Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 25, Issue 6, pp 929–932 | Cite as

Douglas Harper and Patrizia Faccioli: The Italian Way: Food & Social Life

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009, 311 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-31724-3
Book Review

Food—and social eating, especially—is a strong marker of cultural memory. In Italy, it is particularly revealing. Whether it is food consumed in festivals, dinner on Sundays, or family lunches during the week—all trigger emotions and memories attached to a particular time and place. In The Italian Way: Food & Social Life, sociologists Douglas Harper (Duquesne University) and Patrizia Faccioli (Università di Bologna) seek to answer questions about Italian food culture—Why is the food so consistently good? Why is eating with a virtual stranger such a pleasure? Even casual observation in Italy shows a populace that appreciates the social value of food intricately prepared and enthusiastically shared, yet authors Harper and Faccioli frame similar observations in a sociology and pictorial ethnography of food that is compelling.

The authors—one, an experienced “visual ethnographer” (Harper), and the other, the author/editor of seven books in Italian (Faccioli)—share an interest in “visual sociology,” and “delight in the discovery of an ironic twist to a taken-for-granted social reality” (p. 16). Harper’s experience in visual ethnography meant that his job was to photograph the subjects; he also poured through 4,000 images from the Corbis-Bettman archive to find the 14 images that appear in the book. Mostly, these images are historical in nature—wartime pictures of hunger in Italy, photos of traditional pasta making in Naples.

The book, intended for both an American and Italian audience, is organized into two parts. Part One discusses Italian food vis-à-vis a regional and national identity, and looks at the motivation and organization needed for the creation of Italian meals. Also discussed is the division of food labor in the Italian family, with the women retaining their domestic duties [with the exception perhaps of wine and olive oil procurement] even as they enter the labor force. What the authors then describe is La doppia presenza (the “second shift” or literally, “double presence”). Short cuts in the kitchen inevitably result, for example, cooking a ragú 3 hours instead of six. Certainly, parenting children in the home adds to the pressure of performing all tasks normatively well. This part of the book includes welcome contributions of Italian feminist scholarship to such study.

In Part Two, a major theme of the book is developed—“the role of structure in the organization of food-based social life and [the issues surrounding] the simultaneous improvisation that it plays against” (p. 25). Discussion of “Constructing Food the Italian Way,” “Food Combinations, Meal Sequence, and Bodily Well-Being,” and “Class, Regionalism, and Commitment” elucidate the theme. The industrialization and commercialization of Italian food is well-illustrated by discussion of the Italian tomato (pomodoro), a product of Italy introduced via Central and South America to Europe, and one of Italy’s first great post-WWII exports. Also discussed are cultivated grains and the pasta industry, and commercialization of the iconic prosciutto and lardo. This part of the book includes interesting narratives on extracting oil, with 46 different attributes given to describing olive oil—in other words, a foray into sensory taste science; it is the subject of much study in Italy (from the Università degli Studi di Firenze to new universities such as the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche, in Pollenzo).

The authors acknowledge that Italian food is widely fetishized. Examples are Bistecca Fiorentina (much of which comes from Spain rather than a prized breed of local Tuscan cattle), and prosciutto and parmigiano from Emilia-Romagna.

Fetishized, however, would imply irrational commitment, yet the excellence of regional cuisine—albeit socially constructed—still is widely acknowledged and genuinely appreciated. And thus, the food-diverse and -rich Emiglia-Romagna, is as good a place as any to center Harper and Faccioli’s study. The cuisine, situated in some of the most fertile farmland in Italy and boasting regional delicacies such as aceto balsamico di Modena, prosciutto from Parma, and parmigiano from Reggio nell’Emilia, is rightly the focus of this book.

In terms of methodology and data analysis, there seems to be much room for interpretation and explanation between the two authors, and all ideas were vetted by Faccioli (“written by Harper, guided by Faccioli,” Harper writes, p. 16). Faccioli also organized the “research dinners,” served as interpreter, and helped arrange interviews. Research dinners amounted to joining families for lunch or dinner on more than ten fieldwork trips lasting about a week or two and extending over five years; the study mostly was “self-financed,” according to Harper. Subjects, representing 25 families, are introduced early in the book with photographs and brief biographies—and later, discussed in an interesting typology—“traditional ritualism,” “traditional pragmatists,” “eclectic ritualists,” and “eclectic pragmatists.” For example, an eclectic pragmatist may regard food in a practical way but is a loyal Italian, “eating as directed by the culture” (p. 269); a traditional pragmatist may have less of an intense commitment to food, but still believes in unique regional tastes and flavors.

As part of the research, families prepared food as they normally would, although the “typical” meal might seem elaborate to outsiders’ sensibilities. Research also consisted of the occasional invitation to dinner parties or other events, where food was a focus. An open-ended questionnaire was used as a survey instrument to stimulate discussion. In the end, the 25 Bolognese families appearing in the study represented a wide range of social class, age, experience, and viewpoint.

One theme that I understood throughout the book is that time is a limiting factor in much of the food practice discussed—time in turning the ham or in checking the wine bottles in the cellar, as well as in all aspects of Italian food preparation; it would have been interesting to have more development of this key concept. Also, the discussion of food authentication and certification (“Denominazione d’Origine Protetta” (DOP) and more, such as that of the Slow Food movement) is provocative but sparse, as is mention of environmental impacts in the food system, and elaboration on both would have been a useful addition.

The authors provide intriguing historical information of traditional cuisines and how they varied among regions—from the mercantile northern regions, with a wide variety of fats and oils available, as well as protein, grains, and dairy to the isolated “shepherd” cultures of the South with fish and vegetables and olive oil as the normal fare. Important work is mentioned, by gastronomic historians Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari. Their historical analysis inevitably leads to a discussion of Italy’s economic decline in the nineteenth century, and its chronic food shortages through to the mid-twentieth century. Various policies are blamed, resulting in surplus food inefficiently stored, excessive government taxation on food, and agriculture predominately becoming export-based and higher-priced.

Considerable discussion in the book focuses on the cultural memory of hunger in Italy, a memory that still runs deep—the cucina povera (poor people’s food), the destitution caused by various agricultural systems of servitude (the northern sharecropping or mezzadria and the southern latifundia). In times of hunger, improvisation ruled supreme—with the mezzadria workers making bread from wild berry and grape seeds, and soups made with roots from the underbrush and herbs from drainage ditches. Wheat bread then was rare, and diets consisted of polenta, chestnuts, and a “poor pasta” (pasta alla poverella; pasta in the poor way), as well as zuppa povera (poor soup). Many of the egg-less, corn-based diets led to the disease of pellagra due to the niacin deficiency inevitably resulting. However, the food largesse of the Allies in WW I, and promises of abundance thereafter from the fascists, temporarily alleviated the starvation for some. The authors note that, ironically, Benito Mussolini’s strong-willed policies (and perhaps even his veganism) elevated peasant life, but nearly destroyed it in policies of industrialized wheat farming, contributing even more to privations, and la miseria.

In recent times, what remains of normative Italian eating is a variety of rules—almost dogmatic, and seemingly without plausible explanations (cappuccino only in the morning, and when (and where) it is appropriate to have tortellini with ragú). Usually, the order of the menu is not altered, and one course is finished before the next is begun. Some rules are easier to understand—the use of sugar (sweets eaten only at the end of the meal, when there is less appetite; actually, for some sugar is used only as a spice), and wine is served sparingly, and mostly during the meal.

In the concluding pages, a Digestivo by Faccioli and Cibo per la mente (Food for Thought), by Harper offer some summary thoughts and further explanation of the research process. In fact, this process of collaboration and vetting of ideas is an important contribution that the book makes—intercultural query and triangulation to deliver questions (provided by Harper) and thoughtful reflection (offered by Facciolo).

The Italian Way appeals in many aspects—as a rural geographer, the evidence for and construction of differing regional identities centered on food production is much needed. As an environmental scientist and rural sociologist, the social ecology of food procurement, preparation, and consumption in Italy is fascinating. As one earnestly developing food classes centered on Italian food culture, the book is invaluable. This handsome book, complete with a glossary of Italian terms, notes, bibliography, and index, is both informative and insightful; I plan to use it as a text in my own food courses in Washington state and in Italy.

I would imagine that undergraduate courses in many social sciences and humanities (the historical pieces are arguably some of the most interesting in the book) would benefit from the text. All might have interest in studies on the cultural sharing of food, with its highly symbolic and ritualistic meanings. As widely noted in Italy, and by the authors, “One will not become old around a table.” Clearly, in the end, “the way Italians use food is good for social life, good for bodies, and good for the planet” (p. 285)—an appealing message indeed.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Studies, Huxley College of the EnvironmentWestern Washington UniversityBellinghamUSA

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