The Italian Kitchen’s Resistance to Postmodernism

In the land where traditions die hard, Italy has avoided the full expansion of postmodern food processing seen in other Western nations. The result is a culinary authenticity that is often missing from the wider Western culinary experience.

Italian kitchen pasta
Homemade pasta in Emilia-Romagna. Photo: Kentaro Komada on Unsplash.

What are the philosophical roots of Italy’s high food standards? While the answer is complex, we may be able to say they are still high because of postmodernism’s limited arrival. It is also the persistance of longer standing paradigms of thought and approaches to reality itself.   Postmodernism has not fully supplanted the cultural moorings of Italians’ culinary heritage.

Many philosophical approaches to food in Italy are pre-Modern, the epic of social movements that led to postmodernism. These millennia-old Italian approaches are tethered to the physical territory and ancestral practices. In fact, it is well known Italians are not accustomed to rapid change. Since ancient times an overarching philosophy in Italy—like many other traditional cultures around the world—simply entailed eating well. Italians have resisted and survived the occupations of many foreign forces throughout history. The Italian kitchen continues to push back on postmodernity’s approach to food.

Defining postmodernism is like trying to describe the shape of an amoeba. Before looking at postmodernism and food, it is necessary to give postmodernism a brief shake before tying in Italy. As a worldview or approach to historical or political narratives postmodernism seeks relativity, emotion, lived experience and rejects the grand narratives that preceded it.

Postmodernism likes to dissolve the boundaries of pre-existing cultural forms while simultaneously inhabiting their former shells. It is often not clear if the resulting artistic or cultural pastiche—which could also be called appropriation—is being done so ironically or paying homage. Postmodern music is a blending of genres. World Music as a genre is a prime example. It belittles traditional instruments and folk music traditions of the world as raw open source material to sample and mash. Their historical and sacred meanings are stripped as they go through digital music processing and cleansing. Authenticity evaporates when removed from its original source in this postmodern way.

When postmodernism does settle into an established genre it does so with hyper self-awareness. It often tips into self-parody. Postmodernism as a worldview also acts indifferent to meaning and is overflowing with irony.

The Hipsters of the early 2000s lived this ethos in fashion and mindset. Douglas Haddow writing in the 79th edition of Adbusters wrote of this movement:

With nothing to defend, uphold or even embrace, the idea of ‘hipsterdom’ is left wide open for attack. And yet, it is this ironic lack of authenticity that has allowed hipsterdom to grow into a global phenomenon that is set to consume the very core of Western counterculture. Most critics make a point of attacking the hipsters lack of individuality, but it is this stubborn obfuscation that distinguishes them from their predecessors, while allowing hipsterdom to easily blend in and mutate other social movements, sub-cultures and lifestyles.”

When it comes to visual culture but more importantly here—food, our epic of postmodernism seeks to simulate the visuals and aromas of food as they were experienced in prior epics. We taste and see this when tacos or meatballs become a hyper-processed ultra-palatable food as they enter the simulated realm.

French cultural critic Jean Beaudrillard famously and extensively wrote about the contemporary conundrum of simulations. In his 1983 book Simulations he wrote, “To simulate is to feign what one hasn’t.” He also called simulation the hyperreal. He argued we experience much of “reality” as a pseudo-reality. Beaudrillard had three orders of reality: the first order is the real, the second is the representation and the third order was the interpretation or experience formed from the second order which is a pseudo-reality; or a simulation of reality. His work went on to inspire the 1999 film The Matrix, a movie and its sequels that dealt with reality. What often, if not always, gets left out of discussions of postmodernism are its effects on food. Food is something that has an outsized importance in Italy.

Much of food in the United States and Anglosphere is postmodern but this phenomenon certainly not limited to the West. Processed food simulates non-processed food. Homemade lasagna for example can be found in simulated form in the freezer section. It is simulated because it will have scientific techo-whizz methods of looking like and tasting somewhat like the homemade lasagna version. Flavors, natural or artificial are added to compensate for the quality loss during freezing and storage. All corners that can be cut will be cut. For many Italians this is one compromise too many.

The goal of course is faster processing with cheaper ingredients. Thickeners are cheaper than cooking things down. Cooking things down like a long cooked ragù on Sunday would be costly in time and energy. The thickeners give high water content ingredients like sauce the illusion of having more nutrient density than they do.

Efficiency and profit are the central drivers of processed food. These are not the drivers of most home cooks following their grandma’s recipe.

Which brings us back to a slower land, a land in the shape of a high-healed boot—Italy.

In the Italian culinary milieu, the first instinct is not to find cheaper faster ways of producing and even consuming food. The starting point is very often quality. There is a deep pride in quality Italians of all classes appreciate. Artisans of all Italian stripes abide by this standard.  Simulating something is not the preferred method of producing a food product like it is in societies that are further along in postmodernity.

Italians, by and large demand as few ingredients as possible or at least recognizable ingredients. The end result: processed foods that are closer to homemade versions by their recipes and visual form. If we placed these Italian processed food products on a spectrum they would still be simulated but they are closer to what would be classified as the homemade ideo-types Italians and lovers of Italian food outside this Mediterranean country demand.

In Italian supermarkets discerning Italians of all ages can routinely be seen blocking up aisles while reading and inspecting the ingredients of packaged foods before they land in their trolly. Here is the resulting difference between two frozen lasagnas, the first is from Australia and the second is from Italy:

This is the ingredient list of an Australian frozen Sara Lee Beef Lasagna product:

Beef sauce [water, beef, tomatoes (tomato juice, acidity regulator (330) firming agent (509) tomato paste onions, thickener (1422), carrots, canola oil, garlic, seasoning, malt extract (barley), natural flavors, herbs, vegetable gum (415), spice, emulsifier (471), brown sugar, salt] paste [wheat flower, water], bechamel sauce [cheese, (skim milk, cream, milk solids, salt, enzymes, cultures) thickener (1422), parmesan cheese, vegetable gums (415, 466), emulsifiers (451,331), vegetable stock (flavor enhancers (627, 631)), spices], cheddar cheese [milk, salt, enzymes, cultures], Beef 12%.

This is the ingredient list from an Italian frozen Bolognese Lasagna (translated by author):

Bechamel sauce 40%, (fresh whole pasteurized milk, type 00” soft wheat flour, butter, salt, nutmeg), ragù meat sauce 32% (beef 32%, tomato puree, tomato pulp, broth (water, broth preparation (salt, glucose syrup, rice flour, potato flakes, dehydrated vegetables in varying proportions (onion, carrot, celery, leek, tomato), vegetables in varying proportions (carrot, celery, onion), sunflower oil, wine, salt, extra virgin olive oil, pepper, rosemary, bay leaf, antioxidant: rosemary extract, carrot fiber), precooked egg pasta 27%, (egg pasta 67% (durum wheat semolina, egg 18.5%, water),water, salt) Grana Padano cheese (milk, salt, rennet, egg lysozyme).

On first look the Australian lasagna employs the Australian numerical ingredient codes. There were 10 of these ingredients. Knowing what they are requires pulling up the official government ingredients list on a website. In the European Union there is a similar “E” codes list. The Italian producer did not resort to using such an opaque bureaucratic system.

The most processed component in the Italian lasagna was the beef broth that utilized the rice flour and dried potato flakes as thickeners and a glucose syrup sweetener. The antioxidant used was rosemary extract, which is expensive and high quality. The cheese used in the Italian version was a real traditionally made Grana Padano as you would by it whole in the store. Most Grand Padano in commerce is aged between 9-16 months. That is an eternity in industrial food production. The bechamel sauce has the exact ingredients a traditional home cook would use.

The cheese used in the Australian version was composed from broken down processed cartesian-mindset ingredients and then reassembled-skim milk with added milk solids and cream, etc.

Most Italians would use fewer ingredients than the processed version but they would be able to understand the purpose of all the ingredients in the frozen product. They would also reach for fresh vegetables at home rather than the dehydrated ones.

In Italy and Europe food processors have added another dimension of simulation to processed food. Many factories that produce breads, croissants, focaccia and pizzas will model their production lines to mimic things human hands do. Some high-end factories even put humans on the production line to make finger imprints on products. Humans press products like focaccia with their fingers leaving indentations. The Panitaly factory in Lombardia Italy owned by the multinational DeliFrance is one such factory. The randomized imperfection of human hands gives the impression, literally, of artisanality.

The distance the Italians are willing to tolerate between the simulated version of something and the real version is often less than other Western cultures. As people around the world increasingly uphold the values of their cuisines, Italy’s old-ways approach can inspire the new.