the central office in Bra, northwest Italy, the home of Carlo Petrini, one of the founders, longtime leader, and still in 2021, president of Slow Food International. Local chapters organize tastings and theme dinners around high-quality local products, support small-scale producers, establish school gardens and farmers markets, educate through Master of Food classes, establish “food communities” to protect high-quality endangered foods, and review restaurants for the best-selling Slow Food restaurant guide, Guida alle Osterie d’Italia. Membership is open to all for modest dues,6 and participation in most events, like the “classic” Slow Food dinners, is open to both members and nonmembers and can become gateways to membership.
Slow Food has been both praised and criticized by those who have participated in and studied the association, but it is important to note that its approach and efficacy vary a great deal according to the commitment and abilities of its local chapter leaders and members. Some have called Slow Food elitist because of its sometimes pricey dinners and exclusionary notions of taste (Chrzan 2004; Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy 2010; Paxson 2005). Others have accused the association of neglecting producers and failing to make more than minor changes to the food system because of inadequate or misguided efforts (Brackett 2011; Lotti 2010; Simonetti 2012; West and Domingos 2012). Still others have praised it for introducing new ways of thinking about food to thousands around the globe and for building communities of consumers and producers to foster change (Fontefrancesco 2018; Sassatelli and Davolio 2010; Siniscalchi 2018). Here I want to contribute to the literature on Slow Food by examining the role of language in fostering its goals.
My exploration of Italian food activism is grounded in years of residence and ethnographic research in different Italian locations over a span of forty-plus years. This essay focuses on data gathered during my ethnographic research on “Convivium Culture: Stories from the Slow Food Movement” in diverse regions of Italy in 2009. I studied the grassroots participation of Slow Food members in their local chapters. I did participant observation and informal interviews at Slow Food dinners, major events (Slow Fish and Terra Madre), tastings, farms, farmers markets, and the 2009 National Chapter Assembly. I recorded and transcribed thirty-eight semi-structured interviews in Italian and translated the excerpts used in this essay. I also cite some personal interviews I recorded with Slow Food members in Cagliari, Italy, in 2011 as part of a study of food activism in that city (Counihan 2019).
Food and Language
Language can shape attitudes and behaviors surrounding food, and food itself speaks reams about culture, as Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson demonstrated in her study of France. She claimed that “every cuisine is a code…” and “words sustain cuisine” (2004: 9–10). Linguistic anthropologists have outlined four ways that food and language constitute each other: “language-through-food, language-about-food, language-around-food, and language-as-food” (Riley and Cavanaugh 2017; Karrebæk, Sif, Riley, and Cavanaugh 2018). Here I want to look at “language-about-food” as presented in the menu, and “language-through-food”—the way the food itself conveyed messages at the accompanying dinner—to ask how these discourses shape food activism.
Food is a lot like language. According to Roland Barthes, food contains and manifests “a collective imagination” and “a certain mental framework” (2013: 24)—just as language does (Sapir 1921). Food is “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior” (Barthes 2013: 24). These were manifest in the dinner menu, the dishes, the ingredients, and the ways they were combined, arrayed, and consumed. Cuisine contains a “structure” (25) based on a grammar of constituent units—such as courses within meals and dishes within courses—visible in the restaurant menu analyzed here. Yet cuisine also undergoes constant improvisation and evolution, as does language. Moreover, food is characterized by “polysemia” (28). Its ability to hold multiple meanings—what Arjun Appadurai calls its “semiotic virtuosity”—enhances its communicative power (1981: 494). Moreover, as Appadurai observes, food has the “capacity to mobilize strong emotions” (494), which makes it a particularly powerful agent of relationships not only of hierarchy and separation such as he found in Indian caste system food rules but also of equality and intimacy, such as those generated among Slow Food dinner participants (Siniscalchi 2018: 188).
Sociologist Donna Maurer showed how language can shape food choice in the case of tofu’s introduction into the United States (1996: 62). Initially, consumers resisted it, but changes in the discourse about tofu altered their perceptions of its acceptability and taste. Such discourses constitute a mode of “framing,” a way of seeing and interpreting foodways; sociologists Alison Adams and Thomas Shriver show how alternative agro-food movement organizations use framing to further their goals by creating meaning and a socially shared ideology (2010: 35). Similarly, the Slow Food dinner menu “framed” food and projected certain ideologies, which were enhanced by Italians’ exuberant interest in both food and language.
Only a few studies of restaurants concentrate specifically on interpreting the menus. One is Irina Mihalache’s analysis of museum restaurants’ deployment of themed menus associated with special exhibitions. She found that “the menu and the food are multisensorial ‘lessons’ in history and culture” (2016: 319); that is, they frame and recount the world in a certain way. Menus, others have found, can shape people’s eating experience and “actual perception of flavor” (Mac Con Iomaire 2009: 212). On an artfully constructed menu, “each item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies” (Barthes 2013: 24).
Language of Food Activism in Italy
In Italy, people talk constantly about food, particularly at meals, ideal sites for food-language discussions (Karrebæk et al. 2018: 20).7 Slow Food member Raimondo Mandis expressed a widely shared belief: “Put two Italians together around a table, wherever they are, in Singapore, Los Angeles, Alaska, wherever they are, these two Italians around a table within five minutes will have started talking about food” (personal interview 2011). In Italy, food, like language, is highly localized and strongly linked to community identity; this provides fodder for many animated discussions about whose version of any given dish or idiom is better and why.
Language has always been important in furthering Slow Food’s activist mission and captivating adherents. Although the founders are Italian, and Italian is the language of the central office in Bra, “Slow Food” is always in English, which is also the default language of the Slow Food International website at www.slowfood.com. This website points viewers to websites in seven other languages: Italian, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. All have a page called “Slow Food terminology,”8 which defines key terms like “good, clean, and fair food,” “convivium,” and “eco-gastronomy”—all critical to changing the way people think about food by providing new terms for new concepts and practices.
As early as 1989, Slow Food established its own publishing house, Slow Food Editore.9 Its mission is to publish books and magazines about high-quality and endangered foods, to educate consumers, and to promote sustainable food systems and eco-gastronomy. In an interview in 2009, Roberto Burdese, then-president of Slow Food Italy, told me: “For an organization like Slow Food, which is yes, political, but which above all wants to educate and inform, it is important to have our own publishing house which serves not only to tell our own stories but also to publish books and texts that contribute to understanding the spirit of our project.”
Also important in establishing and propagating Slow Food’s linguistic framing of alimentary issues were its chapter, national, and international websites and social media activity announcing events and connecting regularly with existing and potential new members (Frost and Laing 2013). Social media language has played an increasingly important part in food activism (Goodman and Jaworsky 2020). In her master’s thesis, Carolyn Bender (2012) took a detailed look at Slow Food’s significant media presence and found that it fostered democratic knowledge sharing and communication between chapters and the central office. Connecting whether virtually or in person to debate Slow Food’s actions has been critical to the association’s mission. As member Noemi Franchi told me, “The best thing about Slow Food for me is the fact that you can really give everyone a chance to speak and that you can put people from diverse places in communication with each other” (personal interview 2009).
Slow Food Restaurant Menu and Dinner at Officina Gastronomica alle Tamerici
One opportunity for Slow Food members to get together and exchange ideas was the National Chapter Assembly (assemblea nazionale delle condotte), which I was able to attend in March 2009 in Fiumicino, Italy, a city of 80,000 in the region of Lazio near Rome (and site of Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport). About 500 delegates came from 300 chapters all over Italy to participate in two days of discussions about Slow Food’s status and future plans. The chapter assemblies were important occasions for debating change in the association, and the one I attended was abuzz with excitement. For the first time ever, large portions of the conference were allocated to five-minute speeches from any member who wished to speak, and many did. Men and women, young and old, from Italy’s diverse cities, towns, and regions spoke of chapter activities and concerns at several sessions during the two days.
The conference activities began on Friday evening with delegates in regional groups dining at several restaurants in the Fiumicino area. I attended dinner with the Emilia-Romagna regional delegation at the restaurant Officina Gastronomica alle Tamerici (Gastronomic Workshop by the Tamarisks—hereafter Officina). The restaurant’s name included “workshop” (officina), which highlighted the artisanal nature of the cookery, “gastronomic” (gastronomica), which accentuated skilled cooking and delicious food, and “tamarisks” (tamerici) or salt cedar trees, which emphasized locality, for they constituted a prominent species that thrived in the sandy salty soils of the littoral region.
I arrived from the conference hotel with a busload of hungry delegates at the Officina restaurant around 8:30 p.m. on a cool Friday, and each of us found a seat at one of several tables set for four to six people. I sat with a welcoming group that included one of my former students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Tables were set with white tablecloths, simple silverware, and a menu at each diner’s place (figure 1). People eagerly began studying their menu and chatting about the dishes while anticipating their tastiness.
To uncover the Officina menu’s culinary signification of history and culture, I analyze it following one of the methods Jillian Cavanaugh and colleagues describe: “semiotic analysis of documents and media” (2014: 93–94). This method examines how texts like the menu “describe and delimit the world around them” and “produce cultural and economic value for certain foods.” The transcribed menu in the original Italian is shown in figure 2, with my English translation.
The menu consisted of five “couplets,” representing five courses. The first line of each couplet was in gold letters and described a general context; the second line, in black print, slightly indented, described a dish. This dyadic structure was like call and response, a kind of poetry, a fact that recalls Elizabeth Andoh’s comment that, “translated literally, some Japanese restaurant menus could be mistaken for poetry” (2010: 33). The Italian language of the Officina menu was rhythmic and alliterative—it rolled off the tongue with a mellifluous and pulsing cadence. Within the five couplets/courses, the dishes became longer and more elaborate as they went on, building to a crescendo in the dessert, and then ending with a final note of closure with the most basic food of all: homemade bread, pane fatto in casa.
The menu declared its overriding intent of “welcome” by using the word twice. In fact, the very first line of the menu declared the event a “welcome dinner” for the Slow Food delegates. The next line, describing the first course, then read: “Ladispoli: a welcome from the territory.” Welcome—benvenuto—was central to cultural practice everywhere in Italy and was often demonstrated through commensality (Counihan 1984). On the menu, it had the double meaning of welcoming the Slow Food delegates from all over Italy to the conference, and also welcoming attendees to the specific place and cuisine of Lazio, the region in Central Italy where we were conferencing.
The menu stressed the importance of locality by mentioning several place names from Lazio: Ladispoli, Blera, Nepi, and Tarquinia. All had deep historical significance in ancient Roman and Etruscan times. Ladispoli was the site of the Etruscan port of Alsium near where we were dining, and Tarquinia’s famed Monterozzi necropolis was a Unesco World Heritage site. Renowned places like these, ubiquitous in Italy, were sources of patrimonial pride. The use of the word territorio in “Ladispoli: a welcome from the territory,” emphasized the centrality of local identity. Territorio was highly significant to many Italians and meant not only the land but also “meaningful place” imbued with local history, culture, and identity (Counihan 2019).
In the first course, the food materialized the importance of locality in the “thinly sliced cured mackerel from our coast with a marinade of PGI artichokes from Ladispoli” (figure 3). Use of the possessive “our” (nostro) laid claim to the mackerel, an inexpensive and tasty Mediterranean species integral to the traditional fishery. It was accompanied by a marinade of PGI artichokes from Ladispoli, the second mention of this important city. PGI—Protected Geographical Indication (IGP—Indicazione Geografica Protetta)—is an EU category recognizing excellent products linked to specific regions, like the artichokes in this dish (Parasecoli 2014: 253–254). The menu was full of foods clearly identified as local, and all three of its named vegetables—artichokes, broccoli, and fennel—were indigenous to the Mediterranean region. There were no products of the Columbian exchange commonly found in Italian cuisine such as tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, and beans (Guigoni 2009). Only in the very last course, dessert, did “black pepper from Honduras” appear. This was perhaps a quiet salute to the global origins of some important foods even in a context otherwise highlighting foods from the “territory,” from “our coast,” from “local production,” and from nearby famous sites of the venerated Etruscans and Romans.
Along with local products, the menu highlighted the cuisine of poverty at the heart of folk foodways. The first line of the second course/stanza was explicit—it read: “Cuisine of hunger: the return of the repressed.” This alluded to how hunger had been ubiquitous in the old days, but it was overcome and its memory “repressed” during the post–World War II Italian economic boom, marked by a rising standard of living, improved food security, abandonment of small-scale farming, and increased consumption of former luxury foods like meat. Nonetheless, the long history of dearth had shaped cuisines across Italy profoundly, and the inclusion of poverty foods at the Slow Food dinner materialized and memorialized this fact (Capatti and Montanari 1999; Helstosky 2004).
The “cuisine of hunger” of the second course consisted of burnt grain “guitar” pasta with shellfish—chitarra di grano arso ai frutti di mare (figure 4). Historically, mollusks and crustaceans, or frutti di mare (“fruits of the sea”), belonged to the cuisine of poverty because people gathered them for free, but today due to environmental degradation and overfishing, they have become scarce and costly. Burnt grain pasta was poor people’s food dating back perhaps to the eighteenth century. Scholarship is lacking, but media and cookbooks report that this pasta was made from burnt wheat gleaned by poor peasants—wheat scorched either by burning the stubble to clear the fields or by the hot threshing machines used in the harvest.10 On the menu it appeared as “guitar” pasta, a spaghetti square in cross section rather than round, and typical of the Abruzzo region just east of Lazio.11 Pasta made of burnt grain was once poor people’s food, cucina povera, and its consumption at a white tablecloth restaurant was a way to remember a past of scarcity and frugality. But it could also represent a transformation of that hunger food into a badge of distinction, and indeed burnt grain pasta has become chic and trendy (Krader 2018). Its elevation in status by way of its heritage is similar to the “elite authenticity” Gwynne Mapes found in her analysis of New York Times food articles, which built distinction around qualities of “historicity” and “simplicity” among others (2018).
The menu’s third course/stanza highlighted the enigmatic “tradition from stepmother to matrix.” Perhaps in the recipe, the stepmother represented new outside forces, contrasted with those belonging to matrix/matrice connoting “mother,” “uterus,” and “origin, fundamental cause, inspiring element.”12 This course emphasized the female influences on culinary traditions typical of folk cuisine, which originated in the domestic kitchen—both maternal, familial, foundational influences and new, external, “stepmother” ones. The stepmother/matrigna is an anomalous figure in the family, wife to the husband but not mother to the children, occupying the mother space but not the real mother. Nadia Rosso reminds us of the long history in myth and literature of the cruel stepmother, la matrigna crudele, “the incarnation of the negative female stereotype,” renowned for her hostility to the husband’s children (2020: 1–2). It is not clear how this image of the cruel stepmother might shape perception of the dish except perhaps to imply that some innovations are “cruel” and should be abandoned in favor of the “matrix” or original dish. The typical, local, humble dish of broccoli and skate soup13 (figure 5) underscored the ongoing imprint of tradition, here done in the style of the restaurant, Officina, which aligned with the matrix rather than the stepmother influences.
The fourth course featured a fancier, meat-based, more prestigious dish—the long-named “primordial bivouac roast pork with bacon from the Nepi pig and crispy pork rind served cold with boiling creamed Tarquinian fennel” (figure 6). For most of Italian history, meat was expensive, rarely eaten, and “a quintessential symbol of social prestige” (Montanari 2001: 4). Pork, however, was more accessible than beef because many peasant families raised a pig on scraps and forage, butchered it in late fall, and preserved the meat for the entire year, eventually eating every bit of it including muscle, lard, organs, feet, ears, and tail in various forms including boiled, fried, roasted, and preserved as salame, sausage, prosciutto, and head cheese (see Apergi and Bianco 1991: 43–52). Roast pork was a prestigious cut appropriate to marking a festive occasion. The sauce of “boiling creamed Tarquinian fennel” adorning the sliced meat accentuated a renowned local vegetable. The allusion to “primordial” and “bivouac” signaled history, nature, the outdoors, and the wild, which were sometimes sites of festive meat consumption, for example at scampagnate, picnics in the countryside with friends (Counihan 2004: 125). The name of the course, “cuisine and social rituals,” underscored the importance of commensality to social relationships, widely acknowledged in Italy (117–138).
The last course/stanza, dessert, had the somewhat ambiguous title contro il pasticcere—literally “in contrast to or against the pastry chef.” This was another celebration of humble foods, opposing them to fancy desserts made by trained confectioners. The dessert consisted of “locally produced water buffalo ricotta with olive oil from Blera, black pepper from Honduras, acacia honey, dried porcini mushrooms, and dried blueberries” (figure 7). While the menu noted black pepper’s far-off origins, the rest of the ingredients were either explicitly local, such as the ricotta and Blera olive oil, or implicitly so, such as the honey, mushrooms, and blueberries, which were foraged wild foods and thus quintessentially part of folk cuisine (Cucinotta and Pieroni 2018). The description of the dessert, dolce poco dolce, was a play on words, as dolce as an adjective means sweet, but as a noun it means a sweet or a dessert, hence the literal translation is “a slightly sweet sweet.” Ricotta, used in the dessert, was an inexpensive byproduct of cheese making and part of cucina popolare. After adding rennet to milk and making cheese from the curds, the leftover whey was “recooked” into “ricotta.” Its presence on the menu again gave attention to the frugality of folk cuisine, although the special occasion was marked by ricotta made from Italian water buffalo milk, prized for its higher fat content than regular cow’s milk ricotta.
The menu and meal spoke to and through the senses. The dishes were beautifully plated with a pleasing variety of colors, shapes, and forms: the red, orange, yellow, and beige of the carpaccio [figure 3]; the dull gray-brown of the stringy burnt grain “guitar” pasta contrasting with the brilliant red-orange mussels in their shimmering black shells [figure 4]; the yellow skate soup dotted with vibrant green specks of broccoli [figure 5]. The meal appealed not only to the eyes but also to the other senses by displaying a variety of textures, temperatures, fragrances, and tastes: the chewy, dense, room temperature carpaccio; the hot, liquid soup mingling the briny fragrance of skate with the earthy odor of broccoli; the firm dense room-temperature pork paired with the hot semi-liquid creamed fennel [figure 6]; the smooth white buffalo ricotta lightly honey-sweetened, its silky melt-in-your mouth texture disrupted with crunchy bits of dried blueberries, dried mushrooms, and ground pepper [figure 7]. The carefully orchestrated meal spoke through diverse sensory registers, which enriched the verbal message of the menu; food’s “materiality” and “discursivity” reinforced each other (Mapes 2018: 265).
As noted above, the menu ended with the most basic food of all, homemade bread, which accompanied the entire meal. Traditionally, bread constituted a large part of the diet of most Italians, especially peasants and workers (Counihan 1984, 2004; Teti 1976). But its home production and overall consumption have been waning since the mid–twentieth century as meat, sweets, and fats have played an ever-larger role in the diet (Vercelloni 1998, 2001; italiani.coop 2021). Placing homemade bread on the menu affirmed the importance of this traditional and highly localized comestible, which had for centuries been central to poor people’s diets and survival.
Some motifs observed in other forms of food activism were not evident in the Officina menu. For example, Michael Kideckel found themes of “anti-intellectualism” and “natural food” in his historical analysis of the language of US food activists since 1830 (2018). But neither were key to Slow Food or the dinner. On the contrary, Slow Food was quite intellectual—education about food and taste was central to its mission, and activities combined cognitive and sensory learning (Counihan 2019: ch. 2). In the Officina menu, “natural” was not in evidence, nor was “organic.” The dinner did not celebrate elite dishes—cucina ricca—or abundance, excess, gluttony, or waste (Montanari 2001). Although the dinner included several courses, portions were small, the pace leisurely, and participants were able to consume every bite of each course. Absent in the menu were foreign or ethnic dishes, ingredients, or spices, with the exception of black pepper. This absence was a double-edged sword, creating space for forgotten local foods and their producers but closing off appreciation of foreign and ethnic cuisines and their immigrant purveyors.
Conclusion: Language and Food Activism
Do activities like the menu and dinner strengthen participants’ commitment to food democracy? Such events are certainly fun, social, and full of good food and education about it, but do they develop critical consciousness? What sorts of activism do they promote? While in some situations, including some Slow Food dinners, food can be an instrument of class privilege and what Josée Johnston tellingly calls “bourgeois piggery,” she importantly emphasizes that “food also represents an entry point for political engagement” (2008: 94). This was confirmed by Slow Food Cagliari member Carla Marcis, who stated, “Slow Food has enabled me to see food as a way of changing things” (personal interview 2011). Further, Johnston argues, because power is fragmented and ubiquitous, resistance must be pluralistic and continuous (2008: 95). Repeated quotidian acts of shopping and eating can entrench new ways of behaving and influence the economy and culture of food. Commensal events help develop new ways of thinking (Marovelli 2019).
We cannot really know how profoundly one event, such as the Officina dinner, affects people and leads to changes in their behavior, but participating in many events over a long period of time is likely to generate long-lasting attitudes and behaviors, especially when carried out in pleasant convivial settings. As Carla Marcis said, “I think it makes sense to participate in events often over time because…the message needs to be repeated to restimulate commitment” (personal interview 2011). The Officina dinner and the many other Slow Food dinners, tastings, workshops, farm visits, and panel discussions are part of a holistic strategy of social change. The dinners are effective precisely because they are open and welcoming; moreover, people feel comfortable because they know that commensality guarantees conviviality and that people share a grammar of food. As anthropologist Valeria Siniscalchi has shown, the dinners are a setting for developing a shared sense of taste and belief in its importance; they are “collective” practices that develop “inclusion” and “cultural intimacy” through eating and tasting food with others (2018).
At the dinner, the consumption of the menu’s rich verbal description of the forthcoming meal was followed by visual and gustatory feasting on the food and further talk about it—this mingling of word and deed is fundamental to Slow Food’s practice. The feedback experience of joining at the table with others to talk and eat and talk some more develops and materializes critical thinking about food (Cavanaugh 2016: 43; Le Grand 2015; Marovelli 2019). According to the Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, language (linguaggio) is key to forging political resistance because it contains “a determined conception of the world” (1955: 3). Food anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1996: 31) links language to the construction of meaning and authority, citing Eric Wolf who said: “The ability to bestow meanings—to ‘name’ things, acts, and ideas—is a source of power” (1982: 388). An important tactic of food activism is seizing the power to name foodways, and to give them pointed meanings by manipulating language (linguaggio).
This in its own small way was what the Officina menu did. It joined other constructions of language by Slow Food—on its website, in newsletters and emails, and in the publications of Slow Food Editore—to project oppositional thinking condensed in the simple formula of “good, clean, and fair food.” The dinner and menu clearly promoted “good”, that is, “quality, flavorsome and healthy” food in its delicious dishes composed mostly of local, fresh, nutritious vegetables, grains, and seafood. The menu was not explicit about “clean” food, that is “production that does not harm the environment,” but implied this value in emphasizing food that was grown, foraged, or raised locally, and hence was potentially sustainable. Nor was the menu explicit about “fair” food, that is, food with “accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers.” However, it raised awareness of equity issues by highlighting “the cuisine of hunger” born of the poverty that peasant farmers endured for centuries in Italy. The menu implied that rural folk had to make do with inexpensive, foraged, and left-behind ingredients because their working conditions were unfair. The menu gave pride of place to the dishes they developed, which were deeply rooted in regional Italian territory and culture.
The menu and dinner fostered an activism based on critical consumption. They introduced local foods and made them accessible to outsiders through participation in Slow Food. But they did not address the potential xenophobia entrenched in an exclusionary local cuisine. They did not confront the potential classism of a lovely dinner in a white tablecloth restaurant and its possible projection of “elite authenticity,” which provided status to adherents without challenging the hierarchical food system (Mapes 2018). They did not tackle how to restructure local and global food production to ensure dignified working conditions and food sovereignty. Activists will continue to address these dangling issues in their quest for food democracy by thinking critically not only about the actions they take but also about the language they use and the meanings it encodes.
This essay sprang from an invitation to give a keynote speech at the 2012 Cornell Conference on “The Language of Food.” I am particularly grateful to its organizer, then Cornell graduate student Diana Garvin (now assistant professor of Italian at the University of Oregon), for her role in stimulating my thinking about language in food activism. I thank the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Colorno and Pollenzo, Italy, for hosting me as a visiting professor of food anthropology from 2004 to 2016 and for supporting my research. I thank the many Slow Food members and staff who generously shared their knowledge of the association with me. Special thanks to anthropologist Valeria Siniscalchi, a native of Rome and the Lazio region, who helped me understand and interpret the menu, who has provided much insight into Slow Food through her own research, and who has been a valued friend and colleague for many years. As always, thanks to my husband, anthropologist Jim Taggart, for feedback and inspiration. Finally, thanks to colleague and friend Brigida Marovelli, two anonymous reviewers, and the Gastronomica editors for constructive comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
I am grateful to anthropologist James Taggart for suggesting the term “folk cuisine” to me. It is not common in the literature, but recently ethnobotanists Cucinotta and Pieroni (2018) used it in reference to the rich wild plant–based culinary culture of the Aeolian Islands, Sicily.
The title of Couffignal’s (1974) book encapsulates folk cuisine: The cuisine of poverty. The foods closest to nature. The oldest dishes in the world. Recipes passed down in huts and farmhouses (my translation of La cucina povera. I cibi più vicini alla natura. I piatti più antichi del mondo. Le ricette tramandate nelle capanne e nelle cascine).
From Slow Food’s website: www.slowfood.com/about-us/slow-food-terminology.
On Slow Food numbers, see www.slowfood.com.
Siniscalchi notes how Slow Food’s evolution was manifest in its taste education courses: “The more classic [Master of Food] programs are organized around products such as cheese or wine, but new programs have been added over time on themes, such as food shopping, garden products, and cooking without waste. These new themes are in line with the association’s evolving interests that have become attuned to environmental issues” (1918: 190).
Dues to join Slow Food USA as of January 27, 2021, were $30.00 per student, $60.00 per individual, and $100.00 per family, with a sliding scale option starting at $30.00 (https://slowfoodusa.org/become-a-member). Dues to join Slow Food Italy as of January 27, 2021, were €10 for individuals under thirty, €25 for individuals thirty and over, and €70 for families (https://soci.slowfood.it/joinus/joinus_02_blank_choose_membership).
“Consumption of edibles and potables is linked to language use. This use includes language through, about, around, and as food, and, in many cases, all at the same time.…Eating is potently combined with discourse in consumption activities via commensality, the social act of eating together” (Karrebæk et al. 2018: 20)
A third theory was that “it was the burnt flour collected off the floor of communal ovens after loaves were baked” (Krader 2018).
According to Wikipedia, guitar pasta is typical of the central Adriatic and Abruzzi region and is made with a tool traditionally found only there. See https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_alla_chitarra.
“madre…útero…l’origine, la causa fondamentale, l’elemento ispiratore, e sim., di un fatto o di un avvenimento.” www.treccani.it/vocabolario/matrice
Several websites claim that broccoli and skate soup is a traditional Roman home-cooked dish, for example, “it is a food typical of Roman cuisine, which in general is based on humble ingredients and ingenious dishes prepared with the leftovers from elite tables and with high-fat parts designed for survival, for satisfying by filling the stomach” (my translation). www.agrodolce.it/2015/10/30/broccoli-arzilla-lespressione-della-cucina-casalinga-romana