International Food

Eataly and the Politics of Food Emporiums

When the prosciutto is political.

Via istock

There’s been a buzz in the office this week about a new Eataly coming to Dallas, perhaps in 2020. Talk of Italian food reminds me of my trip to Rome several years ago. My Proustian memory is of a smoke-filled basement, squeezed in at a table next to two Italian gentlemen, in town for the Italian Open, who offered to take us on a tour of the city on the back of their motorbikes. We were too obsessed with our bowls of fresh pasta tossed with shaved ricotta salata–who knew there was such a delicacy!–to accept their overture. The food was all that mattered.

Which got me thinking. About food palaces and how they change our understanding of and consumption of cultural cuisines, far from smoky environs and cool cellars of aging cheese. After a brief Google search, I came across a recent essay in the Versopolis Review by Clayton Rosati, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University, my uncle’s alma mater and my local college growing up. Titled “‘Mmericano. On the connection between ethnic cuisine and nationalism. Or, what Eataly teaches us,” it is a gorgeous and thought-provoking reflection on what it meant when Eataly came to Italy.

In 2012, a couple of years after Italy’s race riots, the high-end food mart moved into an abandoned air terminal near Rome’s Stazione Ostiense, the 15th and largest outlet at 170,000 square feet. Rosati discusses the fact that Europe is experiencing what America has long known: that economically strapped shoppers will forgo small, local markets for large discount emporiums. He talks about the identity politics of Italian-American food, which itself is a function of the poverty and resourcefulness of immigrants, who turned table scraps into Sunday gravy. And then he raises the issue that poverty’s demand for cheaper, homogenized food creates more poverty, demanding new immigrants to work the citrus groves and tomato fields. And those immigrants, in turn, are despised.

Not that Eataly is a low-cost food mart by any means. But, Rosati stresses, we should not be fooled into believing that it is representative of Italy today. An excerpt:

I have always thought of Italy as part African, part Hun, part Norse, part Greek, part Arab…and one should go on. The concept of Italy, like America, has historically cut between being the deadliest technology of oppression and the starting point for a new community beyond nationalism. With the current Italian recession that some claim threatens the European Union, Italy searches for renewal. Yet, in the last decade, regionalist movements, who sought to miniaturize nationalism while only digging deeper into the empty earth looking for blood have returned to the nation as the alter upon which blood would be sacrificed since none could be found below. But I am reminded of James Baldwin’s warning to black and white Americans in his 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time: “renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not…One clings to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.” If Italy is a chimera, then we must wonder what to make of Eataly, its perfectly curated delicacies, its cleanliness, its focus group-tested charm, and that lurking ugly thing at its heart—in Rome, the US, and around the world.

Give it a read.

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