The Three Fs in Italian Culture: Food, Fashion and Film

I spent this past Friday and Saturday attending a wonderful symposium at the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, a university institute associated with the City University of New York (CUNY) system.  As a veteran attendee, I have now come to see this academic event as a yearly, important celebration of my Italian heritage.  Each year the institute organizes a great conference attracting close to thirty speakers from all over the world with backgrounds in literature, history,  sociology, econometrics, and even business practitioners such as restaurateurs.  This year's talks were centered on the theme, as the conference title well pointed out:  "The Three Fs in Italian Cultures: Critical Approaches to Food, Fashion and Film". When I first received the invitation, I knew immediately that this was one event that I did not want to miss.

Let's briefly deconstruct this title. Beyond the obvious concepts of Food, Fashion and Film, what needs to also be highlighted are the references to "Cultures", a word specifically declined in its plural form, and the concept of "Critical approaches".

Italy, historically and until this day,  has been a world of regional diversity that one can experience culturally via the beauty of its language and large collection of dialects as it is expressed in prose, poetry and song;  via its rich and abundant culinary expression, which most of the world has come to know and love, but not to exhaust ;  and via the spectrum of the collective and at the same time,  distinctive personality of its people from place to place, city to city and region to region. If one factors in time, an insatiable multiplier, then the Italian culture as it manifests itself through fashion and cinematography, picks up additional dimensions that makes its world even more interesting.  Beyond the three Fs, then other Fs can too be identified as a way to further characterize the human experience. Concepts of  "famiglia"  - the family - and "fede" -  faith and devotion - Italy's relation with primary and secondary religious traditions are just a few of the additions that one can make. Even though the conference tried to hold to its themes of  Food, Fashion and Film, correlation and codependency among all these Fs can become quite easy to identify . Here of course I will stick to commenting on the core themes that struck me.

The conference title, also stressed the fact that critical approaches would be used to present the material and research . Think of this as a statement that a strong level of formality would be applied to both the structure and to the style of each paper. Thus, not only were references clearly quoted in each of the dialogs, but each speaker's thesis would also be clearly asserted and then defended in a scholarly fashion. As a result, what might have initially sounded like simple food talk - the kind of  stuff  I write - actually turns out to be a formal exposition of arguments conducted at a university level of dialog.

I decided to include some notes on this event in my blog for two reasons:  my Italian background, and my love for the culinary arts. Let me start with background, a first for this blogging platform.

When asked, I often summarize my story  - in my own tricolonic veni-vidi-vici sequence - as : "I came here when I was 7 months old, went back when I was 10; I came back when I was 20". That brings us to the present.  To that sequence I quickly rebut with a: "I am ready to go back right now".  So there you have it: my life story as a high level timeline.  Sequencing the play from a perspective of place,  the story unfolds with a little more detail.   Birth took place in city of Cosenza, Italy (located in "regione Calabria"), some 13 kilometers from the town of Marano Marchesato. Marano was and still is, a small enclave today of about 3300 inhabitants, just one of the many towns that make up the communities in the "Serre Cosentine". The next step, a short one indeed, landed us in the Belmont section of the Bronx  where the family lived for less than two years until, the birth of my first sister and the purchase of a home in the Northern section of the Bronx. I've talked about Arthur Avenue many times before as you might have read. Then tragedy struck. Mom took the family back to her ancestral Marano, the place where I spent my formative years, including my beloved "Liceo" experience.

Our return to the US was gradual: I acted as the pioneer, followed by the rest of the family. Different forces directed us back to the US . The failure of Reganomics had something to do with this choice as well, but I won't comment further on this.  After 10 years of Italian life, we landed in Westchester county NY,  Maranoneck to be exact, place with a strong presence of Italian immigrants from Calabria, and other regions of Southern Italy, including my father's own town of Malvito. You might recall that Mamaroneck that it too shows up in my previous posts. This is the place that hosts several very good  purveyors of high quality ingredients from the abroad. For several years now, I call home the town of Greenwich CT. It's a nice place, but but heart remains firmly planted on that rocky peninsula that slices trough the seas of the Mediterranean with the geographic imagery of the soccer player catapulting the island or better yet, "pallone" of Sicily towards "le colonne d'Ercole", today's Gibraltar straits, and winning every time.

So that's Italian connection, painted through a fast autobiographic frame set. For the food connection,  the construction of a syllogism won't probably be necessary. The deep link between me and cooking should be quite clear from the couple of years of blogging that I have thus far put in.. Beyond a hint, you have probably grasped that I know my way around the kitchen, even around the "small" industrial ones. There is a lot more to the story, but I plan on giving more details of this part of my personality in some future introspective session.  For now let me jump back to the Calandra conference and make a few more comments, primarily on the sessions that weaved cultural connections with food, the ones that I enjoyed the most.

The event was one of multiple episodes of corroboration, improved understanding and discovery.

In the session entitled "Food and Its discontent" the dynamics of conflict induced by food between generations within and across households, and conflict that emerges, one that often stays latent, tucked away within the deepest recesses of ones perception of self and identity, courageously came to life. Moving from pure narrative analysis, in Nancy Caronia's analysis of the movie "Fatso", cinematic expression becomes the medium through which the even more tragic forms this this conflict live, a core message missed by the film's original critics.

The clashes and conflicts examined during the discussions, were however, not just abstract academic observations, but collected experiences that in some cases I could naturally relate to. In my own years in Italy,  and even from conversations taking place on this side of the pond with some of our older immigrant elders, the anxiety and fear of going hungry one too many times in life, remained very strong and vibrant, even decades after their traumatic transnational journeys.  Interestingly, similar observations emerged too, from contemporary dialog with some of my Russian friends who had immigrated from Soviet Russia, or one of its depressed satellite dependent states. Scarcity of food, easily leaves an indelible  mark all people, on people of all nations, and certainly on the Italian immigrant, who had to tearfully break ties with the "patria" in order to survive, or in order to attempt to provide survival for those who were left behind.  Not surprisingly, Luisa Del Guidice - one of last year's conference speaker and independent scholar- connects the folklorist theme of  "Paesi di Cuccagna:" to struggles of the less fortunate to find basic sustenance during pre-industrial and then missed-industrial revolution periods via a compensatory reaction of escapist fantasy and myth building. In effect a demonstration of our human coping mechanisms and personal resiliency at work.

I've painfully and with much disappointment observed that across many Italian-American households, the rejection of traditions, from food to heritage traditions, to language and perhaps even dress.  This theme of rejection, and  resulting and predicable cycles of shame, denial,  longing and rediscovery surfaced during several of the talks. I suspect, sadly, that similar cultural dynamics and cycles, are at play on the Italian peninsula in the present day although they are generally more sensitive subjects to talk about.

Learning and seeing  via Jaciob Riss's photographic and narrative account of  "how the other half lives", elevated the stories of discrimination against Italian-Americans  to a more concrete heights and of  to a level of personal emotion,  knowing that several relatives ,including my great grandparents, had to have gone through some of those same treatments and experiences.  The pain of the past, was not clear to me until this conference. With the conference it became, auditory, visual, olfactory and cerebral all at the same time.

The talk on "Commedia all'Italiana" provided me with better understanding.of some of the some films that I had seen as a teen. Back then I was too young to understand, and now, too old to remember. The intertwined messages of political and anti-institutional, anti-status quo rebellion and rejection communicated via complex cinematographic means, helped make what were then current events, into what is now interpretable history. Similar things can be said for the fresh discussion on Fellini's masterpiece "La Dolce Vita" , a film which, albeit having undergone multiple exercises of deep onion peeling,  never seems to truly slim down.

But not all the content, that I listened to produced negative sentiment or response.  In the session on "Eating Masculinties" despite its not so subtle linguistic ambiguity,  Naccarato presents us with a lively analysis of the presence and refinement of ritual  among middle aged urban men who re-attest ancient beliefs and practices and perhaps,  subconsciously, like our neolithic ancestors, consume themselves in post hunt, semi-sacred exercises of purificatory and cathartic purpose.  We are told of old world rituals, with their hierarchical chains of responsibility and wisdom sharing, in which survival processes worked because division of labor had been  so clearly demarcated ,as well as respected, between men and women.  To the top the talk, the sharing of real, hand-made, home-made "surpressata", a Calabrian pork delicacy, was certainly met with approval from a very appreciative (and hungry) audience. Perhaps, we witnessed a form of participatory ritual  transference to the audience.
My personal experience made the Naccarato paper, and visual presentation even more interesting.. I have witnessed the ritual function every January when pork provisions making season took place along our mountain slopes. The true ritual, beyond what was described in the talk, begins with highly adrenaline charged trip to a farm to select a "sacrificial" beast and its forceful loading a transport truck, typically a three-wheeled, primitive looking mutant machine. These old transports had a name:  Piaggio Ape. While the more experienced men of the expedition, showed signs of control, the younger participants, are particularly affected by the excitement.

The ritual climaxed with the ritualized, and at the same time primordially violent slaughter of the beast  and was followed by the dissection of the "sacrificial" victim. A slower and respectful preparation and consumption of food provisions of all sorts followed, a practice that stretched days and involved cycles of food preparation, cooking and eating, all under the umbrella of a festive atmosphere.

George Guida's accounts of a successful (and perhaps lucky) restaurateur in Bensonhurst , Brooklyn, closed out the conference with both a note of heightened entertainment and pinch of fear. Just a few weeks ago, I had lunch right directly across from the infamous Sparks Steakhouse in  New York, a place intimately connected with one of Guida's  narrative subjects.

I am very fortunate. As native Italian, and relatively US recent transplant, the conditions and experiences
that my parents and I endured were infinitely more positive, than what our Italian-American forerunners, the "paesanos" of just a handful of decades ago had to endure.  A conference such as this helps bring more detail, color and truth to what represents a key segment of the American experience, and its valuable research helps right the records that history books tell us.

To socialize the material from this year's conference,the Caladra Institute has streamed and recorded the sessions at : Thank you Calandra Institute for yet another jewel of research and education.

Now, let me run to the kitchen now, got some late Sunday evening cooking to do.

Stay tuned and enjoy !


  1. @mickstermfb Your synopsis of the symposium Calandra Italian-American Institute with your own personal history surfaces some interesting self-reflections on my background as Chinese-Canadian. I wasn't born in the old country, and maintain a moderate variety of traditions, noticing that things in China have changed dramatically since the 1950s. It's only in the past few decades that travel to the Kaiping region have become common, so my parent's generation have a style frozen as in time as Northern Ontario immigrant Chinese. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese who came to Toronto were primarily from Hong Kong, who have a different set of values from those from the villages.

    Unlike you, I don't have that desire to return to the old country. My sons have a pattern of spending 2 years in Beijing in university, and returning to village for a Chinese New Year's visit. Now back in Toronto, they appreciate how easy life is in the New World, as compared to the Old World.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts