It is not usual for interviews with historians to cause a media frenzy, but it has happened. A few days ago Financial Times He managed to shock the international gastronomic scene with an interview with the historian Alberto Grandi. In it, Grandi asserts that carbonara is an American recipe, that most Italians didn’t know what pizza was until the 1950s, or that the first pizzeria opened in New York.
The goal has been achieved. In a few months, we will forget about the controversy and maybe also about Grandi. But before that he Financial Times It has had its share of extra views and this author’s books will sell like hotcakes, that’s what it’s all about.
Because what Grandy does, outside of a great campaign, is nothing new. In fact, he himself refers to Eric Hobsbawm, one of the many historians of the second half of the 20th century who devoted himself to analyzing the phenomenon of tradition to establish that it is, in fact, something we have largely invented. What the Italian advocated is basically the same idea, but advanced half a century later and in a much more effective way.
Gastronomy has not always been in the center of attention. As we understand it today, it is essentially a modern idea. The word gastronomy itself did not become popular until the 19th century and, with notable exceptions, very little was written, other than recipe books and technical manuals, on gastronomic theory before 1900. At least, compared to what happened 60 years ago.
This gradual emergence of interest in gastronomy occurred at a pivotal moment between the formation of modern national sentiments and the post-World War II era of development. That is, it was at the time when peoples began to realize their identity, and at that moment a cultural and economic context was formed in which we still live.
What happened in the years when Grandi put the look of carbonara or interest in pizza? Italy, like the United States, was emerging from a troubled period. After the economic crises and the post-war period, in the 1940s and 1950s, the expansion of the middle class began. many more people than in the previous phase, with free time to engage in new interests and more money to devote to them. And with them came a great interest in gastronomy.
It is at this time that the gastronomic debate begins to become popular. It is when there is a need to standardize recipes, practices and customs that existed before but were subject to some variability precisely because this codification did not take place.
It is in the middle third of the 20th century that life-long classics such as Gilda of San Sebastian or patatas bravas appear in our environment, as studied by Ana Vega; when the word “tapa” enters the dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spain. Gastronomic icons in our modern culture that form during that period.
At the moment when an important segment of society starts to take an interest in gastronomy, there is a need to conceptualize it, explain it and be able to define dishes, recipes and cooking habits in a simple and easy to communicate way. Let’s think about regional costumes as we know them today. They are 19th century costumes. There have been others in the past that have led to these. And then their evolution would be if we didn’t define them clearly at some point. At that very moment, between the emergence of national identities and the expansion of the middle class.
With many recipes this happened, as with those suits and many other things; they have existed before, perhaps with variants and different names, or none at all. It’s just that at some point someone named them, determined the place of origin to the detriment of others and captured them in writing, somehow freezing them over time and turning them into symbols.
Grundy’s claim of carbonara’s American origins is not so surprising from this perspective. It is not strange, because two questions are added to it. The first is the historical moment, which we have already talked about, and the second is the emergence of a sense of belonging among the immigrant groups that had gathered in different places since the end of the 19th century.
This is the case of the Italian community in New York and other cities on the East Coast of North America. Tens of thousands of people have moved thousands of kilometers from their place of origin, and their cultural references need symbols around which to rally and strengthen their sense of identity.
The Italian community in the US has found some of these symbols in recognizable dishes, distinct from their own and those around them. Since most of the Italian immigrants to the east coast were from the south, from Sicily, Naples, Calabria, they did it around the traditional dishes of their region of origin: pizza, pasta with meatballs, pasta with tomatoes.
In Buenos Aires, where the Italian immigrant community came mainly from the northwest, the icons were different: fainá, pascualina, fugazzeta… Some and others recreated something that was not Italian cuisine; it was their Italian cuisine, or rather their idea of Italian cuisine, a set of recognizable symbols around which to build a community. And it is not surprising that some of them opened in the societies that welcomed them, at that time more economically developed, restaurants, where these recipes and some other recipes, for example carbonara, were first standardized and received a written form. Which, as it is easy to assume, does not mean that they were born there or appeared out of nowhere, without antecedents that gradually shaped them.
The same thing happened with the Galician emigrants in northern Europe. Queimada, that drink that has become iconic today, a recognizable symbol of Galician gastronomy, was born just like that. In fact, we more or less know when.
In 1955, a potter from Mondonedo, Tito Freire, modeled the first queimada, the vessel in which the mixture is prepared. In the following years, the drink became popular among Galician emigrants who met in Galician centers in Basel, Zurich, Heidelberg or the suburbs of Paris to feel part of their community around a common icon that would somehow be material. identity. The ritual was such a success that in 1967 the poet Marcos Abalo wrote a famous one burn spellwhich makes tourists think about the Celtic past lost in the mists of time. Owls, owls / Witches and Witches…
Perhaps Grandi will reveal in his next book that the burn is actually German and was invented on the outskirts of Dusseldorf. And it may be that in a sense, in the sense that he chooses to ignore context, he is right. Although, as with carbonara and pizza, the data itself is useless.
I had a professor in college who, to avoid being seduced by a fact so common among amateur historians, came to class one morning and wrote a big 3 on the board. “These data are of use to us,” he said. “If we don’t know whether the 3 is the result of adding 2+1, subtracting 8-5, or calculating the square root of 9, then the 3 itself, without the context to explain it, serves only as a decorative object. ” The same applies to Grundy’s American Pizza. it means nothing by itself.
Deprived of its origins in immigrant communities, that pizza, not understanding how it got there, is emptied of any cultural charge, turning into a passing bait. The fact that this American restaurant of 1911 has its roots in a cultural tradition that has crossed the Atlantic Ocean, retaining its symbolic power, in no way undermines the legitimacy of Italian claims to its gastronomy, but in any case enriches them.
In any case, I am optimistic. if all these controversies help one part of the gastronomic field understand the cultural and symbolic implications of gastronomy, or all of us reflect on the tradition and its implications, welcome.