Mulino Bianco and the Consumption of Fantasy

Un biscottino speciale

Like an old yellow page pulled out from a child’s primer, Barilla’s Mulino Bianco biscuit bags evoke an idyllic past, purifying the consumption and commerce inherent in the foodstuff’s mass production. Introduced in 1975, Mulino Bianco, white mill in Italian, is the pastry spin off of Northern Italian pasta giant, Barilla. Manufacturing treats typically found in local pasticcerie and panifici, Mulino Bianco sells breakfast biscuits, soft American-style breads, snacks and desserts. Most of these goods are packed in a pale yellow bag. But this bag isn’t the only feature that unifies the brand. Mulino Bianco infuses an aura of sentimental tradition through their products, linguistically and visually dividing them from other food companies.

Italian supermarkets frequently produce generic versions of Mulino Bianco products. Given the company’s presence at grocery stores across the Belpaese, Mulino Bianco may be seen as the Italian answer to America’s Pepperidge Farm or Britain’s McVitie’s. Crunchy digestives are remarkably similar to hard macine cookies and squishy chocolate chip muffins resemble soft pangocciole. If certain textures and tastes are the domain of industrial foods, Barilla uses Mulino Bianco to insert Italian tradition and Italian tastes into the global mass-production dialogue.

Whether it’s a softened milk-dunked cookie at breakfast, chewy brioche for merenda (snack time) or soft cake for a cheeky after dinner treat, Mulino Bianco’s range of products ensures that that throughout the day Italians ‘mangia sano, torna alla natura’, eat healthfully, return to nature. Given the ample biscuit varieties — and heavy advertising investment — cookies can be seen as Mulino Bianco’s primary product. Since a typical Italian colazione (breakfast) consists of a couple biscotti and a drink, Italians are most likely to interact with the brand at breakfast. Mulino Bianco reaffirms the cookies’ place at the wholesome breakfast table through the serving recommendations posted on their website and on the backs of bags.[1] These recommendations illustrate the ideal Italian consumer for each cookie, while applying reassuring gender roles to the entire family. Whether the bags describe a dynamic man, sedentary woman or young child, everyone knows their position at the Mulino Bianco breakfast table.

mb10_-_mulino_bianco_tarallucci_400_gYet these positions momentarily fade away as the family unites, gazing at the Tarallucci bag.[2] From the background illustration and the antiquated serif font to the literary conjugations and the rustic cookie, Mulino Bianco promotes industrial foodstuffs through visual symbols that juxtapose the mass-market treat with nature’s nourishment. On the straw yellow background, faded colours accent a large image composed of short brown lines. If the pale hues allude to aged paper, the pencil mark lines feign a hand drawn image. The muted pastels might be watercolours or coloured pencil. If these soft colours evoke a child’s nursery and the drawing a kid’s handiwork, the Tarallucci logo reinforces this childhood atmosphere. The large ‘T’ juxtaposed with smaller letters resemble posters teaching children their ABCs — ‘D is for Dog’, ‘C significa Cane’. Mulino Bianco’s bag teaches the eater that T is for Tarallucci and that, by extension, Mulino Bianco stands for an innocent breakfast.

Pastoral imagery may be seen as an extension of the childhood motif — chickens, eggs, and trees frequently grace baby blankets and clothing — but the rural idyll also contrasts the eater’s present with an idealised past. In both their packaging and advertisements Mulino Bianco cites nature and rural nostalgia as key themes. Combining nature — rolling fields of grain, a chicken named Rosita — and rural nostalgia — playing in the countryside, farm-fresh eggs — the product appeals to both parents and kids by accessing a shared fantasy of a better life. Grabbing the bag of Tarallucci, the adult eater returns to a world where childhood innocence reigns. Meanwhile, the child enters the storybook world where chicken roam free and biscuits abound. The biscuit bag ushers parents and children into a pure space where contemporary life gives way to a paradoxical abundance of simplicity, as well as an abundance of cookies.

Mulino Bianco uses serif fonts to depict the return to the past, purifying their marketing techniques. Parents recognize the typeface as a rejection of flashy computer generated fonts and kids recognize it as the font found in storybooks. The lettering, however, is designed to build the brand’s sentimental image. Since this old fashioned style does not appear on other Barilla logos and packaging, the typeface rejects the presence in the sense that it sets Mulino Bianco apart from other common supermarket lines. Thus, the supposedly old time-y font allows Mulino Bianco to refute industrial food products, while utilizing clever marketing techniques.

The slogan also cites the past to highlight the cookie’s role in a better, pure, lifestyle, ‘chi fosse veramente la pastafrolla ce l’aveva stampato sul volto’ — ‘the real pastafrolla/shortbread had it printed on their face’. Pastafrolla is a crumbly dough similar to shortbread, but enriched with eggs.[3] Simple pastafrolla biscuits are served at panifici and now, Mulino Bianco asserts, more conveniently available at the grocery store. Although Mulino Bianco was one of the first Italian companies to introduce mass-produced foodstuffs, their use of the past conjunctive — a sophisticated tense used to express emotion — manipulates time, flipping their position from creator of processed food to defender of tradition. Whereas it was previously simple to discern real pastafrolla from imitations, sub-par grocery store biscuits now dominate. Mulino Bianco implies the consumer must choose: either buy Tarallucci or waste your time searching in vain for the real pastafrolla.

The past imperfect phrase ‘ce l’aveva stampato sul volto’ — had it printed on their face — suggests that Mulino Bianco presents Tarallucci as the solution to fake biscuits. If the image of the biscuit — marked with an image of a mill, mulino, and the name Tarallucci — references ‘stampato sul volto’, then Barilla equates the image of their biscuit with the real pastafrolla, as it used to be made. The past imperfect — which frequently begins fairytales ‘c’era una volta’, once upon a time — emphasises those golden days. Mulino Bianco manipulates tenses to flip the dialogue, switching their role from producer of fake biscuits, or antagonist of quality, to baker of authentic pastafrolla, or champion of tradition.

While Barilla ensures the cookie looks appropriately rustic — the faint gleam of an egg wash is just visible — they also ensure the cookie cites the brand’s name, Mulino Bianco. The mulino in the middle of the cookie, ostensibly the same one featured in the background image, allows it to carry the brand’s identity after being deposited into the biscuit tin.[4] Although the consumer may be familiar with the word mulino, they are unlikely to produce an immediate definition. The term’s vagueness allows Barilla to define mulino as they wish. In this case, the mill is equated with a good cookie and the tradition that made it. Thus, the picture on the cookie — and image of the cookie on the package — conveys Mulino Bianco brand, ensuring the eater connects with the company’s message whether or not they see the logo.

Back of Mulino Bianco Tarallucci bag

The back of the package contextualizes Mulino Bianco’s wholesome attitude in contemporary society, suggesting that a natural lifestyle can quell modern woes. Written in a bold and a hand drawn version of the serif on the front, the back proclaim: ‘il nostro impegno per un mondo buono’ — our commitment to a good world. The second person plural brings the consumer into the Mulino Bianco family, allowing the viewer to personalise the company’s social responsbility. The disparate fonts juxtapose innocence, the child’s hand, with the eater’s reality, the bold letters, to assert Mulino Bianco’s social relevance. Underneath, in an italicised version of the same font, the steps to a better world are clarified. The cookie’s asserted veracity is cited to reinforce the wholesomeness of Barilla’s product, ‘è fatto di: ricette semplici, ingredienti di qualità, rispetto per l’ambiente’ — it’s made of: simple recipes, quality ingredients, respect for the environment. Thus, Mulino Bianco asserts that true ingredients and family ties purify the eater’s modern world.

Highlighting the idea of recipes and ingredients could put Mulino Bianco biscuits into a dialogue on consumption and health, but the company avoids dealing with these thorny issues by highlighting the words ‘semplici’, simple, ‘qualità’, quality and ‘l’ambiente’, the environment, rather than emphasising the connecting recipes, ingredients and respect. Variously marked in green, blue and orange, these notions bring the consumer to the natural world; the biscuit is the vehicle. While the colours could be interpreted like the red light/green light nutrition signage system, given Mulino Bianco’s emphasis on nature it seems more likely that the colours reference earth, water and sun. The Mulino Bianco consumer refers to mother nature, not macronutrients, to discern good foods from bad ones. If interpreted as a parallel with the hand-drawn image on the front, then the blue (quality) represents the clouds; the green (simple) represents the earth and the grass; and the orange (environment) represents the biscuit itself. Thus, Mulino Bianco argues that in a quality world, the land provides the simple ingredient for bringing the consumer back in touch with the environment, which they can perform on a daily basis by eating their Tarallucci for breakfast.

Through the manipulation of pastoral imagery, an imaginary past and contemporary quality, Mulino Bianco ascribes a natural, wholesome meaning to their mass produced industrial products. As Mulino Bianco expands and exports their products, these foodstuffs become increasingly synonymous with Italy. It remains to be seen how this will impact the image of Italy as a nation driven by regional food culture. It seems certain, however, that more research needs to be done into how Mulino Bianco has impacted the Italian’s diet in the past forty years. While Mulino Bianco originally evoked nostalgia for the good old days, those good old days now include the brand’s itself.

[1] On the backs of earlier biscuit bags, Mulino Bianco included detailed descriptions of how to include the cookie into a healthy breakfast.

[2] They could unite over any of the many biscuit bags. Why Tarallucci? The author is biased and prefers this biscuit to Mulino Bianco’s other products.

[3] ‘Pasta frolla’ in Slow Food, 2010. The Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking. Bra: Slow Food Editore. p 400.

[4] Not just a British or American mainstay, biscuit tins and boxes can be found throughout Italy. Mulino Bianco frequently runs promotions offering them.

Five Friday Reads 27.02.2015

Post Office in Pavia in snow

 

  • The World Permutations of Pasta‘ from Munchies. Who invented noodles? I think Brady Ng would say it doesn’t much matter with a food so delicious and infinitely culturally adaptable.
  • Demystifying Sake, the Perfect Beverage for All Occasions‘ from Eater. Sake is rice wine, but that’s not all.  This article ventures into how sake is brewed to figure out what makes the rice wine so special (and whether you should drink it warm or chilled).
  • Tell Us About the Arctic‘ from Louisiana Museum on Youtube. The Arctic: the coldest place on earth with the least amount of life. So why are we so endlessly fascinated with it? Denmark’s Louisiana Museum asked a group writers, explorers and scientists to tell us about the allure of the North.
  • All Things Ramen‘ from Monocle. Why is Japanese a difficult language to learn? It’s super specific in describing sensorial experiences that us outsiders can only begin to discern.
  • Food & Consequences: The Meaning of “Food”‘ from Lucky Peach. What do we mean when we say food? We mean bread, we mean ubwali, we mean that cultural zero that completes the meal.

The Other Side of French Chocolate (or Nestlé’s almond, hazelnut, raisin chocolate)

Nestle raisin almond hazelnut chocolate

Swirling, melting, luscious: advertisements may hawk superlatively smooth chocolate, but in my experience, the best bars are crammed full of bits and bobs. Pass me the milk chocolate nobbly with toasted hazelnuts or the dark chocolate dusted with cacao nibs. The best bars aren’t half-heartedly studded with cardboard almonds, waxy raisins and overpowering peanuts. No, these nostalgic candies deserve a place in every supermarket from America and England to Sweden and Norway. And, yes, you can even find them in France.

Hidden amongst thin Cote D’Or bars and pale purple Milka, Nestlé’s almond, hazelnut and raisin dark chocolate bar typifies satisfyingly sweet, crunchy candy. Called grand chocolat noir raisins amandes noisettes — sing the name in French, it’s classier than the English equivalent —the ingredients smack of a Cadbury fruit and nut dairy milk rather than a sophisticated confection from La Maison du Chocolat. There’s sugar, cocoa and emulsifier!! These components remain hazy notions until you bite into the chocolate; it’s velvety soft, marvellously chewy. This is not the sophisticated indulgence Fodor’s promised abound in gay Pah-ree (!). If this Nestlé bar was on your desk at home, you would eat it haphazardly, occasionally chipping off pieces until — lo and behold! — it disappeared along with the day.

But, for the tourist accustomed to snubbing almond-studded Hershey bars, a veil of boring familiarity obscures Nestlé’s Grand Chocolat. This is the bar for the traveller who wants a nutella crepe for lunch, they don’t relish the idea of throwing back snails at le bistro. And, on one hand, their attention to the familiar does them wrong; Monoprix offers more interesting indulgences than dried fruit-studded sweets. There’s chocolate with sesame seeds, chocolate filled with almond praline or chocolate with crunchy biscuit bits. The outline of these chocolate may feature childhood memories, but the shelves at Monoprix amplify their strangeness, painting them in a delightful French glow. Those exotic bars are the French equivalent of Mr. Goodbar, Butterfinger and Crackle. But, on the other hand, even the tourist playing itself gets a lesson in France. As soon as you open the paper packaging and rip the foil on your Nestlé grand chocolat bar you realise it: this isn’t a chocolate you’ve experienced before.

High/low chocolate

Oh, those tastes we savour abroad! I ate the slick, sugary, crunchy chocolate learning more about French-ness than a walking around the Louvre could teach me. I imagined French kids savouring a square for le goûter — though they probably prefer the milk chocolate with crunchy biscuit bits that I passed by. I pretended to be a sophisticated French woman, the kind who wears navy and black and who, so I am told, can whip up a luscious chocolate cake sans a recipe. With each bite, toasted hazelnuts left the domain of healthy muesli and connected me to my fantasy Frenchie. And each subsequent piece, each subsequent bar stuffed into my suitcase, ushers me into the fanciful world of perfect French person. Sometimes, I’m not sure which delights me more: the fantasy or the chocolate.

We’ve been taught that French chocolate is balanced and sophisticated; it’s not the sugary-toothsome candy lining grocery store checkouts in America. In a society that associates America with immoderate excess and France with controlled indulgence, this constructed dichotomy drives cultural relations. If we believe it is true, then we can believe a healthier way of eating exists, available to those who integrate into an established set of cultural habits. Unfortunately, the divide between American and French habits isn’t as stringent as we might like to imagine. In a modernizing and globalizing world, our tastes slide and shift to include both the healthy and processed of foreign cuisines. Whether this means Americans producing artisanal chocolates or the French adopting industrial candy is irrelevant: we can’t choose between the positive and negatives, though we may want to. So rip open the fancy chocolate, indulge in the not-great-but-totally-delicious bars: you decide what quality means.

Five Friday Reads 20.02.2015

Snowshoe trail

  • Nobody Doesn’t Love a Cake with a Runny Center‘ from Lucky Peach. If the words ‘molten chocolate cake’ make you groan, read Lucky Peach’s humorous take on the now cliched dessert.
  • The All-American Mall Explained in Six Charts‘ from Bloomberg Business. Why are doughnuts so popular in New England malls whereas gelato rules the Southwest? These fascinating charts bring up a series of questions regarding the everyday indulgences of regional groups.
  • All About Japanese Curry Rice‘ from Serious Eats. Even if I wasn’t interested in everything Japanese after reading 1Q84, Japanese curry would capture my attention. Rich, thick, eaten with a spoon and typically made with the help of curry roux cubes this cultural calque is a fascinating mix of cultures.
  • What makes Birmingham Balti unique?‘ from BBC News. Balti, a dish from Birmingham quickly cooked in an earthenware pot over high heat without ghee, has recently applied for TSG (traditional speciality guaranteed) status to protect the dish from pale imitations. Will this decidedly non-Anglo dish get the marker? And, if so, what does that mean for British identity?
  • Salty, Sweet, Sour. Is It Time to Make Fat the Sixth Taste?‘ from NPR The Salt. While it’s evident that low-fat and full-fat products are different experiences, are the unique sensations they create different enough to be called a taste? It depends on how we define taste and perception.

Squirming Revulsion: The Case of Sardinia’s Casu Marzu Cheese

800px-Casu_Marzu_cheese

Whether whispered in hushed tones or recounted as a cautionary tale, casu marzu defies ordinary. It’s a proscribed Sardinian cheese. Made liquid through the digestive action of maggots!! Although not legally sold either in Italy — or elsewhere — the cheese retains an active symbolic life thanks to its fierce tradition, singular preparation and scarcity.

My first encounter with casu marzu wasn’t an encounter at all, but nevertheless the cheese wiggled into my consciousness like the worms wriggling inside. It was Saturday night at the Irish Pub in Pavia and I was drinking not-great beer with my French friends, Agathe and Alex. Mattia and Salvatore, the Italian first years Alex met in ‘Business English’, were there too. In patchy Italian we discussed everything from the proper pronunciation of ‘Bastille’ to Agathe’s tendency to buy Gorgonzola piccante to substitute for her preferred Roquefort. Mattia laughed, animated and high pitched. Being from Sardinia, he considered Gorgonzola, and other smelly cheeses, an odd Northern affectation. But he did enjoy casu marzu.

In Sardinian dialect, casu marzu means rotten cheese, or formaggio marcio. Made since who-knows-when, to make the cheese the top is cut off a wheel of fiore sardo, a lightly smoked cheese made from a mix of sheep and cow milk that’s aged from two to four months (‘Casu Marzu’, ‘Fiore Sardo’ Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking 135, 230). Once decapitated, larvae of cheese fly Piophila casei enter the cheese. The cheese maker may place the larvae inside, or may put the open cheese in a place where the flies live. Once inside, the worms reproduce and quickly multiply, excreting acid that liquefies the cheese and causes it to rot. While there is little information available about how long the cheese should ripen, Sardinians maintain that as long as the maggots squirm, the cheese is safe to eat. Typically spread on pane carasau, a thin and crunchy Sardinian flatbread, the cheese’s pungent flavour supposedly lingers in the mouth for hours after eating.

‘È buono! No si rende conto dei vermi.’ It’s good! You don’t notice the worms. Mattia mimed spreading a bit of cheese on bread, then savoured it slowly. The rest of us couldn’t hide our disgust. We’d accept mould, we’d accept stink, we’d accept weird Italian bars with bad beer, but we couldn’t get over squirming insects and visible rot.

300 day aged Gorgonzola

 

While East Asian cultures, where cheese is largely absent, argue that the coagulated dairy tastes of rot, those from turophilic countries with a history of cheese production and consumption might be startled to experience a similar disgust. But, as I was reminded when I tried a fudgy, molasses-like 300 day aged Gorgonzola, a cheese’s flavour needs to be easily identifiable as ‘cheese’ to be delicious. When the expected balance of nutty-sweet-salty-funky that we recognize as positive changes, our experience of cheese shifts from can’t-stop-eating to stay-away.

Neither this balance, nor lucid notes on taste and nuance, appears in articles describing casu marzu. Instead, these narratives emphasize the shock factor inherent in eating a product teeming with creepy crawlies. Our disgust is immediate and the immediate response is repulsion at consuming something so visibly alive. The refutation of living food appears in countless other ways in Western cultures. We deem Greenlanders and other Atlantic-based Arctic-dwellers ‘Eskimos’ — eaters of raw meat — to divorce us from the consumption of uncooked, nearly alive, flesh.[1] It’s also been argued that the popularity of hyper-processed consumables, prevalence of overcooked meat and legislation against raw milk is a cultural refutation of consuming the living: we want our food as far away from life to avoid facing our own mortality.[2] Casu marzu typifies this dynamic not only through the vermin crawling around inside, but also through its visible rot. We’re repulsed by casu marzu not necessarily because it would taste so horrible, but because our culture refuses to recognize it as food.

From its observable rot to infestation, casu marzu demonstrates Western society’s stratified relationship with the dynamic between living and decaying typified in cheese. On one hand, we’re revere rich, salty, nutty, sweet coagulated dairy. On the other hand, since we are ultimately consuming semi-rotten food when we ingest cheese, the difference between fetish and repulsion treads a fine line. Reading or hearing a story about casu marzu forces us to confront this tension, revealing turbulent emotions not associated with safe cheddar or fancy parmigiano. Sardinia’s famous rotten cheese scares us and fascinates us because it reveals the line between attraction and disgust aren’t as intrinsic as we perceive them to be.

[1] See An African in Greenland (Kpomassie, 2001) for more information.

[2] See Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan for more information.

Friday Five 13.02.2015

The highline

  • Against Terroir‘ by Zachary Nowak via Academia.edu. If you’re not convinced that terroir is a real, tastable, reality, you’ll find yourself nodding along to this convincing, well-researched article.
  • Pete Wells and Adam Platt on Cosme from The New York Times and New York Magazine. It seems as if all anyone has talked about recently is Enrique Olvera’s first international venture, Cosme. But is his new restaurant the shot-in-the-arm that will catapult Mexican food from bargain basement to top shelf? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.
  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Is it cheating to include a book I’m still reading? Possibly. But entering into the immersive world of this in-depth, all-encompassing novel makes you want to read little else.
  • Eating Cheese in China‘ from Slate. The Chinese don’t eat much cheese. But they do eat a good amount of stinky, fermented food. What’s it like when Westerners and Chinese trade rotten delicacies? Fuchsia Dunlop finds out.
  • ‘Cabin Fever’ from Monocle Alpino. Cabins! Repurposing spaces! The interaction between indoors and outdoors! I would gladly live in any of these mountain hideaways.

High or Low: Bel Gioioso and the Identities of American Parmesan


Cheese truck at market

Although contemporary foodie culture reveres Parmesan, the cheese does not posses a singular representation across American society. Whether gracing the tables of the revolutionary elite, languishing in a green plastic canister, or sitting atop spaghetti, in America Parmesan shifts between exclusive and ordinary. But the crumbly, high-end wheels displayed at gourmet cheese shops are decidedly not Kraft’s mass-produced canister of 100% grated Parmesan. The stark differences between the products’ respective scientific and organoleptic profiles do not, however, impact Parmesan’s diverse social identities. Examining print ads for American-produced Parmesan suggests the cheese uses production, commerce, and quality to navigate gourmet characteristics and popular characteristics, as well as Italian identities and American identities. The manner in which a specific brand mixes these attributes allows their Parmesan to claim its unique social space.

To understand how a specific Parmesan negotiates these discourses, the consumer must recognize the linguistic, historic and economic pressures which influence the foodstuff’s place in gastronomic culture. Aged for at least twelve months, Parmigiano-Reggiano has a coarse texture, nutty flavour and high protein content.[1] While the precise origins of the cheese are unknown, many agree that Benedictine monks in the provinces of Parma and Reggio-Emilia were among the first producers. By the 14th century, the cheese had earned a reputation for high-quality, appearing in Boccaccio’s Decameron as a luxurious mountain of grated cheese, ‘…ed eravi una montagna tutta di formaggio parmigiano grattugiato…’. Throughout the intervening centuries Parmigiano-Reggiano has continued to signify excellence.

Nowadays, European DOP (Dominazione di Origine Protetta) laws govern the Italian-produced cheese, which is the only iteration allowed to be named Parmigiano-Reggiano. The Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano enforces production norms and procedures to ensure the cheese’s quality. These regulations restrict the production Parmigiano-Reggiano to the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua.[2] No other cheese, regardless of how it’s made and how it tastes, can be sold as Parmesan within the European Union. Thus — though similar in production, taste and texture to ParmigianoGrana Padano occupies a different, less-exclusive market as it requires a shorter aging period with production occurring throughout the pianura padana in Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna.[3] Currently, DOP labelling laws don’t impact American cheese makers who may freely name their cheeses ‘Parmesan’ to the consternation of Italian producers and lawmakers.

Parmesan Cheese ads

Although small American companies are increasingly delivering quality Parmesans, they do not reflect the general American conception of Parmesan. In 1945 Kraft introduced 100% Real Parmesan, which become an essential accompaniment to Italian food in America, appearing at so-called red sauce joints and grab-and-go pizza parlours. As the product’s early promotional materials demonstrate, the cheese allegedly heightened the authenticity of Italian dishes coming out of the American kitchen. In these ads, the Italian tricolour suggests a departure from the everyday meal, adding a veneer of exoticism over seemingly familiar pasta. The green plastic cylinder lost its cache as Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David and Anna del Conte advocated for a more authentic Italian cuisine. Imported Parmesan, the DOP controlled Parmigiano-Reggiano, soon became the cheese of choice for tradition-oriented American cooks.

Most American-made Parmesan comes from Wisconsin-based Italian-American cheese companies, which capitalise on their connections to the Bel Paese to produce foodstuffs that mimic Parmigiano. Among the businesses that boast American-made Parmesan, the most widely available are Sarvecchio Parmesan — produced by Wisconsin-based Sartori Cheese — and Bel Gioioso’s Parmesan. And it’s the latter’s American Grana that is advertised as ‘World’s Best Parmesan.’

scaglie di parmigiano-reggiano

Examining Bel Gioioso’s ad for American Grana suggests that the company intentionally cites Parmesan to advocate for an American product influenced by Italian traditions. The 18-month aging of American Grana more closely resembles the maturation of a highly prized Parmigiano than does the company’s 10-month aged Parmesan, which is similar to Grana Padano. Why would Bel Gioioso choose to describe the cheese as Parmesan when the item’s name demonstrates otherwise? How does citing an Italian product while referencing America alter the consumer’s perception? How does Bel Gioioso manipulate Italian identity to their advantage? Bel Gioioso answers these questions in their vertical, half-page ad for American Grana.

Found among the pages of popular food periodicals in the United States, the ad for Bel Gioioso’s Grana weaves together Italian and American identities with familiar food imagery to appeal to the American consumer looking for an exotic product. The ad runs as a side bar in the back of American food-lifestyle magazines. Wisconsin Milk’s glossy, full-colour ads, found in the front of the magazine, overshadow Bel Gioioso’s basic graphics and simple serif font. Bold, black words grab the viewer’s attention, proclaiming ‘World’s Best Parmesan’. Above, a cheese still life validates Bel Gioioso’s audacious statement through its exotic undertones.

photo

The still life is composed of four portions: in the back sits a large half-wheel of American Grana, two small wedges — one shrink wrapped, one waiting to be cut — and some shards of cheese recline in the foreground. The half-wheel’s size, unconventional shape, familiar colour and smooth texture illustrate a cheese that is neither wholly American or Italian. While the dimensions could suggest American bounty, the half-wheel shape is a stranger to the American supermarket and cheese counter. If the wheel of cheese references generic Italian imagery, the recognizable symbol allows the viewer to connect their American self with the cheese’s apparently foreign identity. The cheese’s colour and texture introduce an American surface to the Italian shape. The golden hue diverges from the powdery white colour of Kraft’s ubiquitous grated Parmesan and the smooth, homogenous texture recalls industrial American cheddar. As presented in the sizeable half-wheel of American Grana, Bel Gioioso layers familiar and exotic symbols to assert that their cheese defies a binary Italian or American classification.

While the cheese’s shape introduces the interaction between Italian and American identities, the slices in the foreground portray an American manner of eating, cleaving Bel Gioioso’s Grana from the Italian-Parmigiano dialogue. The wedge — presumably cut from the wheel — may cite so-called artisanal American cheese, while the slim, shrink-wrapped triangle evokes supermarket packaging. Unlike the half-wheel’s thick rind — an Italianism alien to the American shopper accustomed to rind-less Pepper Jack and Swiss cheese — the wedge’s thin rind is delineated by a shadow. While the rind is pronounced in the packaged portion, the uniform colour and texture are maintained, dismissing foreign connotations. Thus, Bel Gioioso presents a cheese that, with its classic American image, becomes foreign through an Italian framework, as indicated in the Grana’s shape, name and process.

Yet, Bel Gioioso is careful to make sure the image remains exotic to the American supermarket shopper. In the foreground, large chunks of cheese — likely chiselled from the wedge or half-wheel — evoke Italian scaglie —shards cut from a hunk of Parmigiano. Typically cut with a granaio, Parmesan cheese knife, this manner of eating cheese requires an object and knowledge the American consumer likely lacks. Nestling this foreign symbol between familiar shapes reinforces the notion that American Grana describes an identity neither completely American nor Italian.

The neither/nor identity that arises through these mixed symbols is emphasized through the divergent cultural meanings of Grana and Parmesan. Although Italians recognize Grana Padano as a cheap, delicious alternative to Parmesan, it seems that Bel Gioioso illogically equates the two types, translating them through an American perspective. In this respect, Bel Gioioso presents American Grana as a product superior to mass-produced American Parmesan through its association with place and Italian knowledge. Neither the foodstuff nor the word Grana has entered the American vernacular. ‘American’ associates the cheese with a geographical entity, which may reference the regional importance of hyper local Parmigiano-Reggiano. Thus, Bel Gioioso’s product evades association with pre-grated Kraft. Emphasising place allows Bel Gioioso to transcend the quality differences between Parmesan and Grana while giving their product a sense of regionalism typically reserved for Italian products.

Grana Padano sign at Eataly Torino Lingotto

At the bottom, the company’s seal explicitly references the interaction between Italian and American traditions, developing the dynamic through translation. Green ribbons declaring ‘Classic Italian Cheeses Made in the USA’ in English and Italian flank a gold-framed oval with crisscrossed American and Italian flags in the centre. Beneath the seal, the instructive phrase ‘say bel-joy-oso’ blends into the beige background. With the interaction of Italian knowledge and American structure, the translation uses simple wording to help the viewer interpret ‘formaggi classici italiani fatti in America’. The seemingly direct parallel between the two language structures suggests that Italian and American cheese and identities can be linked with similar ease. While the Wisconsin cheese label in the bottom corner may be simply a bureaucratic obligation, it can also be seen as an illustration of how American space anchors the cheese’s cultural meaning. Bel Gioioso doesn’t make American cheeses, they make cheese in America filtered through Italian traditions.

Bel Gioioso’s ad for American Grana illustrates Parmesan cheese as a site for the negotiation of Italian and American identities. Parmesan has long served as a way for American consumers to interact with exotic Italian traditions. Ads for Kraft Grated Parmesan similarly illustrate the consumption and purchasing of Parmesan as an act of incorporating the Italian into the shopper’s every day American life. Still today, many American expect Parmesan, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, to be available grated. As the naming, production and movement of cheese is contested in the EU, with implications for American producers, it pays to give a closer examination to the points where these seemingly divergent traditions intersect. Only through reflection on this dynamic can cheese producers and lawmakers gain insight into cheese and identity.

[1] Berti, A., Canvari, M., and King, R. P. 2005. The supply chain for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in the United States. Food, Agriculture and the Environment: Economic Issues, [online]. Available at: <https://www.academia.edu/2722756/The_supply_chain_for_Parmigiano-Reggiano_cheese_in_the_United_States&gt; [Accessed 28 January 2015].

[2] Riley, G., 2007. ‘Parmesan’. In: The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 361-365.

[3] Riley, G., 2007. ‘Grana Padano’. pp. 235-237.