This article argues for the value of authenticity as an analytic. “Authentic possibilities” plays on a double meaning. In one sense, possibilities may be “authentic” in terms of what is true, real, original, grounded, or not fake. In another sense, authenticity as a concept may offer possibilities for analysts to notice how value is created. This article draws on long-term as well as disrupted ethnographic research in the Made in Italy arena across two sectors—slow figs and fast fashion—to theorize authentic possibilities. Fieldwork disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic opened conceptual space to propose a nonbinary approach to authenticities. In breaking from the authentic–inauthentic binary and taking inspiration from artisanal producers of figs, the article offers authenticities as an analytic to illuminate uncommon lessons. Fig producers straddle discipline and improvisation, sustaining and generating novel and nuanced forms of authenticity. The taste of authenticity may be unpredictable and even at odds with tradition. The article draws inspiration from theorists who signal authenticity’s dynamic qualities whether through the slowness of food (Grasseni 2017), the realness of food (Weiss 2012), the emplacement of value (Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014), the power of reverse engineering terroir (Paxson 2010), and “stifling” aspects of authenticity (Gross 2020). The article is structured around four heterogenous instruments: place, fieldwork, discipline, and vulnerability. Takeaways propose possibilities and limits of authenticity for critical food studies.
Figs have been travelers in and out of many regions and economies. The fig, as a nonhuman protagonist, simultaneously anchors and disrupts the politics of place. As one of the oldest domesticated foods in the world, figs are deeply intertwined with the history of human and nonhuman modes of being. They have been cultivated by individuals, small growers, large industrial enterprises, as well as found growing “wild” by current-day fig hunters. Figs historically found their way into court society, onto still-life canvasses, into missionary entourages, into indigenous gardens, and, more recently, into mainstream diets, elite farm-to-table menus, and Slow Food protocols. This article offers critical reflections on authenticity inspired from artisanal producers of figs with a heritage designation—designed in a spirit to protect plants and people from the homogenizing tendencies of globalization and to reconfigure possibilities connected to ecological, agrarian, economic, and culinary domains.
A focus on figs foregrounds place-based knowledge as a response to economic crisis, environmental instability, and social unmooring. The story takes root in a nascent biodistrict in the Montalbano area of Central Italy whose members include fig producers. As these Italian fig producers have battled an invasive weevil, Aclees foveatus (Gargani et al. 2016), they have also elevated dried figs to a new historic and culinary level. Strategies to enhance value have prioritized protocols and designations such as Slow Food to create new deglobalized markets, enhance regional networks, and cultivate an economy alternative to capitalism in sensibilities, practices, and relationships.
In centering figs, this article contributes to the Gastronomica special section focus on the figure of the artisanal producer. It argues that fig producers straddle discipline and improvisation as they engage in authentic practices yet also demonstrate a spirited anarchical skepticism toward authenticity. In doing so, they at once sustain and generate novel and nuanced forms of authenticity. Furthermore, artisanal fig producers create value through practices and storytelling—whether in the context of global capitalist markets or local solidarity distribution mechanisms. This results in three takeaways. First, the taste of authenticity may be unpredictable and even at odds with tradition. Second, notions of authenticity are not static but rather as dynamic and diverse as the fig producers, the microclimates where the figs ripen, and the fig varieties themselves. Third, taking authenticity seriously not merely as common sense but as analytic reveals how authenticity works as a material force that is lived, felt, and embodied (Weiss 2016). Related, taking authenticity as an object of ethnographic inquiry in the context of critical food studies affords insights related to urgent matters in a stressed globalized world.
The artisanal producers featured in this article grow famous Slow Food dried figs of Carmignano in the province of Prato, Italy, in the Region of Tuscany where significant Chinese capital and labor contribute to producing Italian place-based goods in the fast-fashion sector (Krause 2018). My introduction to the world of figs came in December 2019, unknowingly on the verge of a global pandemic. A longtime friend connected me with Rosalba Luzzi, a key mover and shaker of the Montalbano Biodistrict Association. Members promote biodiversity and well-being initiatives to ban pesticides, get healthy local food on school menus, and upend toxic capitalism—the postwar variety that relies heavily on polluting industries and exploitive labor regimes. Biodistrict activists struggle to valorize rural lifeways and to shorten supply chains. These energies resonate with a tension highlighted in the special section’s Introduction: the precarity that capitalist ruins have left behind and the possibilities that emerge in abandoned spaces, which are especially pronounced in a historic manufacturing city such as Prato.
Rosalba offered to pick me up from Prato and drive me to Carmignano to meet a famous fig producer. I questioned my own excitement. Was I excited because we were going to meet an “authentic” fig farmer? Was my enthusiasm simply about being back in the field? In many ways, upon reflection, the thrill was much like that of a new romance. Cultivating new collaborations with people who were passionate about their relationship to a local landscape and a food movement enlivened me, but I was also cautious. I reflected in my field notes:
I’m well beyond the love affair with searching for authenticity. Working on the fast-fashion project spoiled me of any grand illusions. Supply chains have become global. In so many ways, this project of the pedagogy of figs is about something that goes well beyond the quest for authenticity, or the authentic-fake dichotomy. It rests somewhere in a messy place between things we might call multispecies approaches, post-authenticity politics, and territoriality. (Field notes, December 12, 2019)
The raw field note anticipates a project that troubles the authentic–fake dichotomy through knowledge and practices that artisanal producers inspire (Lévi-Strauss 2021). The reference to a multispecies approach aims to notice the ways that producers care for and cultivate ficus carica, including the relationships they have with the trees and the fruit. The naming of a post-authenticity politics predicts that fig producers are consciously aware of tensions that accompany the project of reconciling the past and the future in relation to heritage products. Finally, the mentioning of territoriality foretells how producers at once embrace place-based products but also are keenly aware of the forces and consequences of globalization at multiple scales—be it climates or populations, economies or markets.
To get from Prato center to the provincial outskirts, where fig trees grow on terraced hillsides and in lowland fields, involves driving from the congested city center, contending with five or so roundabouts, traversing the industrial district that sprawls across the valley, and passing hundreds of Chinese migrant fast-fashion warehouses and dozens of greenhouses. Road signs indicate the entrance to the extensive Cascine, a long-abandoned Medici park recently reclaimed and appreciated for its biodiversity. At a certain point, depending on the fog or haze, the busy commuter byway gives way to a stunning view of the rising hills and forests of Montalbano. Each time, when I set my jet-lagged eyes on those verdant crests, the view stirs in me a sensation of relief, of coming home, of promise. Since doing my dissertation fieldwork there in the mid-1990s, I have lived for long and short stretches in the various villages that huddle at its feet and along its spines, both up high and down low: Bacchereto, Carmignano, Comeana, Poggetto, and Seano. Each town has its own bars, church bells, and personalities. Locals in the city center refer to this area as Prato West. For me, it has always been my center. I am a Westerner at heart. This regional identity refers not only to the Province of Prato but also to Massachusetts where I live in so-called Western Mass, to St. Louis as the “Gateway to the West” where I grew up, as well as my home away from home in the US Southwest. Regional differences offer important vantage points for understanding figs and their claims to authenticity.
We headed up from the industrial valley into the rural hills. Rosalba confidently steered her compact car along the curves. The final road to our destination was one lane but two ways. As we continued, Rosalba pointed out a narrow stone underpass ahead of us. It looked barely wide enough to pass through even in her compact car. Emerging from the tunnel and into the light, the road offered a switchback and final steep incline. Our heads thrust fully back against the headrests as though veering up the tracks of a rollercoaster. Rosalba shifted gears and took us the rest of the way up. She was unfazed. She pulled the vehicle in next to a stone structure and parked. Atop this ridge, the wind ripped with a penetrating chill. She offered me a wool scarf; I accepted and wrapped it around the zipped neck of my down jacket. This was central Italy in December. Six months of cold, six months of fear, as the peasants used to say. Siro Petracchi, the fig cultivator, knew all too well about the hardships of living off the land. He greeted us with warmth. He and Rosalba clearly knew each other well. I picked up on the kind of vibe that comes from fighting together for a common cause.
We followed Siro into the stone building, filled with handmade baskets and dried fruit: figs, apples, persimmons. We sat at a wood table. Introductions behind us, Rosalba invited us into conversation. I asked if I could turn on my voice recorder to ensure I got things right. My notetaking in Italian is imprecise, my memory is fallible, especially when I am jet-lagged, and I wanted to listen attentively. Right away, I noticed that the dried figs were multiple shapes and colors. They were mostly not the typical figure-eight shapes of the noteworthy dried figs of Carmignano. I had so many questions.
As a well-known local fig producer, Siro recounted to me his experiments in fig diversity. He grows approximately twenty varieties. He makes jam, nectar, and tea along with handcrafted artisanal baskets. I would call him a creative. He is also incredibly authentic. But not in a way I would have imagined. Siro launched into his discussion of figs with the word fulmine. The straight translation is lightning. At first, I thought he meant something akin to a lightbulb going off, such as when someone has a bright idea. But as with many words, nuance proliferates. In Italian, to be struck by lightning is often used as a metaphor for love at first sight. As it turns out, love and bright ideas were deeply intertwined.
I asked Siro to explain his comment about fulmine. His response revealed changing relationships to the land and the economy. Like so many others, Siro’s father, Roberto, left the life of a peasant as part of the mezzadria system of sharecropping. In 1948, Roberto had finished middle school, his own father had health problems, and the young Roberto went to work in a Prato textile factory, yet his passion for the land led him to continue cultivating. Siro had no such passion at an early age but eventually gravitated to the countryside:
The lightning bolt was this falling in love with the species ficus, the fig tree. I realized that here on our land there are more than twenty varieties of figs. It was a little like someone wanted to tell me: look, if there are twenty varieties here, it means that whoever had the land before was someone who, in some way, was already selecting these twenty varieties. In addition, they knew that in your place these figs come out really good because in Carmignano, fundamentally, to make dried figs—the traditional ones—only one variety was used. That’s Dottato. Here, consider that there were a lot of Dottato but there was also l’Albo. There was Breggiotto. There was Paradiso. There was the Verdino. A whole series of varieties. Practically, it’s like they were saying, Don’t only do the Dottato […] the dried fig that was the thing fundamentally known, good, that has a name, that has marketing that gives you—However, also consider that you can produce the fig to make other things. (Interview, December 11, 2019, Carmignano; my translation.)
I was taken with his story for the way he interwove tradition and creativity, authenticity and biodiversity.
This article investigates the value of authenticity as an analytic. “Authentic possibilities” plays on a double meaning. In one sense, possibilities may be “authentic” in terms of what is true, real, original, grounded, or not fake. In another sense, authenticity as a concept offers real possibilities for analysts to track how value is created. As an analytic, authenticity can illuminate human entanglements with food and has relevance to old questions of production, distribution, and consumption, as well as new concerns about justice, equity, and sustainability. The article draws inspiration from theorists who signal authenticity’s dynamic qualities be it through the slowness of food (Grasseni 2017), the realness of food (Weiss 2012), the emplacement of value (Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014), the incorporation of market forces (Bendix 1997), or the power of reverse engineering terroir (Paxson 2010). Chef David Chang (Gross 2020) even refers to authenticity as “stifling,” a burden. Fieldwork disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led me to open conceptual space and propose a nonbinary approach to authenticities. In breaking from the authentic–inauthentic binary, I offer authenticities as an analytic to illuminate uncommon lessons.
Ethnographic fieldwork with small-scale fig producers reveals contrasting approaches related to quality and care: on the one hand, fig producers show a commitment to a high-quality gastronomic product promoted as satisfying the search for “an authentic and traditional taste” (Associazione Produttori Fichi Secchi di Carmignano n.d.); on the other hand, producers practice a startling range of approaches to caring for their fig trees in light of devastating circumstances connected with an invasive pest and severe drought—phenomena that render trees vulnerable to stress and eventual death.
In what follows, I draw insight from my research across two Italian production sectors—primarily food but also fashion—to illuminate nuances of authenticity and to theorize authentic possibilities. Figs and fashion in the Made in Italy sector are part of larger social and economic totalities. Authenticity has a polyvocal potency: its power plays out at multiple levels with complex connections and exclusions across social fields. To amplify how authenticity works, I structure the article as a journey with four conceptual stops: place, fieldwork, discipline, and vulnerability. These stops comprise a metaphorical collection of instruments and materials to “cook” authenticity as an analytic.
Authenticity and Place
Siro's family had lived on the land since 1978, from the time he was two years old. They didn’t own the land at that time. The countryside had been emptied out starting in the 1950s. That’s how he put it: “la campagna s’era svuotata.” This turn of phrase struck me. It was as though the land, the place itself, was animate, that it had been rendered empty and lifeless without the people to care for it (Figure 1). I sensed a particular consciousness of place, an acute awareness of the delicate relationship between humans and their environment, whether cultivated or wild. In either case, authentic.
Demographic and economic transformations have been profound in the factory-city of Prato and its environs. After World War II, residents from Southern Italy and agrarian hinterlands migrated to Prato to work as wage laborers or as industrial-artisan subcontractors. With a reputation as one of the ugliest cities in Italy, Prato is hardly the world of Francis Mayes’s romantic depiction in Under the Tuscan Sun. Class struggles have characterized the area since the rise and fall of Fascism and the movement of capital as postwar Marshall funds poured into the region and created industrial districts of Macrolotto from a long history of textile manufacture (Becattini 2001). Peasants abandoned the countryside, its rigid class and gender hierarchies, and its agrarian cycles to make a life in the city. Transnational workers and entrepreneurs began migrating into the area in significant numbers in the 1990s. The result is a highly diverse population with a range of foodways, many of which are steeped in peasant cuisine.
Prato counts among its population of 194,848 residents, as of 2022, some 46,154, or 23.7 percent, classified as stranieri (foreign residents), well beyond the national average of 8.5 percent residents with non-Italian citizenship. Chinese migrants are especially well represented. Official demographic data indicate that residents with origins in Asia total at least 71 percent of resident foreigners in Prato. Some estimates suggest that about twice that number live in the city and its surroundings when undocumented migrants are included (Comune di Prato 2020). Chinese entrepreneurs and workers occupy a formidable niche in the Made in Italy sector, be it food or fashion. Most migrant work occurs in fast fashion, in small firms that are typically Chinese owned and managed. Some Chinese migrants also work as subcontractors for luxury brands. Over the past decade, a politics of trash has emerged because of the textile waste generated. Polemics over the illegal disposal of sacchi neri (black garbage bags) have intensified. Chinese entrepreneurs have been accused of hiring undocumented African migrants to illegally dump the bags, often in agricultural fields in the countryside. Tensions, policing, and praise have also come in the form of agricultural activities. Chinese migrant connections with the local agrarian scene have been at once admired for their fresh vegetables and negatively assailed in connection with the seizure of genetically modified seeds as well as use of unauthorized pesticides and herbicides, said to be illegally imported from China.
Contentious and racialized manifestations of transnational labor complicate calls for a consciousness of place in approaches to regional economic development (Becattini 2015; see also Reese 2019). Associating products with place is a marketing strategy particularly well developed in Italy. Made In Italy as a label came onto the world stage on the postwar heels of fascist autarky. Although it has roots in twentieth-century fascist nationalism, the brand is a product of postwar renewal and came of age after the devastating Florence flood of 1966 with its massive humanitarian rescue efforts to save Renaissance art. By the 1980s, the mark had solidified its reputation (Krause 2018). The moniker continues to “designate the uniqueness of Italian production,” as Camilla Hawthorne puts it (2021: 713) related to the Four As: abbigliamento (clothing), agroalimentare (food), arredamento (furniture), and automobile (cars). As such, the label Made in Italy has become shorthand for “the skilled craftsmanship associated with traditional Italian industries” (Hawthorne 2021: 713). Hawthorne underscores the “new geographies” of the brand to expose the ways in which trending discourses that claim the brand is at risk of decline are complicit with nationalist fears, which she characterizes as “dominant regimes of racist exclusion and neoliberal racial capitalism” (2021: 707). Clearly, “decline” narratives are at odds with diasporic realities and authentic fallacies. At the Florence airport in 2011, while going through security, I noticed a fashion billboard featuring a hipster Italian model and message, “Absolutely Made in Italy.” The claim of “absolutely” was an appeal to authenticity, a claim made against an invisible backdrop of immigrant labor.
The consequences of global markets became obvious with supply chain challenges brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet globalization is part of what makes the durable case of the “Made In Italy” brand so worthy of discussion. In many contexts, scholars have questioned a tendency to “recast industrial production as craft production,” and as Sarah Besky has asked for the designation of a Geographically Indicated Darjeeling tea in India, “How did an industrial plantation crop with a less than savory colonial past become a product with an authentic terroir”? (2014: 86). This recasting happens for place-based labels related to food and fashion as the following example shows.
An email caught my attention one snowy Saturday morning in January 2022 with its tagline, “New trend alert coming from Italy.” My attention became even more piqued as I opened the message and set eyes on the advertisement (Figure 2). Although this ad does not use the word “authenticity,” its message is saturated with signifiers that point to authentic characteristics. First, on the upper left, the text “luxe like no other” tells the consumer that this collection of products offers a unique form of quality. Second, on the upper right, the reference to Made In Italy underscores authenticity through the place-based brand. Third, the tagline beneath the image serves as a reminder of what stands behind that label: “So many new arrivals just landed in our curated edit of artisan crafted fashion.” This claim linking fashion with artisan craft highlights producers as a strategy to authenticate quality. Together, this threesome adds up to a sort of holy trinity. The idea that fashion is “artisan crafted” relies on a host of associations present in the three words “artisan crafted fashion.” What, one might ask, is artisan-crafted fashion in an intensely globalized industry? Who are these artisans? Do Chinese migrants toiling in small Chinese-owned cut-and-sew shops qualify? What is “crafted fashion”? Does something like “artisan crafted fashion” actually exist?
The Made in Italy lure perseveres. It has no rival. No other country brand gets its own tab on the TJMAXX website. I use this company as an example not simply out of convenience—in full disclosure, I receive their emails—but because of its prominence: “The TJX Companies is the leading off-price apparel and home fashions retailer in the U.S. and worldwide.”1 Following the ad’s link brings the consumer (or online researcher) to a range of Made In Italy fashion items: dresses, purses, shoes, and jewelry. Some items display price tags typical of discount outlets whereas others seduce with luxury prices, inviting the consumer to click on a tab to “Reveal Designer,” almost like a strange fashion version of the TV show “Jeopardy!” On the low end, prices range from $29.99 for Made in Italy Mesh Clogs or Bella Ambra maxi dresses; on the high end, items cost $849 for Gucci Scar Tess Cristal Pumps or $2,199 for a Bottega Veneta Leather Oversized Pouch.
My ethnographic fieldwork in the Made in Italy supply chain suggests that artisan is a useful category for producing and sustaining authenticity. The image of artisans serves to reinforce an unbroken link to Italian heritage, which evokes “high culture” products such as art, architecture, and style whose beauty power is rooted firmly in Renaissance glory (see Mahmud 2014). The allure of the Made in Italy brand was born from a myth of continuity with the Renaissance. While this myth is not directly asserted in this advertisement, I suggest a phantasmic indexicality remains powerfully at work. Behind those “Reveal Designer” tabs, the Renaissance hovers like a spectral presence that assures quality.
Authenticity and Fieldwork
My fieldwork in Italy lapsed between 2019 and 2022. In summer 2019, before pandemic times and before meeting Siro, I traveled to Italy with a graduate student. We were both embarking on new projects related to food production and value (Figure 3). Several months would elapse before I would commit to a focus on figs. Another three years would pass before I could pick up my fieldwork again with fig producers in Italy.
Thinking about authenticity in the context of field research reminds me of a turning point. Some years ago, a mid-career mentor told me to follow my authentic research agenda. I wondered, “My authentic research agenda?” How would I know what that was? I felt empowered to even think along those lines. I welcomed the permission. For me, doing immersive fieldwork and building knowledge collaboratively with interlocutors has become a key component to authentic research. I practice the arts of noticing (Tsing 2015). I enact my sensibilities. For me, fieldwork is a way of being in the world and a way of connecting local practices to global politics.
What do quarantines, travel bans, and remote work do to ethnographic fieldwork? For many researchers, the pandemic threw into question the authenticity of their research. On the one hand, such restrictions upended fieldwork completely. They created distance and detachment. They rendered work on certain projects impossible. A local food movement, for example, may have an internet presence, but trying to grasp it and collaborate from afar is hardly equivalent. The lack of co-presence is especially troublesome when the ethnographer is embarking on a new project. In-person and remote work are not equals. On the other hand, pandemic-induced restrictions forced other ways of knowing. And other ways of being. They beckoned self-reflection. They allowed for deep dives into archives. They invited exploration into unexpected places, virtual or real.
I was poised to embark on new fieldwork at the invitation to collaborate with participants in the biodistrict. I was planning to work with fig producers involved in the movement when COVID-19 threw much of the world into lockdown in March 2020. I was heartbroken that I could not continue my fieldwork, and I knew it to be the case when I found myself dreaming about being in the field. I was dreaming of figs—the dried figs of Carmignano. Soon, I had no choice but to cancel the ethnographic research I had planned for fall 2020. I spent my sabbatical in Tucson, Arizona, where I began to cultivate a transregional ethos as the project moved across time and place, Old World and New World.
What does dislocation do to the project of theorizing authenticity? Globalized disruptions demand that I foreground this question, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would thus be disingenuous to portray my project on figs as the result of seamless fieldwork. Instead, the disruption led me to feel lost, and at a loss. As field-based researchers pivoted to platforms such as Zoom, they faced challenges from the difficulty of putting something of themselves into their projects and building so-called authentic relationships. Some challenged in-person research as the so-called gold standard, touting advantages of online research as leveling power differentials between researcher and researched (Howlitt 2021). Crowd-sourced resources (Lupton 2021) circulated and landed in many inboxes as a lifeboat for distressed and distraught fieldwork researchers. In my own work, I continued to practice the arts of noticing through collaborative authorship, to thickly describe events even if we had to attend them virtually, to archive our experiences through field notes, to tend to important stories, and to sustain relationships (Krause and Bressan 2020).
At this stop, the notion of authentic research pulls toward being fully immersed. Full immersion is unequivocally better in person, as I was reminded when I traveled to Prato in June 2022 and visited fields with fig producers (Figure 4). The two-dimensionality of Zoom rooms prohibits the power of observation “to get the lay of the land,” as Johnnetta Cole once put it in recollecting the lessons that anthropology had taught her: “to envision, to imagine, to see multiple things happening simultaneously” (Yelvington 2003: 284). Being in the “field” has historically offered richer possibilities for holistic, empathetic, and sensory engagement than does online research (pace Boellstorff et al. 2012). Matsutake mushroom hunters must do their work in the elements. What would Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World have been had she not traipsed through those Oregon clear-cut forests, smelled and tasted those pungent fungi, and noticed the characteristics of the lives of the refugee, veteran, and indigenous foragers through in-person ethnography? How could she have raised powerful insights about possibilities from ruined landscapes? How could she have grasped the messy economic assemblages that come into being and the “unruly edges” of capitalism that she exposed? How could she have so deeply illuminated human and nonhuman entanglements under globalization and its conditions? Continuing to practice the arts of noticing even when we cannot be there “in person” requires creative engagement with a mindful purpose.
Authenticity and Discipline
The original protagonists of this project, the dried figs of Carmignano, are referred to as “disciplined” because they are produced according to strict guidelines that enhance their value. Fig producers have sensibilities about what makes dried Carmignano figs delicious and what gives them a “taste of place,” often referred to as terroir (Beriss 2019; Trubek 2008). Place-based practices and narratives arguably create an ecology of collective representations that reconfigure value. Not all fig producers claim to have a long history with the activity. In fact, most of the producers I met had backgrounds that included work in non-agrarian sectors, from theater and education to retail, textiles, and even slot machine gambling enterprises. Ages ranged from thirties to eighties. Nevertheless, producers in the dried fig association—sixteen were listed on the association website—embrace the history of the Carmignano-style dried figs as well as the guidelines to producing them.2
Historians date the production and consumption of ficus carica sativa in Carmignano to ancient times as a reserve energy source, noting that paleobotanical evidence of figs was found in Etruscan sites dating to X–XI century BCE. Fig cultivation in Carmignano was historically so widespread that the town was known as “Carmignano da’ fichi” (Carmignano Pro Loco n.d.; Petracchi 2008; Slow Food Foundation n.d.). The practice was highlighted in a 1930s documentation project of the ethnologist Paul Scheuermeier of the University of Bern. Photographs of peasant lifeways include figs drying on reed racks (Contini 1993). I consulted these photographs during dissertation research in Prato from 1995 to 1997, and several were reprinted with permission in my first book (Krause 2005).
The growing of figs, typically on the margins of agricultural estates, had largely fallen into disuse following World War II as sharecroppers abandoned the farm for the factory. In 2001, the dried figs of Carmignano officially received a designation from the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. In 2007, local fig producers formed an association to support each other in marketing their products, including the rule that the quantity of figs should be counted and reported by September 29, the day of the town’s patron saint, San Michele (Associazione Produttori Fichi Secchi di Carmignano 2015).
On October 15, 2022, in the piazza of Carmignano, the fig harvest was presented to the public: Benvenuto Fico Seco—Welcome Dried Fig. The event inaugurated the sale of figs produced in 2022. The harvest was reportedly smaller than hoped, due to the killer weevil, having netted ten to twelve quintale (100 kilograms). The fig producers’ association unveiled its new collective brand that day as well as the following week in Prato. The new logo, according to producers’ association president Azzurra Del Lucchese, “will serve to protect the product more effectively.” The logo itself is a circle. An image of a whitened-brown dried fig, splayed in half as per tradition in the shape of an 8, appears at the center against a green background. In white all-cap letters, the words FICHI SECCHI DI CARMIGNANO encircle the fig; at the top, like a crowning arc, the group’s name ASSOCIAZIONE PRODUTTORI appears against a brown border. The unveiling event also included the public donation and planting of a fig tree, the Dottato variety, which Del Lucchese described as “one of the most representative plants of the territory…a tradition that today is endangered by the attack of the alien parasite and by climate change.”3 The message was reported in La Nazione: “Plant a little hope and transmit tradition to the future generations.”4
The most common variety for drying has long been Dottato, typically split in half, whitened with sulfer, and enhanced with anise. Figs are hand-picked from mid-August to late September and then prepared for drying. The standard process is described in pamphlets and on websites:
The figs are opened lengthwise, laid out on reed mats and steamed with sulfur, which whitens the skin. After being dried for four or five days in the sun, the figs spend another 40 days in a cool, airy room. During this time, a thin layer of sugar forms on the surface. When they are completely dry, the figs are stuffed with a few aniseeds and layered to form figure-eight shapes called “picce.” (Slow Food Presidium)
I met with fig producers Anna Bocci and Orfeo Buzzegoli in June 2022 at the Circolo 11 Giguno just off the piazza of Carmignano. The name of the circolo marks the date on June 11, 1944, when four young partisans died in an act of resistance against a Nazi train loaded with munitions and headed to Prato city center. Meeting the couple felt like a reunion since this was the same Gramscian-style cultural center where my husband and I had volunteered monthly in its pizzeria during my fieldwork in 1995–1997. Back then, Anna and Orfeo owned a small appliance store and were active in the volunteer scene, coordinating hikes and outings to forage mushrooms. I remember Orfeo saying he would never set foot in the United States until the country elected a Native American as president. He nodded to the challenge of a producers’ association, characterizing fig growers as leggermente anarchici, slightly anarchistic.
Now, proud owners of the Podere Palestina, the couple brought to our meeting a small collection of newspaper articles, pamphlets, and certificates. One certificate recognized the Podere Palestina for its twentieth anniversary of active participation in the Presidio Slow Food “Fico Secco di Carmignano.” Another was an original signed copy of an official document titled “I Fichi Secchi di Carmignano,” which legitimates the particular dried figs as an authentic Slow Food.5 At the top appear the authorizing entities: the Comune di Carmignano, Provincia di Prato, and Slow Food Prato. At the bottom are a dozen signatures, in black and blue ink, representing the municipality, the province, the organization, and the producers. In the middle are guidelines that outline the “disciplinare di produzione,” the production standards in ten bullet points. The first two items refer to the prevalent use of the Dotatto variety and the way in which the fruit must be picked; harvesting must include the stem; during the three to four weeks when the fruit matures, on average two or three pickings are necessary per week. The next half dozen points refer to the drying process, involving sun exposure and sulfur treatment; shape in the form of a figure-eight; and taste due to the required addition of anise. The penultimate bullet point notes typical and permitted variation in color—from gray to beige to light brown. The final point delimits the production zone, specified as the territories of the communes of Carmignano and Poggio A Caiano in the Province of Prato. The document is dated December 1, 2001.
In essence, these documents are material proof of an authentic dried fig of Carmignano. The totality of the protocol text expresses expectations of the practices that, if followed, guarantee a certain quality of fig. These documents offer other perspectives about the materiality of authenticity. Such documents are the result of community-building efforts to bring together producers involved in a larger food reform movement that is both concerned with sustainable agriculture from the point of view of the environment as well as from the point of view of the livelihood of small growers. Having a Slow Food designation adds value to their enterprise. The fig producers proudly shared with me newspaper articles that spoke to this enhanced value: a television program that “discovered” the local dried figs, growers who represented the province at the international food fair Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Turin; and a gift of figs sent to the British royal couple William and Kate, who reportedly liked them.
The guidelines are important for understanding authenticity because of the way in which they spell out certain standards. Thus, authenticity becomes manifest in these standards. The standards are designed to guarantee consistent quality in terms of appearance, taste, and texture. What the guidelines cannot reveal are the very different approaches that the fig producers use to deal with pests and drought.
Authenticity and Vulnerability
An important detail from the meeting with Anna and Orfeo deserves mention. Anna had carried in the file of documents that established the figs as a Slow Food product. Orfeo had brought a small glass jar that bore several scrawny dead bugs. They were specimens of a terrible weevil, Aclees foveatus, which is decimating the fig tree population. Before long, I would understand the insect’s capacity as a killer.
Fig producers had starkly different approaches to caring for their trees in light of the pest, as I observed during visits to their fields and orchards. This revealed a range of local forms of knowledge (see Grasseni 2009; Krause 2012). Siro went after weevils one by one with a vengeance. He also covered individual fig fruit with plastic netting as they matured in a labor-intensive effort to protect them. Antonio Orlandi, whose lush orchard of ninety-nine trees grew adjacent to a stream, wasted no time in removing infested trees. He hired a migrant laborer to help him inspect the trees for signs of infestation. Once confirmed as infested, the tree would be immediately removed. It pained Antonio to see the trees suffer, to die a slow death. Umberto Ganghereti and Angelita Arrighini of the Azienda Agricola Montaneta estimated that figs occupied only about 1 percent of their multifunctional farming activities, which included running a restaurant and weekly distributions at the local ethical acquisition group, known as the GAS Fico. The name plays on fico, meaning the fruit and being cool (Figure 5). Azzurra Del Lucchese described a “natural” approach to farming, which entailed minimal pruning or weeding. Her focus was lavender, and her passion flowed over to the art of rebuilding historic muri a secco, or stone walls, as well as educational outreach. She did not remove infested trees. The green stalks of wild fennel intermingled with the spindly branches of the fig stalks and leaves, adding a feathery valence.
Orfeo and Anna invited me to their farm for a field visit. We drove less than a mile from town, parked in a small lot, and walked to a trailhead. They apologized for going this way since it was unseasonably hot under the unforgiving sun. They explained that the road loops around and would bring us closer to their land, but they pointed to the road sign indicating “do not enter”; the road here is one way, quite narrow, with a precarious drop-off into the field. Technically, landowners are granted an exception to travel it, but the route is dangerous and not worth the risk.
The trail cuts through overgrown weeds, and then opens up into an olive grove. Anna and Orfeo explained that we were crossing several other property owners’ land to access their farm. The properties were contiguous. Sometimes a storage shed marked the boundary. Above and below the trail, the land was very steep. The olive trees appeared to grow effortlessly regardless. They didn’t seem bothered by the rough terrain. Neither did the elderly man we encountered on a tractor. Not even his son would do this work of running a tractor up and down this landscape. It was too dangerous. As the driver’s tractor reached the top of the incline, he paused and turned to smile at us as we stopped to greet him. Orfeo begged the man not to cut the engine, but of course he couldn’t hear us over the noise. He turned it off anyway.
“Siamo messi male / We are in a bad way with the figs.”
“Bisogna stargli dietro come con i figli / You need to take care of them like with children.”
The vulnerability of the figs, in other words, parallels the vulnerability of young children: to get into trouble, to get hurt, to die—from sickness, drowning, or injury. As we continued along the path, they told me we were now crossing onto their land. We encountered our first fig tree, a variety known as San Giovanni. It was a large tree; three pieces of metallic material waved like flags from its top branches. The purpose was to spook a variety of birds known for descending as a flock and cleaning the fruit from the tree. Orfeo located one ripe fig—dark purple and very large. He picked it and handed it to me. I was a bit intimidated. I grew up eating tart plums and cherries from my back yard. Never figs. This would be the first fresh fig I’d eaten off a tree. Anna showed me how to peel it. She opened it from the top. Orfeo offered that he likes to eat the skin. “It’s fine,” he said. They did not put chemicals on it. I bit into the fruit: very sweet, not much of a unique flavor, but essential calories and hydration for anyone tending trees on a blazing hot day.
As we continued along, the couple showed me white olive blossoms turned brown. Orfeo pointed out a couple of citrus trees he had planted. We passed a wild finocchio, anise, the herb added to the dried figs. We came upon a Dottato fig tree. It was spindly. Orfeo described it as unhealthy. The pest hollows out the trees from the inside out. A tree could be in bad health but the grower not notice until the tree fell over. The trunk was covered with white material—a treatment to reduce the damage from the pest that he showed me earlier. Down the hill, new growth sprouted from a trunk. The tree had toppled over because of the killer weevil. Plus it had been a dry spring: severe siccità, drought. In this location on Montalbano, there was no accessible well, so limited water came from collecting rain in bins and then irrigating small patches. Anna and Orfeo started with about fifteen trees when they bought the land. Over time, the couple had added another twenty-five trees to get to forty. Due to drought and the weevil, only about four or five remained that produced figs. The fig trees were under assault.
To even utter the term “authentic” typically brings to mind its opposite: that which is inauthentic. In the context of the Slow Food Presidium, biodiversity and authenticity share an ideology based on binary categories, which are designed to authenticate traditional practices and thus exclude others. In a globalized world, those binaries are continuously activated, as biodiversity scholars note: “Food and place of origin are intimately, but often superficially, linked in the contemporary transnational global market, which generally lacks identity, uniqueness and authenticity” (Mariani et al. 2021: 1). Products linked with place labels serve as an authenticizing corrective. As with dried figs, the market has come to associate only one variety, in this case the Dottato, with Carmignano. Siro grows those classic figs, but he also experiments with other varieties, resulting in a bounty of color, shape, size, flavor, and texture (Figure 6). This is a case of the taste of authenticity being at odds with tradition. In other words, authenticity dwells in the multiplicity of varieties that the fig producer found planted on the family’s land. At the same time, authenticity dwells in the singularity of the type of fig that made the commune of Carmignano famous for dried figs. How can both versions of authenticity be true?
In the context of heritage products, authenticity is tasked with performing the work of reconciliation. In other words, producers feel compelled to reconcile their local practices with the pressures of global markets. As such, they rely on certain narratives of heritage because of the very caché of those narratives. Indeed, authenticity enjoys a sort of “heightened value” in the context of global capitalism, especially demonstrated in the ways in which “producers link cultural production to particular times and places to evidence authenticity” (Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014: 52). In some ways, the case of figs both complements and contradicts this insight. On the one hand, the Slow Food Dried Figs complement the idea that those particular figs have a sort of timeless connection and “unbroken links” to a particular past and place. On the other hand, Siro’s fig culture breaks with the tradition of only putting energies into cultivating, drying, and distributing one type of fig. The stories that Siro tells about his figs are not reducible to some singular essential quality, but there is something genuine about them. Siro’s figs, like a good story, can be trusted. They are what he says they are.
Just as Siro’s approach unsettles static notions of authenticity, it similarly disrupts notions that economic activities are only and always capitalist. While Cavanaugh and Shankar describe the linguistic work that happens in the context of heritage products as deeply capitalist, I want to respectfully elaborate that this view risks erasing other-than-capitalist practices that thrive. A neo-peasant ethos of reciprocity and gift principles animate fig culture (Mauss 1990). The fig producers’ approaches represent a reversal away from decades of modernization, heavy reliance on pesticide, and distancing from nature. Scholars have documented and debated a “considerable” reemergence of peasant agriculture in many areas in the world, and they have argued that this reconstitution involves characteristics that include a significant reshuffling of commodity and noncommodity relations, which represent a move away from capitalist production (van der Ploeg 2010: 2–3; see also Narotzky 2016). Siro’s and the fig association’s posts on Facebook document participation at local and alternative markets that represent the “unruly edges” of capitalism, as Tsing (2015) would have it, as well as solidarity economies (Gibson-Graham 2014).
To think with authenticity also raises points about vulnerability: how fig producers must harvest the fruit just when it has ripened; how sentient beings cannot eat food virtually; how pictures of food don’t get the job done of feeding the hungry. Popular and common-sense uses of authenticity have aligned with calls to be “vulnerable.” During the pandemic, remote workers began to encounter this pressure in workplace meeting check-ins, and they became almost normative signs for group work. Does this reflect a widespread assumption that being vulnerable reveals imperfection and thus authenticity? A once-popular postmodern assumption that selves were fluid seems to have given way to the idea that there is something more akin to an authentic self. Consider how these connected assumptions, between authenticity and vulnerability, work in the context of clothing or food. A fast-fashion shirt is vulnerable to rips, stains, and fading. Fresh figs are vulnerable to blight, pests, and spoilage. Too much rain at the wrong moment can also destroy maturing figs. Virtual clothing is not vulnerable—nor can it be worn. Plastic food is not vulnerable—nor can it be eaten. Such vulnerabilities make clothing and food authentic, but only to a degree. A fashion commodity that wears out quickly may be seen as of poor quality and thus less authentic than its high-quality and long-lasting counterpart. This is especially true when it comes to luxury brand “knock-offs,” which are widely considered fakes and thus not authentic. Similarly, fresh fruit that lasts longer because it was picked before being ripe, as a supply chain strategy to be less vulnerable to spoilage during shipping, may have an inferior taste than fresh-picked fruit ripened on the tree or vine. The hardy fruit, which is relatively more robust due to being picked before maturity, evokes less authenticity because of its inferior flavor and lower quality than, for example, fresh U-pick varieties.
All of this is to say in some ways being real is being vulnerable is being authentic. When I was teaching during the pandemic, I found myself more often sharing vulnerable emotions with my students. If I never show my students my feelings, if I never show sadness, despair, or struggle, if tears never well up in my eyes, peeking out there above my masked nose and mouth, if I never let those tears run down my cheeks, if I never soaked them up with the mask’s fibers, I might as well be my lecture notes locked in a file cabinet. The act of opening up and “being vulnerable” somehow has the magical power to bring people closer together. At what point, though, might vulnerability become performative, a burden similar to authenticity in cooking, a là David Chang, who experiences authenticity as stifling? Authenticity in his story becomes like a yoke that chains him to tradition (Gross 2020). It conveys the opposite meaning of being real because it paralyzes his creativity.
Everything and nothing is authentic about the Made in Italy brand. How can both be true? Everything is authentic because the label certifies a certain economy, specific histories, and a suite of traditions. Nothing is authentic because global supply chains are everywhere evident, from materials to designs to labor. Authenticity disguises and seduces despite the hegemony of transnational labor and global supply chains.
Authenticity is common sense, good sense, and nonsense all at once. It is common sense in the sense that Kate Crehan (2016) defined it, clarifying Gramsci’s insights related to the work of common sense for the purpose of reproducing hegemony. The common sense is that only certain dried figs of Carmignano qualify as authentic. This “truth” reminds that not all common sense is good sense. Common sense can serve hegemonic projects in the interest of elites and capitalist markets. Such projects may harm human and nonhuman beings and entities. The impacts of authenticity narratives on subaltern persons such as non-European migrants, for example, highlight that common sense is often nonsense.
Finally, fieldwork disruptions remind that authenticity in research need not be an all-or-nothing endeavor. In other words, we cannot judge the value of research on a simple scale of authenticity calculated in terms of the “gold standard” of in-person months. When worlds are disrupted and fieldwork interrupted, researchers can continue to cultivate ethnographic sensibilities. We can write field notes. We can consult archives and read deeply. We can confront problems rooted in the world. We can think dialectically so that observations shape critical inquiry and interventions. We can renew our commitments to noticing and creating “ah-ha” effects through recording the nitty-gritty of everyday life (Willis and Trondman 2000). We can explore different modes of ethnographic engagement to understand human experience (Gagnon 2019). We can push ourselves to continue to build relationships, sustain networks, and engage in acts of reciprocity. We can tune in to happenings with all our sensibilities—critical, sensory, inclusive.
In unraveling the authenticity binary, this article’s journey is not aiming to create a stable system (Mambrol 2016). To assert that disciplines were ever static, whether fields of study or protocol standards, is in itself a false claim, a homology to authenticity: one lesson is that “authentic” has long been unstable, especially in light of capitalist markets, colonial histories, diasporic migrant labor, and globalized supply chains. Another lesson is that authenticity can be multiple things at once. On the one hand, it is crafted over generations, continuously looking backwards, like the disciplined dried figs. On the other hand, the disciplined figs require responding to the here and now; there’s nothing more authentic than picking figs when they are ripe. Or letting one’s emotions show in the moment: you don’t plan to cry in your class, but when it happens, it is an authentic expression of sadness. This article has aimed for thinking without a single center or truth. Thinking with authentic possibilities has opened up space outside of the binary to look at authenticity through a multiplicity of instruments.
This work would not be possible without caring friends and colleagues, for which I am deeply grateful. Back in 2018, Massimo Bressan brought me and my family our first dried figs from Siro Petracchi. I could not have predicted where this gift would lead. I am deeply grateful to all the fig producers of Carmignano. Various old and new friends introduced me to the world of figs in Italy. Joan Gross, then-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, invited me to attend my first food conference, postponed due to COVID-19. Zach Nowak, director of the Umbra Institute, was a warm and welcoming host of the Food, Sustainability & Environment Conference in Perugia, Italy, eventually held in June 2022.
Research on this project was supported during my time as a pandemic-cloistered Residential Scholar at the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and an invitation to present via zoom at a colloquium in Fall 2020. Funding for research and conference travel to Italy came from various sources at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: the Department of Anthropology; the Dean’s Research Council of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; the Center for Teaching and Learning; the Massachusetts Society of Professors; and the Terrence Murray Professorship of the Commonwealth Honors College. I am grateful for support from Honors College Dean Mari Castañeda, graduate research assistant Çağla Ay, as well as Associate Dean Anne Marie Russell, including the invitation to present my “Pedagogy of Figs” work at the Pizza and Prof series. I would be remiss not to thank the National Science Foundation, which funded my prior project, “Chinese Immigration and Family Encounters in Italy” (BCS-1157218; 2012–2016) along with the Wenner-Gren Foundation, International Collaborative Research Grant (ICRG-114; 2012–13), “Tight Knit: Familistic Encounters in a Fast-Fashion District,” with co-applicant Bressan, president of IRIS research institute in Prato.
I am indebted to the Ethnography Collective @ UMASS Amherst writing group in Spring 2022 for thoughtful comments on an excerpt that informed this article: Burcu Baykurt, Timothy Pachirat, Fareen Parvez, Svati Shah, Regine Spector, and Millie Thayer.
Fellow panelists and contributors are due thanks: Jillian Cavanaugh, Cristina Grasseni, and Amanda Hilton. A special shoutout goes to Lauren Crossland-Marr for being such an attentive and inspiring co-organizer of our panel at the American Anthropological Association in Baltimore (2021) as well as co-editor of this special section.
Finally, I wish to acknowledge the thoughtful feedback from reviewers and editors of Gastronomica. I offer these acknowledgments with the caveat that I accept full responsibility for any shortcomings.
The website is www.tjx.com/home. Accessed January 29, 2022.
The labels for the dried figs of Carmignano refer to ingredients (dried figs and anise seeds) and to the legislative decree no. 109/92 concerning bulk products and nutritional information.
The events were commemorated on the ProLoco Carmignano website www.carmignanodivino.it/it/2022/10/fichi-secchi-da-comprare-e-degustare as well as the Associazione Produttori Fichi Secchi di Carmignano Facebook page: www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100057660540775. Accessed October 24, 2022.
See www.lanazione.it/prato/cronaca/fico-il-nuovo-marchio-collettivo-di-carmignano-festa-e-vendita-in-piazza-1.8185500. Accessed October 24, 2022.
The purposes of the protocol are outlined in a Slow Food Presidia manual (n.d., p.16): “The protocol precisely defines the area of production, documents the history of the product and describes in detail all phases of cultivation (or breeding) and processing. It strengthens the awareness of producers who are often working together for the first time to compare production techniques and put their knowledge on paper.” www.fondazioneslowfood.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/presidi_manuale_ENG.pdf