Is pizza better in Italy?

Posted: March 12, 2012 by mitsar in Mar 14

In the article by Sidney Mintz, Food and Diaspora, we get a little history into the movement of food. Today, we are able to access all types of foods from all parts of the world and often  don’t think about a time when people were not exposed to “other” food cultures– I certainly didn’t until now. What we find however is that even the most “natural” food is not necessarily all that natural. By that Mintz means that through the domestication of plants and animals and the mastery of fire allowed our ancestors to drastically change their diets. What is more is that with trade and migration, culturally or geographically specific foods spread throughout and were incorporated and manipulated accordingly. In the short article, Culinary Nostalgia, we see such manipulations in our modern day. In the Namesake, an immigrant woman is trying to make a traditional dish but must substitute many ingredients for sub par ones. When cultures meet, overlap and exchange with one another, objects such as food become transferred. This transfer is not always obvious and it can be difficult to tell who came up with what first.

In Hirsch’s article, we see this process of food transfer with hummus in Israel. Hirsch is quick to use the term “source” instead of “origin” when describing the history of hummus. A traditionally Arab dish, hummus was introduced to early Jewish settlers in Palestine. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews began looking to Arab markets for foods unavailable elsewhere. By the 1940’s many vegetables were adopted by the Jews into their diets. Hummus, which was widely found in the markets was quickly commodified  through Jewish-owned Arab restaurants serving what they called “authentic” hummus.  However it was not the Arabs that were accredited for hummus,but the Mizrahi Jews coming from the Middle East. It did not seem to matter that even the Mizrahi Jews were not introduced to hummus until their arrival to Israel. Hirsch explains that this move could be considered further efforts to oppress the Arab population in Israel. Politics aside, by the 1960’s hummus was defined as a national dish. What happens next is an intricate and complex story of politics but also of hummus. As political and economic reforms began taking place in the 1980’s, identity politics became a concern for many who were in search for “authentic, ethnic cultures”.  With this, hummus was returned to the Arabs as their own and has even been deemed better and more authentic than the Jewish dish.

The articles this week got me thinking about the foods that I grew up with; born to an Italian and an Iranian my house was never sparse of rich and “ethnic” meals. Whether it was spaghetti and pesto sauce or Fesenjan (a Persian stew made with pomegranate juice and pork), my mother loved to cook different “traditional” meals. She even began exploring other cultural foods, such as Thai food. I never quite considered that there were times where she would substitute or change a dish based on what was available to her; although I knew that back in Italy my grandmother was using the “right” ingredients- what we had here would just have to do.

This got me wondering if the dishes my mother was making and those of my grandmother were ever the same. With substitutions to a recipe we might change the taste, the texture and even the feelings or memories that food might invoke in us. While my mother’s pork chops will always be delicious, my grandmother’s pork chops in Italy will in a strange way always be more meaningful– and perhaps by association more delicious.

In the case of hummus for example, are Israeli hummus and Arab hummus two separate foods, or just a variation of each other? Does this change what can be considered “authentic”? And does the environment we’re in change the context of the foods we are consuming? Is pizza better in Italy?

I’m going to end this post by saying I’m very hungry now so I’m going to make dinner.

  1. tupakkat says:

    Absolutely! Not only is it a complete different “thing”, the context in which one consumes certain things is crucial to the experience.

    The same ingredients taste differently in different parts of the world. Just think about the crime they put on North American pizza and dare to call it “cheese”! Now, I am not sure in how far modes of mass production have reached Italian pizza shops in Italy but I would hope that a sense of pride prevails.

    Apart from that, every culture indigenizes foreign foods to a certain extent to make them appealing to their own population. Chinese food, for example, tastes very different in Portugal, in Germany, in India (not to speak about Hakka cuisine). Countries with large immigrant groups have a greater chance of remaining “authentic” because they don’t have to adjust the taste of their foods to the local palate but cater for “their own people” who expect to find food as close to home as possible. But here, again, the ingredients make a big difference despite the possibly “authentic” preparation.

    And, as Lee’s article pointed out, even the collective taste of a diasporic group can change without them realizing it until they return to their home country and eat the long desired for just to realize it is completely different from what they had imagined.

    Independent of ingredients and taste, however, the context in which one consumes food makes a crucial difference. Hirsch’s account of Ala Halihal’s short movie in which the Israeli family goes out to eat authentic hummus just to end up getting canned mass produced stuff unfortunately did not clarify whether or not the family realized what they got. But I believe many can share my (the other way around) experience that treasures brought home from trips to different countries don’t taste anything close to what they did in the original context when they are consumed miles away in our own mundane kitchens.

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