Why the Historical Journey of our Food Matters
In 1781 King Louis XVI granted Count Parmentier a large plot of land at Sablons. Parmentier turned this land into a potato patch, a future solution to the king's hunger problem with his poor. Yet, the poor refused the new crop - white people and new things- they rarely jive at first. Parmentier hired heavily armed guards to make a great show of protecting his potatoes - thus, raising their value. Stealing the valuable crop from the king seemed to have triggered the poor's interest in potatoes. Is the rest history?
When I ask at dinners, "where are potatoes from originally" rarely do I hear a unison choir: "from the Americas, of course, Chef - we appropriated them as white people’s food only in the 1800s." I mostly hear the answer, "Ireland?" When I confront the crowd with "explain Idaho potatoes then; did we (white settlers) bring potatoes here, and they adapted oh-so-well? Or did they come from here, and we actually only heard of this delicious tubular Post-Columbus? "The answer is often "we brought them here!" It's just more convenient to believe that.
If you've been following my food journey, you will notice I speak a lot about the origin of ingredients and dishes.
Of course, there's the obvious point of humbling down colonial mindsets. But do I do it to ensure everyone fully understands that tomatoes, potatoes, squashes and more are not Indigenous to Europe? Or, as the title of this blog insinuates, do I speak about the origins of food for additional reasons?
In 2018, the alt-right party Lega Nord gained tremendous power in the Italian government. Among many other terrifying campaign slogans ran: "Sì alla polenta, no al couscous" (Translation: yes to polenta, not to couscous). They even had polenta giveaways on street corners to remind Italians of their true Italian origins!
Why is this slogan bad? A few weeks before the start of the election campaign, the Pope hosted an inter-religious summit at the Vatican. To accommodate the Muslim guests, the Pope served lasagna sans pork, creating turmoil and rage in Europe. The Pope's alteration of Italian tradition translated to: “Is lasagna with no pork even lasagna anymore? How dare he? He’s diluting our traditions and values as Italians.”
And he’s the POPE - the grand guardian of tradition and values! So the polenta vs couscous rhetoric from Lega was predominantly an answer (a horrible/racist/xenophobic answer) to this event with the Pope. Another reason was the massive immigration Italy had seen from Arabic countries and, with it, the rise of shawarma & kebab restaurants in cities.
Following these political power gains in government and city halls across Italy by the right, Luca Zaia, the federal Minister of Agriculture (member of Lega), promoted these restrictions. He said that in Italy, there is "the need to protect local specialties from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisine." In this spirit, Zaia declared that he has never tasted (nor will he ever taste) a kebab.
Thus, in Trieste, couscous, kebab, or curry chicken can only be sold if accompanied by polenta and other Northern-Italian specialties like Musetto (a pork sausage - problematic to Muslims). Moreover, Bortolotti, the Mayor of Trieste (a member of Lega Nord), ordered every ethnic restaurant in the city the ultimatum to serve traditional Italian dishes or close.
To understand the problem in this particular brand of racism, let's turn back to August 1547, when Cosimo de Medici plants a field of maize in his Villa de Castello, Florence. Nobles were fascinated with discoveries from the Americas and the Far East at this time. They were yielding the power and money that allowed exploration at their whims - and of course, at the expense of the poor.
Cosimo [and others] were planting tomatoes, potatoes, American beans, and maize, but he was particularly fascinated with maize. Yes, the same maize later to be used to make the polenta they boast about in the 2018 & 2022 political campaigns and the resulting racial culinary laws.
Polenta is as Italian as the 1600s - it replaced porridge - and I have a feeling that some people were very concerned about their rights when these polenta shenanigans started! Let's clarify: the Italian food staple - porridge made from grain - was replaced by a newcomer, corn flour.
And now, this same corn flour is "threatened" by couscous, which is made of flour - the only difference? The people worried about their rights didn't have any rights, and they certainly didn't have a platform to voice their concerns on. Remember that today, we - the 99%, the poor - still hold some relative power of being heard. After all, we have access to social media, and we can voice our grievances. Regarding the idiotic plans of our modern age "kings," the 99% are documented in history via tweets, posts, movements, books, etc. How many fears and grievances of the poor farmers could come to air in 1548? Not many.