Which dish will describe tomorrow’s Italy?
For a century, pizza was considered a food for bad-mannered people who ate with their hands. As Italy gained wealth, Italians embraced pizza – video
In occasion of a formal event, Scots make it a matter of pride to wear kilts in tartan, made out of the famous squared fabric whose colours show which clan the wearer belongs to. Such a tradition, together with the bagpipes, represents Scotland.
Well, the kilt, tartan and the bagpipes are “invented” traditions – that is to say they are not at all ancient (they were actually created around the end of the 1700s). Someone literally invented these items, together with all the Scottish myths, to give a patina of nobility to a particularly underdeveloped region that wanted to reinvent its image after joining the United Kingdom.
The story of the great deception is told in a short but enjoyable essay by English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, published in a book edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger entitled “The Invention of Tradition” (Einaudi, 2012).
The historians explain that traditions like this, which include many Italian popular festivals created in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, are invented above all in times of great change when we need to know that what we’re doing (and therefore who we are) has a reassuring continuity with a distant and inevitably vague past: if something stable and certain exists, we feel less disorientated in a present where the old reference points are falling away from us.
What we are now experiencing is one of these moments of great change. Partly for this reason, under pressure as we are to change due to the evolution of technologies, globalisation and a more uncertain role for our country and culture, we feel a great need to cling to traditions, including at the table. In fact, especially at the table, because what we eat tells us who we are. The result is our great passion for our country’s traditional products, which are certainly delicious but often of doubtful (or at least very recent) tradition. And of these, a particular passion is the improbable marvel of pizza. It’s improbable because pizza alone, among the countless focaccias that have spread at least a little through all the Mediterranean countries, has successfully become a symbol of Italy for us and for the rest of the world.
Pizza as we understand it in Italy was actually created at the beginning of the 1800s in Naples, and not even as a dish for all the Neapolitans. As we are told first by Carlo Collodi and then Matilde Serao, in text half humorous and half dramatic, pizza was a meal for poor people, the street food of the lower classes who lived in the wretched hovels of the city centre slums where whole families crowded together in appalling conditions of hygiene. And it stayed that way until the last decades of the century, when the first pizzerias were opened and the Margherita pizza was invented to celebrate the Italian royal family’s visit to Naples in 1886.
Our video describes the meteoric rise of pizza from the slums of Naples to national and global success, driven by the huge changes in society and customs that occurred in Italy after the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Although it is one of the most recognisable symbols of Italian cuisine, pizza is practically a newborn.
This tale shows us very eloquently – and probably not politically correctly, nowadays – that a culinary tradition is not something eternal and immutable to be mummified in a product specification and protected with designations of origin. Instead, a tradition is something that lives in the minds, habits and culture of men and women – and changes with them. It is something that is exchanged with others, improving and then being given back in turn – as has always happened, especially along the shores of the Mediterranean. In short, culinary traditions should be recognised, defended and valued, because they are part of our history and our culture. But they don’t belong in a museum.