Category Archives: Italy

The Twelfth Floor Heterotopia

Arlanda Airport

The other day I was in a government building and asked a guard where I could find the bathroom. ‘On the twelfth floor,’ she grunted. Then she disappeared, turning on her rubber heel, keys clanking. Right, to the twelfth floor.

The twelfth floor signalled my entrance into a heterotopia of first world bureaucracy. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French intellectual, describes a heterotopia as an enacted utopia that expresses a vision of a societal ideal. A secular higher power directs meaning within these spaces. The power may be cultural or political or social as long as it illustrates the operation of a group. Some may enter the area while others are prohibited. These spaces reveal how we structure our world and respond to taboos. They possess both intellectual and practical functions. As I examined the limbo-esque twelfth floor, I better understood my community.

In addition to public rest rooms — so-called public, I had to show an appointment confirmation and passport to pass security and access them — the twelfth floor boasted a café (aptly named Café on Twelve) and empty locked rooms. I saw a man on his phone and a woman waiting for the elevator. The emptiness evoked the distance the building put between its functions and visitors. Although the visitors had been chosen to enter, they were shielded from the bureaucracy’s inner workings. Shades of pale and mossy green covered the walls like an alien’s living room. After seeing this sinister hue, the tenth floor’s plastic pink felt like the cheery. Whereas the public amenities floor intimidated me with closed doors and strange colours, the tenth floor distracted me with a bright, false cheer. Openness and restriction characterise government bureaucracy.

Foucault argues that access to space and spatial relations dictate modern life. The sites we visit define us. Frequenting a museum or being admitted to a hospital gives us a distinct social identity through which to perpetuate culture as reflected in a given area. Government buildings accomplish a similar function. Entering one of these guarded edifices associates the individual with a specific ideology, defines them according to the law and asserts their role as an ordinary citizen. The government building is a heterotopia in that it mirrors society and social relations while existing separately from the daily orbit of most citizens.

Myriad citizenship identities were being formed and performed during my visit. There were the deviants; arguing with the guards over phones and restrictions. Others acted as enforcers, upholding social norms. Some played the atemporal: they were waiting when you arrived and waiting when you left, casting them in a separate orbit from the standard 30-minute appointment. Our purposes impacted our roles. Some sought citizenship, others green cards renewals and others foreign visas. Although the heterotopia echoed the country in which we lived, our respective sections of the mirror corresponded with our social identity.

Despite our unique roles, we were all social others — individuals seeking to alter our citizenship status — in this heterotopia of deviation. A heterotopia of deviation collects individuals whose actions, and consequently identities, digress from the social norm. Foucault argues that the heterotopia of deviation has largely replaced the heterotopia of crisis (at least in modern cultures), which dominated in centuries when knowledge directed relations between groups and individuals. A heterotopia of crisis collected individuals in a critical mental, physical or emotional period. Foucault cites boarding schools, old-style honeymoons and military service as heterotopias of crisis that separated people in compromised states from routine life. Rather than cast out people in difficult periods, we rebuke people who exhibit a strange identity.

Time impacted the social and governmental interpretation of my national identity. Defining my identity as ‘deviant’ as opposed to ‘in crisis’ was a product of the 21st century’s loosened borders. Whereas immigrants to the US during the early 20th century were processed en masse on an island, modern migrants are processed in varying degrees of public view. Migration is no longer solely the product of a crisis — of money, of religion, of food, of family — that brings migrants to a new space. While contemporary migrants may be undergoing crises, the motivations are varied. I was a deviant: I was deviating from the path my country had set for me and, accordingly, entered into spaces that delicately pushed me away from others. They pushed me toward the desolate twelfth floor.

Crossing the threshold of the heterotopia ushered me into alternate temporal realms. My time within the building was sectioned: there was my appointment time; the queues, waiting for my number to be called; and my brief appointment. Time’s regimentation within the heterotopia foreshadowed the new demarcations I’d experience upon leaving: there would be the time to send my application; the window of time during which I could enter the country; the days when I’d be permitted to pick up a residence permit; the years for which I’d be allowed to stay within the country; the hours I’d be permitted to work; the day on which I’d be required to leave. My new experience of time within the heterotopia anticipated how I’d experience shared cultural time upon leaving.

But even as this heterotopia acted upon us visitors, it also acted with us. This was how I arrived at the twelfth floor. Although the building could have been closed in a fortress of hidden governmental rules, society’s insistence on viewing itself as a democracy required it to be at least partially open. So I had the terrace café and a toilet amidst an alien-green hallway of closed doors. My heterotopia of bureaucracy asserted that my society was open, even as it partitioned my time, directed my identity and determined my movement.

Cynar: Against the boredom of modern options

If you shop for liqueurs by the label, you won’t choose Cynar. Unless you really like artichokes. A large hand-drawn image of the spiny flowerhead pops on the bright red label. Cynar, a bitter liqueur introduced in Italy in 1952, is proud to include artichokes in its proprietary blend of 13 herbs and plants. Poured over soda or mixed with scotch, Cynar has transitioned from a cool Italian aperitivodigestivo to a cool ingredient for making twists on classic cocktails.

Pezziol — a food company from Padua — created Cynar for an Italian public besotted with lightly bitter pre-dinner drinks. Among these were Campari and Aperol, introduced in 1860 and 1919 respectively, which punctuated aperitivi hours with americani and aperol spritzes. Cynar’s popularity depended on its ability to offer a unique experience of bitter in an already saturated market. They succeeded. This success may be due in part to the boom economico, which encouraged Italians with more leisure time and income to try new drinks at their local bar.

Originally advertised as fighting “against the stress of modern life”, Cynar caters to those looking for a slightly-sweet amaro with health-benefits beyond its digestion-friendly herbal blend. Artichokes may be the font of the drink’s wholesomeness, but the vegetable is more evident in the aperitf-digestif’s marketing than in its flavour. Early advertisements featured Italian actor Ernesto Calindri smiling over a small glass of Cynar, imbuing the novel amaro with old-school luxury it otherwise lacked. When Calindri wasn’t sipping his digestivo, ads featured women drinking Cynar from glasses made of artichokes and young Italians walking through forests bursting with artichokes. Not only was Cynar a delicious drink, it was also a healthy indulgence.

Despite it’s relatively low ABV, Cynar probably doesn’t deserve the healthful reputation it maintained, even if it diminishes stress. Underneath faint herbal notes, Cynar is quite sweet, making it a welcome mixer with stronger liquors such as aquavit and scotch. But Italians didn’t embrace Cynar drinking strong cocktails. Originally, the amaro was drunk straight over ice or mixed with soda for a bracing aperitivo. With only 16.5% alcohol, Cynar provided a new option for drinkers tired of their americano and not ready for a negroni. Cynar’s similarities to other bitter Italian liqueurs allowed it to become popular — it’s unique flavour ensured its continued success.

But it required more than a smiling actor to convince American cocktail-enthusiasts to embrace Cynar. There is no Cynar spritz to inspire memories (real or imagined) of glamorous aperitivi in Milan. This has become its virtue. With the absence of a sacred drink from which thou-must-not-deviate, Cynar provides an intriguing taste layer to classic cocktails. Bartenders might make a Toronto cocktail swapping out Fernet Branca for more approachable Cynar. Brunchers could opt for a mimosa, made robust through the addition of the barely biter liqueur. Whereas Cynar provided a new drink option for Italians, it now provides a new flavour option for cocktail lovers.

In 1995 the brand was sold to Campari Group, the Milanese company that owns Aperol, Averna and Campari. The amaro increasingly appears on savvy liquor store shelves outside of Italy. Whereas Cynar once tempted Italians with the promise of a modern, healthful and tranquil drink, it now presents cocktail enthusiasts with a ready twist. Cynar: against the stressors of modern life, against the boredom of modern choice.

[Image via Serious Eats]

Pizza al taglio: Singing the praises of a superior slice

Good Eats, Focacciaria

The ‘I love pizza’ chorus projects their message far, but these singers intone a one-note harmony on their alleged favourite food. Do they crave New York-style slices, Sicilian squares, or Chicago deep dish? Maybe their hearts go a-flutter at floppy Neapolitan pies, Roman ones with cracker-thin crusts or a chewy slice of Domino’s. You profess your devotion to pizza, but what’s the north star of your pizza universe?

I do not harmonize with the choir. I do not love pizza. I do not claim that takeaway pizza and frozen pies are vastly — obviously — inferior to those mythical breads from Di Matteo and Joe’s Pizza. I do not pretend that, when confronted with a New York pie, I would be able to beast the entire eighteen inches. I merely claim that, when it comes to this sacrosanct food, I prefer thick, chewy focaccia-style slices. Called pizza al taglio or pizza al trancio in Italian— both translated roughly as ‘pizza by the cut’ — the best squares combine a few inches of pillow-y dough with an olive oil-crisped bottom and a luxurious mass of stewed, basil-spiked tomato sauce and oven-scorched mozzarella on top. Crisp, chewy, sweet, salty: forget memorable pizza, pizza al taglio presents a striking way to re-experience the lunchtime standby.

In New York’s pizza universe, these stubby square slices lie untouched on their aluminium trays. They’re either unfortunately dubbed grandma slices or compared unfavourably to a gut-busting deep-dish pie. But pizza al trancio bears little resemblance to a soggy slice laden in cheap cheese grease. If Sam Sifton’s pizza cognition theory is correct — and the pizza of our youth becomes the benchmark against which we judge all pizza — then we can say that focaccia-style pizza has yet to become synonymous with so-called regular pizza because it defies the country’s collective childhood memory of the food.

Joe's Pizza of Park Slope

Sure, these thick squares combine contrasting textures, but not how we believe they should. The crust doesn’t shatter with a satisfying chip-like crunch. There’s too much bread with a decidedly assertive flavour. Even the milky mozzarella tastes dreary in comparison to American pizza’s blankets of salt-fortified low-moisture mozz. Whereas pizza al trancio softly balances tastes and textures, American pizza belts out its components, positioning itself as the singular definition of a complex product.

But pizza al taglio argues against balance as blandness. Establishing the good/bad paradigm demands eating the requisite amount of pizza al trancio. Olive oil shouldn’t ooze from the crust and that mozzarella shouldn’t pull off in glue-like strings. In Italy, taste a standard slice at your local panificio and fa la passeggiata eating a softly oily version at the local branch of Mr. Focaccia. Take the train to Milan then west to Pavia, grabbing a gloriously heavy slice from Spadaro just before their 1:30 pm lunch break. Hightail it to Turin’s Tomatika and you’ll understand properly salted sauces. Pizza al trancio is a pizza cosmos onto itself; a topography replete with mountains of geographically distinct attributes.

The pizza al taglio world extends beyond Italy, but the language for the landscape changes upon departing Italy. Eataly’s focaccia squishes gloriously, but you forget about the buffalo milk mozzarella bite. Stop by Sullivan Street Bakery for a satisfyingly sauce-less pizza bianca. Grab a floppy focaccia from Hot Bread Kitchen in the Union Square Greenmarket and bear the stares as you fare all’italiana and walk down Broadway eating it.

It’s easy to declare that pizza is delicious — that you looove it — but describing which version you enjoy, and analyzing why that style sets your mouth a-salivating, requires an examination overlooked in our consumption of this grab-and-go favourite. Tell me you love the all-out indulgence of a butter-crusted deep-dish pie; explain to me your paradoxical passion for a spongy, sweet frozen pizza; don’t just tell me you love pizza. Pizza isn’t a singular entity, it’s a mini-food universe, packed full of diverse meanings. Our opinions should be similarly diverse.

Images from top: Flickr via Andy Ciordia, Flickr via Adam Kuban

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.

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.

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.

 

Making Italian Coffee

Bialetti Moka, 3 cup

Putting the pot on the stove seems futile. Nothing will come of it. Or rather, nothing should come of it. What’s a little octagonal aluminium pot with a black plastic handle going to do other than burn or emit noxious smells? But, as long as you’re vigilant about turning off the flame, no fires or fumes will come forth.

This is the moka pot. This is the coffee pot you reach for when your shelves are stocked with Illy, Lavazza, or Caffè Kimbo. This is the coffee pot you reach for when you want your coffee to brew itself while you do something better. Need to take a break? Want to wrap yourself in tradition? Reach for the moka and the familiar sensation of toasty Italian coffee.

Like the perfectly pressed Milanese, the moka pot makes a good impression, though it’s not immediately evident how its presentation will lead to good coffee. So first you must dissemble the pot by unscrewing the large top half from the compact bottom. You’re left with three pieces: the heavy, hollow bottom, a funnel-like middle, and large top with a hinged lid with a tall spout in the centre. Remove the rubber gasket, la guarnizione, and you get another, fourth piece. Without instructions, you feel as if each piece is imbued with a special coffee-creating power. But the pot is simply the pot, just like the Milanese is simply from Milan.

Begin by pouring water into the hollow base until it reaches the valve. Then grab the piece that looks like a funnel with a flat, holey filter. Pile your finely ground coffee here. You can make a little mountain or level it off, but don’t tamp it down. The pot, they say, whoever they are, will provide all the pressure needed for a densely flavoured coffee. Next, screw on the big, unwieldy top. The hinged cover will hit you in the wrist once or twice. Place the readied moka on the stove — gas, induction, hot plate, what have you — and let it simmer over a low flame for a little while.

Moka collection

By this point of the coffee ritual you’ve entered into the Italian mindset. Rather than performing a routine dictated by modern coffee culture’s mathematical measurements, your movements reflect the person who taught you to make Italian coffee. The pot sits on the stove. It doesn’t rush. The water will boil and the coffee will arrive at some point, who knows when. Read the moka’s box, gaze at your coffee canister, boil some water to warm your espresso cup, heat some milk. Do what you like. This is your time.

Then there’s a gurgling that sounds like a gargoyle slurping foam off a cappuccino. The water is boiling. The pausa caffè is imminent. Rush to the stove, stick your face over the coffee pot. Is the lid up? It should be up. Open it if it fell down. Ever so slowly, frothy bubbles of coffee trickle out. For a moment you despair. That’s it? But that’s not it. Seconds later, the coffee flows more forcefully. The dark liquid streams into the base of the upper chamber. Now it’s a third of full, now half. All of a sudden the procession switches from hypnotic smoothness to jagged, quick spurts that jeopardize your white shirt and countertops. So you put the lid down, turn off the heat and place the pot on a trivet. The coffee continues bubbling out for a few moments, then stops. You reach for your cup, you pour the coffee.

At this point, Italians would reach for the sugar, il dolcificante, or just guzzle. What will you do? The Italians might drink from coloured tazzine or sip on a cappuccino from a larger mug. Italians drink coffee together. It’s a social action that joins communities and unites disparate regional identities, at least to a certain degree. Whether drunk alongside a pastry at breakfast or chugged for an afternoon pick-me-up, coffee bonds an individual with their social environment and cultural practices. That moka pot you put on your stove? It might be Italian, but you integrated it into your cultural dialogue. This is your kitchen. You make the routine, you craft the rituals and you can throw out everything above if you want.