Italy’s Special Relation Between Culture And Agriculture

If the family forms the basic sociological unit in Italy, the agro-alimentary tradition is the glue that holds it together

It would be hard to identify a dynamic that is more basic to Italy and Italians than the relation between agriculture and culture; or, to render it in Italian: coltura-cultura, the almost identical words clearly demonstrating their related nature. Of course, this relation is evident throughout the world, because it was principally through the development of agriculture that groups of human beings were able to settle in one place and still generate enough calories to sustain themselves, putting an end to the ongoing hardship of hunting and gathering that allowed for only the most meager existence.

With settlement and increased leisure, humans were able to dedicate time, energy and resources to developing the institutions that characterize civilization: housing, storage, roads and other infrastructure, and the social institutions that they supported. This is not to say that hunter-gatherer societies did not develop similar cultural phenomena, but that this human propensity was enhanced by the development of agriculture and the settlement in one place that it allowed.

The role of agriculture in the history of Italy

This is also not to say that the relation between agriculture and culture was in someway special in Italy, but there is no denying that in comparison to many other countries, it has retained a particular salience and currency in contemporary society in addition to having played a prominent role in the country’s historical development. The greatest sign of this is the irrepressible importance that food plays in Italy, where nearly everyone seems to have a fork in their hand and a foot in the countryside.

If the family forms the basic sociological unit in Italy, the agro-alimentary tradition is the glue that holds it together. Another binary that is typical of Italian thought demonstrates this relation very well: tavolo-tavola, in which il tavolo refers to the physical table while la tavola refers to the culture of sitting down together for a meal, and to all of the cultural understandings and practices that are implicated in it. And although all genders participate freely and enthusiastically in this form of sociality, I do not think la tavola is rendered in the feminine by accident.

Local production, kilometer 0

Outside the home, one sees this relation between agriculture and culture displayed in concepts such as KM 0, or Kilometer 0, meaning that foods that bear this designation are rigorously local in terms of their production and consumption. Another is the frequent indication that a particular product is described as nostrana, as in reference to salsiccia, meaning that the sausage was made by the proprietor of the market, a market that is most likely to be family-run.

The extent to which Italy retains this close connection between the land and food, held together by the family, is nothing short of remarkable in a world that increasingly militates against such small-scale and intimate relationships in favor of the efficiency of industrialization. One needs only to talk to residents of Germany, the Netherlands, the United States or Great Britain about the lack of tastiness of most of the produce that is available in their country to understand how remarkable this feature of Italian life is, keeping in mind that Italy consistently ranks in the top ten economies in the world.

The art of eating and conversation

But as I noted earlier, the culture-agriculture relation is not just about the quality of the food, but about the art of eating and conversation, and of being together around the table, that lies at the heart of Italian identity. I long ago realized that the great American passion for Italian cuisine that had its beginnings in the 1950s and then enjoyed a number of boosts throughout the ensuing decades has never fulfilled its promise, because no matter how authentic the products one can obtain are, the essential ingredient, la tavola, will forever be missing, except perhaps among those few Italian-American families who have managed to retain even a shred of this culture, or among those lovers of Italy and Italian things who have really learned the art of eating and being and have managed to incorporate it into their daily lives, as fraught and difficult as that is to do in the United States where, for example, a two-hour lunch would be almost impossible to conceive, let alone achieve.

In fact, in its mania to capture the magic of la tavola, non-Italians put too much emphasis on the food, arguing about the virtues of this or that wine or paying a fortune for a tiny chunk of plastic-wrapped cheese for which they paid an obscene amount, expecting some kind of mystical experience to ensue upon putting it to their lips. The obsession with wine leads to similar delusions, particularly as it is treated like a drink, taken after a stressful day of work, in a huge goblet and, worst of all, without food. The cocktailization of wine, as I have come to call it, is perhaps the most egregious and misguided approach to embracing Italian ways of being and eating, as well as being the most common.

The connection between soil and table

Equally strange, I think, is the Italian capacity to create la tavola even when the food betrays the connection between soil and table. Let me be clear about this; I have had many bad meals in Italy and there is no shortage of industrial products. I remember on one occasion visiting a distant relative in a small Alpine town, catching her unprepared to receive company. Calling to her small grandson, she slipped him some money and asked him to run down to the local market to pick up something sweet to eat.

I cannot remember exactly what he came back with, but it was something like a refrigerated, packaged cake that was as far away from KM 0 as could possibly be. Nevertheless, the joy of sitting around that table, eating that cake, and then drinking espresso (made from a can of pre-ground coffee no less; I have never met an Italian who owned a grinder, nor do I see whole beans for sale in the supermarket), was unmistakable.

All of that being true, there is no mistaking the special feeling that arrives when, after a simple trip to a local supermarket, one can put together a meal using ricotta, mozzarella, tomatoes, tuna, pasta, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, or any number of other products, all or most of it reflecting a local culinary culture, and originating from not too far away. And while I have enjoyed homey and delicious meals in other countries as well, where there is also a strong organic, holistic and equitable ethic, there seems to be something sui generis; that is, ancient, original and authentic, about the relation between culture and agriculture in Italy, and about the way it plays out on the Italian table.