Peasant Food: Fare Fortuna, Trovare l’America

I happened to skim Eater Philly while I was reading Hasia Diner’s book, and one line from Philly restaurant tycoon Stephen Starr leapt out at me as fodder for our conversation.

Well, I’ve been obsessed with opening a red sauce Italian place. Not the high-end stuff, but the peasant food.

This is boiler-plate for foodie-types these days. I watch Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern exploring the world’s food and extolling the virtues of peasant food. I think we kind of know what they all mean when they refer to peasant food. They mean food that is simple, mostly local, and highly resourceful. Peasants use every part of the animal, pack maximum nutritional punch into meals that have to be put together with limited time and marginal tools. The food is hearty and unpretentious. Think of pho, which incorporates the cheapest, toughest, most mysterious cuts of meat, or feijoada which stretches meager portions of meat into abundant bean stews. Or of course, a table spilling over with pasta and tomato saucy (gravy, right?) and bread and olive oil and mozzarella. Just like all those peasants in Italy used to eat, right?

I think Diner’s strongest section is on Italian emigration. I like how she details the deprivation of most Italians’ diets in Italy, and the structural reasons for it (strong class distinctions, a regressive tax system, and client-patron relations.) A cohesive sense of Italian identity came only in the United States as Italians from diverse regions settled in American cities and ate together: “Feasting upon dishes once the sole preserve of their social and economic superiors enabled them to mold an Italian identity in America around food.” (54)

I would relish the opportunity to watch Hasia Diner upbraid Stephen Starr, explaining to him that “pasta and olive oil, along with meat and cheese, defined a good life, a life of choice,” in the United States, rather than a scene of pastoral subsistence in Italy’s countryside. (57) Perhaps Starr should model his peasant food Italian restaurant on those predecessors to American Italian restaurants, boarding houses for single male laborers, and amend “Italian” with the suffix “-American.”

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1 Comment

  1. I was thinking along these lines after class last Thursday re: emulation, current food trends, and the fetishizing of authenticity. Is the obsession with “peasant food” (and maybe even local sourcing to an extent) just a current trend? Is it emulation? Or just another form of appropriation? What say the sociologists in our midst?

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