“They Can’t Digest Pasta”: The Sinister Side to Italy’s Passion for Food.

Matteo Salvini — scoffing. (Image from Il Fatto Quotidiano: https://tinyurl.com/yy6xv6yo)

When a nation’s passion for food becomes more than a little problematic.

Back in 2014, at the height of the ‘refugee crisis’ that ultimately brought the far-right Italian politician, Matteo Salvini, to popularity, there was a strange story in the Italian news.

Accompanied by images of piles of individually packed meal portions, the story — in Il Giornale, a notoriously populist paper — was that the ‘immigrants’ didn’t like the food that they were being given by authorities.

This, inevitably, was pasta with tomatoes and ‘meat’.

It came at a time at which the press — particularly the right-wing press such as the Berlusconist Il Giornale — delighted in stories about the ingratitude and entitlement of the refugees, or the ‘clandestini’, as the spin generally depicted them — and as it depicts them today. The migrants demand Sky. They demand pocket money. They demand Wi-Fi.

Yet, this particular story revealed something a little more than the breathless denunciation of these refugees.

The interesting moment came from a member of Movimento 5 Stelle, the party who now governs Italy with the Partito Democratico — after the collapse of their previous coalition with Salvini’s Lega. Marialucia Lorefice, politician since 2013 and now president of the Committee for Social Affairs, made the striking claim that pasta couldn’t be given to immigrants because they ‘are unable to digest it’. Her comments also referred to the fact that, being all Muslims, they were prohibited from eating ‘meat’ too.

Maybe she intended all this well — and it’s not like Il Giornale was sympathising with her position. However, the implication, in effect, is a sinister one, one whose particular discourse is mobilised by Italian politicians even now.

The use of the imagery of food in politics has always been part of the populist repertoire. No matter which country you may come to look at — from Trump’s table of hamburgers to Theresa May’s fish and chips — food has always been a tool for politicians to demonstrate that they are, indeed, just like us.

Yet, whilst in a country like the UK — which lacks a strong culinary tradition — the public response, from May to David Cameron to Ed Miliband, is one of scorn, it all goes down a little better in Italy. Of course, Italy’s passion for food — symbolising family, tradition, the good life — makes the Brits, in comparison, seem like barbarians.

It is Salvini that has taken the use of food in his political imagery to the furthest degree. Known for interspersing his immigrant-bashing with images of kittens, bicycles, and him DJing, food fits perfectly into his particular man-of-the-people pose. From pizza to fried fish, regional delicacies to supermarket pasta, Salvini’s social media profile has it all. The image of his Nutella breakfast — on the morning of an earthquake in southern Italy — is only the most famous.

And whilst this all seems pretty harmless, it isn’t.

Since late 2013, when he was elected leader of Lega, Salvini has transformed himself from an obscure, extremist crank into ‘the Captain’, the biggest name in the Italian political landscape. And whilst haranguing his rightist audiences with tirades against rapist, terrorist, criminal Africans, he’s used this symbolism of food to lay claim to a national identity that sees itself as above and untainted by politics.

By dressing himself in the garms of a foodie — and by juxtaposing images of national dishes (because it is always Italian dishes) with his anti-immigrant politics — he has drawn the connection between italianità per se and his ideas. And this only serves to give greater legitimacy to the latter.

This particular tactic of the right — one, of course, in a whole armoury of others — is as old as politics itself, or, at least, as old as national identities.

Roland Barthes, the philosopher and reader par excellence of the semiotics of everyday things, wrote in the sixties that ‘food permits a person … to partake each day of the national past’’. Cooking ‘is the repository of a whole experience, of the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors’. ‘Through the food’, he continued, one ‘experiences a certain national continuity’.

This ‘national continuity’ is precisely why food is such a powerful weapon for the far-right — and why, in the Italian context particularly (unlike the UK), food functions so effectively in politics. It is, again, a neutral political ground. A ground of which nationalists such as Salvini and his party’s allies, Fratelli d’Italia — whose campaign, ‘Hands Off Our Parmesan!’, defended the cheese from being bought by ‘France’ — can claim to be the defenders.

M5S’s Lorefice’s comments, on the inability of migrants to digest pasta, suggest that the Italian nationalisms that coalesce around food aren’t limited to the conventional far-right (from whom the ‘non-ideological’ M5S regularly borrow tactics, by the way). Rather, Lorefice’s comments are perhaps even more troubling — well-meaning or otherwise — as the importation of biology into national difference does not have a pretty history.

What all of these politicians do, however, is to demarcate the boundaries of the nation and of legitimate citizenship by reference to a food that is ‘ours’ — with the implication that you can’t be Italian if you don’t like the food (this continues in the Italian press with a mesmerising regularity). And it finds its parallel in the complaints about the hipster ‘metropolitan elites’ who like ‘ethnic food’ — and, incidentally, in the UK’s strange half-joke-but-not-really about the ‘treasonous’ Brits who prefer coffee to tea.

In Amara Lakhous’s 2006 novel, Clash of Civilisations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, an Iranian immigrant asks the question: ‘is it against the law to be a pizza-hater?’.

We’re not going to get to this point. Yet, the weaponisation of food — and of culinary identity, shall we say, as whole — by nationalisms is troubling. And this has nothing to do with a rather banal point about the historical inaccuracy of the idea of a coherent ‘Italian food’.

Rather, it all goes to show that nothing at all is ‘above’ politics. And that any ‘national’ tradition — however popular it might be — always runs the risk of a manipulation towards something much more dangerous.

Food stories, recipes, and politics from a Brit in an Italian kitchen.

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