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.


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.



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