talians love to talk about food. Ask them how to prepare ragù, a slow-cooked meat sauce, and you’ll be regaled with stories about fresh tomatoes from the family garden and opinions about the best way to make it. In fact, in an effort to end this great debate, the city of Bologna passed an ordinance in 1982 designating the ingredients and proportions necessary to create an authentic ragù Bolognese!
But did you know the Aztecs were first to cultivate tomatoes while Italians used them as table decor?
From pasta to gnocchi, polenta to risotto, food is not only a symbol of the Italian way of life, but it also offers a vantage point to appreciate the history of Italian culture and society. A course titled “Italy: A Journey Through its Food, History and Culture,” an elective taught in English, explores these connections.
Filippo Naitana, associate professor of Italian studies, developed the new course. “Italy has an extraordinarily rich culture. I needed to identify an entry point that students would find appealing, rather than intimidating,” Naitana says, adding that food seemed like a perfect choice. “Looking through the lens of food, we also can explore artistic, economic and cultural history.”
Students learn about the extraordinary regional diversity of Italian food—from Piedmont, Tuscany, and Emilia-Romagna to Campania and Sicily—while examining topics such as the connection between diet and health, the impact of the Italian Unification on food culture, the role of cafes in the history of Italian politics, industrialization and gender roles, food regulations, food and the Italian-American experience. The impact of globalization on food production, distribution and consumption also is covered.
Whatever the topic, Naitana encourages students to share their own perspectives. “The unit on Italian-American culture is an especially rich opportunity to discuss their own families’ food culture, whether they trace their origins back to the Italian peninsula or not. We look at food culture both as a marker of Italian-American identity and as an engine for social mobility and entrepreneurship,” he says.
Naitana notes that Italians who migrated to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century brought with them recipes and traditions that formed the basis for the pan-Italian food culture we are familiar with today. Many of them supported themselves selling familiar products to other Italian immigrants.
“Countless successful businesses, Ronzoni for instance, began this way. In their new home, Italians both experimented with tradition—creating dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs—and stayed grounded in it. In fact, Naitana notes, the ubiquitous backyard gardens
in Italian-American communities connect them with a practice that dates back thousands of years. Romans prized having a garden (“hortus”) of their own to grow vegetables, fruit and grape vines: it provided them with delicious produce but also gave them a sense of place and permanency. “Hortus” means enclosure (often it literally surrounded the home). Homemade wine is also a part of that tradition.