After reading several news stories from Italy recently about Italian towns banning “ethnic foods” in their historic city centers, I’ve had a rant brewing in my head. Well, I’ve finally put it into words.
The ethnic foods ban started in Lucca, where the city enacted a measure to bar new ethnic restaurants from opening in the center. And although they claimed that this rule was directed also at fast food joints and passed in an effort to reduce litter in the prettiest parts of a pretty town, one city spokesperson made it very clear that it’s about more than just fast food and garbage: “By ethnic cuisine we mean a different cuisine. That means no new kebabs, Thai or Lebanese restaurants.”
In other words, “ethnic” = “not Italian.”
Right after Lucca’s new city rules, the city of Milan enacted a similar measure, “to protect local specialities from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisines.” That quote wasn’t from some small-minded city councilor, that’s from Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, who just happens to be a member of the Northern League. Milan and the Lombardy region are largely dominated politically by the Northern League party, which is notoriously right-wing and anti-immigrant, and which has close ties to the current Italian government run by the center-right’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
I read that quote and thought, “Now, I’m all for protecting the traditional local dishes that make Italian food so regionally diverse and interesting – after all, that’s what the Home Food organization (an organization I whole-heartedly adore) is all about. But protecting local dishes ‘from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisines?’ Umm, aren’t they popular because people like them? Not because people are being brainwashed into liking them? And why can’t we have culinary diversity co-existing peacefully side by side?”
I barely had time to continue that train of thought, however, before I was inundated with several more gems from Zaia and others supporting these laws. Here are some of my favorites (and yes, I’m being very sarcastic with the use of that word), with my emphasis in bold:
Asked if he had ever eaten a kebab, Mr Zaia said: “No – and I defy anyone to prove the contrary. I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto. I even refuse to eat pineapple.”
Davide Boni, a councillor in Milan for the Northern League, which also opposes the building of mosques in Italian cities, said that kebab shop owners were prepared to work long hours, which was unfair competition.
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There is confusion, however, over what is meant by ethnic. Mr Di Grazia said that French restaurants would be allowed. He was unsure, though, about Sicilian cuisine. It is influenced by Arab cooking.
So, we have someone who is fiercely proud of his culinary blinders, someone who thinks being willing to work hard gives people an unfair advantage, and someone who would be more accepting of a new French restaurant than a new Sicilian one – despite the fact that Sicily (and not France) is part of Italy.
Good heavens, where do I begin? From the top down, I guess…
- I see absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating and even preferring the dishes of one’s native region, but the Italians take this to a new level. “Nobody makes (fill in the blank) like Mamma” might seem like an Italian stereotype, but as anyone with a degree in Sociology (like yours truly) can tell you, stereotypes often come from something factual. Italians love their regional cooking so much that a similar recipe 20 miles down the road – a dish that to any other person would taste identical to the first – is considered wrong or even unacceptable because of its differences. Is that charming, or closed-minded? Well, when someone refuses to even eat pineapple, I’d call it closed-minded. And silly.
- Italy is one of the many countries where what you do for a living does not define who you are. In the U.S., what’s the first question someone asks you upon meeting? It’s almost always “What do you do?” In Italy, it’s usually “Where are you from?” – the idea being that the part of the country an Italian hails from can tell another Italian almost everything they’d need to know about that person. Additionally, Italians by and large leave their work at work. They don’t generally work copious hours of overtime, and almost the whole country shuts down in August when everyone takes the month off. I love this emphasis on life rather than one’s job – but to say that someone who is willing to put in a bit more time at the office, or (in this case) spend a few more hours at the family restaurant in order to get by or even get ahead in the world, is unfair competition to people who just want to clock out at the end of the day is ludicrous. That’s not protecting local cuisine, that’s protecting a lifestyle.
- The last quote snippet above is almost so insane that it almost doesn’t require analysis, but I’ll belabor the point here anyway. If, as some city officials have basically stated, “ethnic” = “not Italian,” then how in the hell is it that French restaurants would be acceptable where Sicilian restaurants wouldn’t? Last I checked, France hadn’t been colonized by Italy. And although Sicilians consider themselves Sicilian first and Italian second, that’s true of every single region in Italy – and Sicily is still part of Italy.
I’m not the only one getting angry about this. People have been pointing out that even things we think of as quintessentially Italian foods didn’t start out that way – the famous San Marzano tomato, for instance, now a common ingredient in many Italian classics, came from Peru in the 18th century. Can any of us imagine Italian cuisine without pasta? Well, it’s widely believed that spaghetti was brought to Italy by Marco Polo from China. One Italian chef says, “There is no dish on Earth that does not come from mixing techniques, products and tastes from cultures that have met and mingled over time.”
Italy as a whole is known for its ethnocentrism, and even xenophobia – so for me, this food debate is just a sign of a much deeper issue.
The idea that only eating one kind of food your whole life is somehow something to brag about is crazy. There are people in the world who have no choice about eating only one thing all the time, because they live in poverty – but when a supposedly well-educated person living in Western Europe refuses to eat anything but his home country’s cuisine, it’s about more than just loyalty to one’s homeland. It’s about an inherent dislike and mistrust of anything that’s “other.” And it’s just that kind of dislike and mistrust, which seems to be more and more prevalent in Italy these days, that fuels hatred and violence directed against anyone who’s not exactly like you – whether that’s immigrants or the opposing football team’s fans.
It doesn’t take much to extend one’s thought process from these ethnic food bans to the recent case of a homeless Indian immigrant outside Rome being severly beaten and then set on fire, or the September murder of an African immigrant in Milan, or the October beating of a Chinese immigrant in Rome. Stories of violence like this is all too common in the Italian news these days, which is intensely depressing and disheartening, if not entirely surprising.
But it’s got to stop.
Italy, I love you. I will continue to love you for all your fascinations as well as your faults, because it’s only when they’re taken together that we get a real sense of you who are. I don’t expect radical changes to come quickly, and I don’t even know that I want all of your quirky foibles to disappear entirely. But as a non-Italian myself – as someone who is absolutely “other” – I want to believe that the country I’m preparing to adopt as my new home doesn’t have it out for me from the moment I set foot on its soil. I want to believe that if I play by the rules (and that those rules are fair) that I’ll be accepted with open arms. I don’t care if you never think I make pasta properly, I just want to be allowed to be different while in your borders.
Whether I’m imposing too much of an American idea, the “melting pot” concept, on a country that wasn’t built on that foundation is up for debate, but I don’t think I’m expecting more of Italy than I expect of any individual person. I’m only expecting basic human decency.