Cuochi D’Italia

After watching several rounds of Cuochi d’Italia, I am more inclined to see regional identities as being more stable and authentic

As you know, I find popular culture to be an excellent lens through which to understand a place; seemingly innocuous, it is in fact quite powerful, as both a reflection of and an influence upon a population. The program, Cuochi d’Italia, is a great example of this, and to talk about it I want to first talk about some bigger ideas that will help me understand it.

In an earlier piece, I identified two ways of viewing the world: the Romantic and the Baroque. There are numerous other ways to do this, of course, but I like the dynamism of this pairing. The Romantic view has less to do with the things we think about when we use the word ‘romance’, and more to do with the values and perspectives that were developed by artists and poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: a love of nature and its grandest manifestations — soaring mountains, stormy skies and heaving oceans — as well as a rejection of the Industrial Revolution and the problems it caused, such as the destruction of nature and of human alienation from it. The Romantic perspective was one of looking up and out, of celebrating and embracing the world at the largest scale imaginable. The Baroque perspective, on the other hand, was about looking down and in, about seeing life in its most minute detail. Still life was a popular way for painters to contemplate and depict life, and especially death, with scenes that were small and exquisitely composed, teeming with decay and ominous in their symbolism. It was not all bad, however; just as Romanticism produced a sense of awe by mixing optimism with fear, the Baroque stirred an appreciation for life by showing it at its most swirling and vibrant as well as at its most stagnant and deteriorated.

Consider then the show, Cuochi d’Italia, and how it fits into the current political culture of Italy. Hosted by the chef Alessandro Borghese, and featuring two other chefs as judges, the Neapolitan Gennaro Esposito and the Tuscan Cristiano Tomei, it pits lesser known cooks against each other as representatives of their regional cuisines, with a Sardinian competing against a Lombard, for example, or a cook from Basilicata taking on one from Val d’Aosta. Sometimes the pairings are extreme north against extreme south, Trentino-Alto Adige versus Puglia, for example, while at other times they feature more closely aligned pairings, Lazio versus Abruzzo. These more similar pairings are no less interesting than the more contrasting couplings, as each competition draws out interesting cultural details, expressed through regional cuisines, that stimulate fun and satisfying conversations about what it means to be an Italian with a strong regional identity.

By stimulating this regional conversation, the show also produces a national imaginary from the bottom up and the inside out; that is, in a Romantic way. It presents an Italy that fits the country’s current political mood, one that is constructed by regional Italians looking up and out. Gone is the Italy of Italians who are looking up and out at Europe, or of Italians as Europeans look down and in on their homeland. Enthusiasm for the European project, and also the larger global project, has dampened considerably, not only in Italy but everywhere throughout the world. The EU dream never attained reality, and it seems to come as a great relief to Italians to step back and relive the old Italy, the Italy of aspiring unification, a dream that was never fully realized.

This is not to say that Italy was or is not a strong nation or a serious global player; it has retained its rank in the world’s top 10 economies after decades of rapid and extensive economic and political globalization. But in a social and cultural dimension, Italians seem to be happy that the old Italy, Italy as an aspiration to be achieved from one’s home region, has returned. This is Italy as a Romantic specter, as something that perhaps exists most effectively and most beautifully in the imagination of Italians who look up and out from the comfort of their region, rather than down and in from an uneasy supranational or global perch.

I recall once discussing Italian regional identities with Roberto Dainotto, a noted professor of Romance Studies at Duke University in the United States, who had just published a well received book on the state of the European Union. His contention was that national and subnational identities were just as socially constructed as were supranational ones, so being a European was no more or less fragile or artificial than was being an Italian or an Umbrian. I agreed at the time, and still do somewhat, because such an idea is a stock theory in the study of cultural geography: all places and place identities are socially constructed. After watching several rounds of Cuochi d’Italia, however, I am more inclined to see regional identities as being more stable and authentic than those that are national or supranational, rooted as they are in popular material practices such as cooking and eating, which form such an important, essential and sensual part of everyday life. Here is where the Baroque perspective comes in handy: the more deeply you peer into a place, so Europe, then Italy, then Emilia Romagna, then Parma, then the house of an individual family, then their kitchen, then the very plate in front of you, and then a single item on the plate, the more authentic it appears to be.

What is funny is that that single item can suddenly transport you back to the city and the region. Is this why Italians eat so sequentially, so as to keep the lines between their culinary and geographical imaginaries clear and untangled? As a palermitana once explained to me, in Italy, you have cake then coffee; never cake and coffee (as Americans do). Only many years later did an istriana explain to me that the reason for this strict sequencing is so as not to interfere with your experience of and appreciation for the coffee.

In any case, it seems Italians like their regions. As I I imagine it, an Italian in Romantic mode can look up and see their city, their region, and then their nation, still farther Europe, and then the world, while that same Italian in Baroque mode can look down and see their plate and then the food on it, which can then transport them back to the city and region where it is made. Parmigiano Reggiano anyone? I cannot think of a product that references the national scale with the same level of affection and authenticity, let alone one that refers to the supranational one of Europe.

Long live the Italy of regions! Viva l’Italia delle regioni!