The Intellectual Foundations of Italian Food

Is there something unique about the way Italians think and talk about food? For a long time social scientists made a distinction between societies that just cooked the same basic dishes every day, and those that had developed a high cuisine created by professional chefs for a nobility or other affluent group. This goes along with the popular notion that Europeans were the first to elevate food into an artistic practice, an expression of refinement and mastery of special skills.

This notion has gradually faded as food scholars have extended their range to include other cultures and areas, and as historians have discovered that many diverse high cuisines in other parts of the world were buried beneath a crust of European (or “continental”) cuisine, imposed as part of the civilizing mission of 19th century colonialism. We have also found that every culture makes a distinction between the foods eaten every day, and those prepared on special occasions. Everywhere we find that some kinds of food preparation and consumption are routine and uniform, while others are elaborate, complex, and require expertise beyond the ordinary.

Psychologists tell us that even in developed and wealthy countries, most food consumption is routinized and “mindless.” The choices offered on a daily basis in routine situations are often very limited. We can see this in schools and institutions, in the weekly cycle of seven dishes common in many countries, and on the ‘children’ menus in American restaurants which endlessly repeat the same five dishes. George Ritzer, among others, has argued that the repeatability and uniformity of fast food is one of its main attractions, because most people prefer not to make food choices or try something new.

The fact that so much cooking and eating is routine and unreflective, unremarkable and rarely discussed does not mean that people never think or talk about food. But it is clear that there is a world of difference between the daily bowl of porridge with honey, and a feast to celebrate a wedding or a community festival. In thinking about Italian food as a whole, it is important to remember this distance.

Every cuisine includes symbolic foods that identify a nation, a region, ethnic group or community. People may discuss and argue about these special foods at great length, and there are often local food scholars, journalists and writers who bring emblematic foods out into public debate and contribute to popular folklore. When foods get connected with a region or a community, and they generate a volume of public recognition, this can become free advertising that can turn a local specialty into a valuable commodity for export, or an attraction to tourists.

But symbolic foods often have little or no relationship to what people actually cook and eat on a daily basis. There are even places where nobody eats the food for which they are famous, for a variety of reasons. In Peru local farmers can no longer afford to eat the Quinoa which was once the staple of their diet. In Belize very few can now afford to eat lobster, which goes instead to the eponymous North American restaurant chain. In this are Italians different from other places in the world? Unfortunately we have no measure or metric for comparison – do some peoples eat a wider variety of things or pay special attention to freshness or the source of ingredients? We just cannot answer this kind of question, especially given that there is always a lot of variation in food-related practices even within a small community, or indeed in a single family.

But why should we expect places to have specific cuisines anyway? Why does it seem obvious to us that there must be something called “Italian Food,” or to expect food in Piedmont to be different from what people eat in Sicily? This was not obvious to people in earlier times – in the Roman empire, for example, people knew particular places for their special wines, oils, nuts, fruits, and sauces, but nobody expected every town or region to have its own diet or cuisine. Roman food was the standard everywhere, and differences were thought to be matters of climate or nature. People ate whatever grew best where they lived.

The individual most responsible for our modern way of thinking about terroir and the connections between people and their food was the wandering cleric and alchemist now known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). He argued that the food, water, minerals, plants and animals of every location were distinct. The cause of illness was therefore foreign substances, and the cure was to be found in local foods, water and herbal medicines from the place of birth, and this led him to systematic studies of local environments, the forerunner of modern biology and ecology. Paracelsus thought that through time, a group of people living in a specific environment would become alike and come to be identified as Germans, Italians, etc.

Paracelsus would be horrified, no doubt, to see that his ideas about place, time, and identity eventually became a foundation of capitalism; the brand. If you look at today’s marketing, the authenticity of products still depends on his three dimensions of space, time and identity. Where does the wine come from, who produced it, and how long has it been made and aged? Though Paracelsus hated Italy, he laid the intellectual foundations that today make Italy a place famous for its food.  

-Richard Wilk


Richard Wilk poses for a portrait on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at the Archaeology laboratory annex. Wilk, a Provost Professor of Anthropology, is a 2015 Distinguished Professor honoree.

Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor of anthropology at Indiana University where he directs the new Food Research Center, and a PhD program in Food and Culture. He has also taught at the University of California (Berkeley and Santa Cruz), New Mexico State University, and University College London and has held visiting professorships at Gothenburg University, the University of Marseille and the University of London. He has also worked as an applied anthropologist with UNICEF, USAID, Cultural Survival and a variety of other development organizations. Most recently he has testified as an expert witness in several Indian land tenure cases in the Belize Supreme Court.