Eat how you speak!

Eating is not just a way to meet the vital needs of individuals, but also a system of communication and of representation of the relationships that individuals and communities materially and symbolically maintain with the need to feed ourselves, marking a belonging to specific cultural, religious, social, gender, age, professional groups and more.

For these reasons, eating and its cultural expressions, which consist of the “taste” of the community and the formation of a specific “cuisine” and in cultural and social “distinction,” are a complex and multiform phenomenon rooted in each of these fields of cognition and action.

Contemporary Italy is a case study of extraordinary interest for the analysis of these processes: A complex and varied territory, immersed in the constant and evolving dialectic between geographic, environmental, social, economic, cultural, technical and infrastructural factors, it only recently became a nation, pursuing unifying forms and “images.” An “Italian cuisine” recognizable as such could only develop after the country’s unification in 1861, when Italian was confirmed as a means of communication on a national scale and no longer just as a literary and bureaucratic language. However, “Italian cuisine” only began to be truly talked about from the period after the Second World War and especially from the 1960s, when Italy was undergoing a radical economic, social, cultural and urbanistic evolution, passing from a rural, primarily agricultural country to an urbanized and industrial nation, as people began to abandon the countryside and agriculture and the population became concentrated in the cities.

The factors contributing to this great transformation were many and included internal migrations; the abandonment of the countryside, particularly the remotest and poorest areas; urbanization; industrialization (including of the food sector); motorization and the improvement of internal mobility; the emergence of new mass media such as television; the increase in average incomes; the mixing of populations from different regions and with different culinary traditions; advertising, particularly on television; and the spread of different culinary models and food products from outside the country’s already varied traditions.

All of these produced new and renewed food, culinary and gastronomic models, which were welcomed and recognized as belonging to, or rather constituting, a (new) “Italian cuisine,” which has been mythicized into a supposed uniformity with ancient origins, and as such propagandized and exported around the world, though undermined by imitations of quality greatly inferior to the originals.

We can make an observation when interpreting the evolution of the Italian way of eating from the 19th century to the present, a decisive period for the formation of “Italian cuisine,” deriving (or not) out of the “regional” and “local” cuisines: It happened chronologically in parallel with the evolution of the Italian language, in particular as regards the relationship between the language and local dialects, which are gradually and inexorably fading away.

And so we reach the conclusion that an “Italian cuisine” only exists now that there is in fact an “Italian language,” essentially unitary, standard, learned in school and mediated by the “local dialect,” but substantially influenced, or even determined, by mass means of communication.

The title of the book (translatable as “Eat how you speak!”) therefore recalls the analogy that exists between eating and language, the chronological, sociological, economic and cultural correspondence between the establishment of the Italian language and “Italian cuisine” only after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy.