Pineapple prohibited: “xenofoodism” in Italy

Above: Self-described “gastronomad” Vittorio Castellani published this vignette today on the Acquabuona blog. He grabbed the cartoon from somewhere on the internet and rewrote the caption: “Now that they have finally closed all those kebab houses, sushi bars, and Indian restaurants, we can start going out to dinner again!” The “Lucca” on the back of the man’s shirt refers to the city in Tuscany, where “ethnic food” was recently prohibited by the local government.

As I sit here translating La cucina veneziana (Venetian Cuisine) for the Oronzo Editions (New York) series of regional Italian cookbooks (to be released this spring), I feel a certain if modest confidence of my status as a purveyor of Italian gastronomic culture. After all, since my early days writing for La cucina italiana, I have been involved in Italian wine and food writing and marketing for more than a decade.

In the light of my interest in (and love and passion for) Italian culinary tradition, I feel duty-bound to share some disconcerting news that arrived today from Italy (ironically, in the same GoogleReader page of feeds informing me that Prime Minister Berlusconi has called Italy’s 1938 adoption of the Race Laws “a deep wound”): according to a report published on Tuesday in the daily La Repubblica, the township of Lucca has officially banned any “ethnic” food vendors from its historic center. The text of the new law, passed by local legislators, is as follows (reported by La Repubblica):

    “In order to safeguard culinary tradition and [Lucca’s] unique architectural, structural, cultural, and historic character and urban design, the commissioning of administrative operations is not allowed when such activities are ascribable to different ethnicities” (translation mine).

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of what “gastronomad” Vittorio Castellani has called Italian “xenofoodism” in a comment he left on the newspaper’s website and on the wall of his FB group The Couscous Clan (even though his neologism, etymologically, doesn’t really mean fear of the food of others; it actually means the fetishization of foreign foods, if you read the suffix -ism in the sense that it is used in sexism or racism, “Forming nouns with the sense ‘belief in the superiority of one over another'” [OED Online Edition]; xenophagophobia or xenoanorexia are more apt terms, the latter being particularly fitting in my opinion).

Above: Italy’s agriculture minister Luca Zaia has adopted nationalist and protectionist policies with racist undertones since his installment in April 2008.

In fact, since Berlusconi took office last April and installed Luca Zaia as agriculture minister, the Italian government has adopted an official policy of agricultural protectionism with racist undertones. As Christmas approached last year, Zaia published this astounding declaration of karpophobia in his blog: “Zampone [pig trotter stuffed with head cheese, boiled], cotecchino [pork sausage encased in pork rind, boiled], and lentils will surely not be missing at the Zaia residence! No pineapple, but fruit from our [Italian] farms…”

In November, he asked his readers: “How do you select restaurants for your dinners and lunches? Have you ever visited Chinese restaurants or restaurants with other ethnic origins?” Thirty-one readers responded to this racially charged survey.

Above: Traditional “tramezzini” (literally, “in-betweens”) at Sant’Ambroeus in New York, the North American satellite of the Milanese classic cafè, opened in 1936. I highly recommend it in NYC or Italy.

What business do I have posting my editorial on Italian or even Lucchese “ethnic food” policies? None, aside from my knowledge that Italian cuisine became a universal gastronomic language thanks to its absorption and incorporation of foreign culinary traditions. Dried pasta? From the Arab world (yes, the Arab world). Tomatoes? From the New World. Corn for Zaia’s beloved polenta (I love polenta, too, btw)? From the New World. Stockfish (baccalà)? From Norway.

No polenta e baccalà? I can’t imagine a world without it nor do I know of another country where these two foodstuffs could be brought together so deliciously!

I’ll say no more but leave you with food for thought. At the height of fascism, Italian “purist” linguists created the world tramezzino to purge the Italian language of the English sandwich (used to denote what were called tea sandwiches in Britain). Where would the world be today without the Italians amelioration of English cooking? If only Italian winemakers would develop a fear of foreign grape varieties!

Thank you for reading this far…


Se il mare fosse de tocio
e i monti de polenta
oh mamma che tociade,
polenta e baccalà.
Perché non m’ami più?

If the sea were made of gravy
and the mountains of polenta
oh mama, what sops!
polenta and baccalà.
Why don’t you love me anymore?

— from “La Mula de Parenzo,” traditional folksong of the Veneto and Friuli

13 thoughts on “Pineapple prohibited: “xenofoodism” in Italy

  1. I thought the word “tramezzino” had something to do with the shape of the ‘wich…or maybe it would be called a “triangolo”. Well, I hope Parma doesn’t enact a similar law b/c there is an Indian restaurant in the town center that competes with the best in the SF Bay Area.

  2. I have had (expat) friends call Italians “food fascists” long before I read this, but I never thought things would get as bad as to outlaw foreign food. Come on!

    Your points about Italian ingredients coming from all over the world is interesting. Also: Good thing America didn’t outlaw pizza (USA’s most popular fast food) years ago.

    Finally, for me, the only missing piece in making Udine the perfect Italian city is the lack of a decent Indian restaurant. We finally got a good Sushi place here 2 years ago and it’s wildy popular!

  3. I’ll be frank: in all the years I lived in Italy I never ate anything but “Italian” food, on the basis that it would be somewhat akin to going to a wine tasting of vintage Barolo and asking for Coke. Likewise I can’t imagine the residents of Lucca will forever turn their back on spaghetti al pomodoro the minute they taste a good kebab. I’m actually surprised such a discriminating law is actually possible within Italy’s (albeit shoddy) legal framework. And how do you class a food as “ethnic”? Anything “mamma” can’t make? It’s this kind of national insecurity and small-mindedness which only degrades Italy’s already tarnished image abroad.

  4. I recall having a decent Indian meal in Udine’s historic center five years ago…it may have been a vegetarian restaurant. There was a little canal running underneath or next to the restaurant.

  5. I missed this one. Truly shocking. This is the week of Il Giorno della Memoria, Jan 27, which honors those who died in the SHOAH. I remember when the parliament instituted this day. It seemed like a big victory. While food fascism isn’t not akin to the Holocaust, it is worrisome and absurd. I am not surprised that things have gotten so out of hand however. I have much to say on the subject, but shall refrain. Thanks for bringing up this important issue….

  6. Given how badly Americans have bastardized Italian cuisine, you’d think they’d be anxious to return the favor! Seriously though, you couldn’t be more right. Italy is as much a melting pot when it comes to cultural influences on their cuisine as anyone else. While maintaining the integrity of your own cuisine is important, banning others seems a bit schoolyard-bullyish.

  7. it is not about banning…it is about other countries using labels like “parmesan” or “prosecco” that are intended to be of a certain standard of quality and copying them with products that have nothing to do with the italian quality thus making the efford of thousand of italian producers to insure a high standard of quality for their products effortless.

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