On June 20th, World Refugee Day, The Valter Longo Onlus Foundation would like to commemorate all those who have fled from war, violence, persecution, and discrimination, in search of peace, inclusion, and respect.
FOOD IS CULTURE AND IDENTITY
We would like to highlight that food can become an important element when promoting integration and encounters between cultures. The approach toward food, cuisine, and traditions of the “other” is an important first step in understanding a culture that is often unknown or to which one has only been superficially exposed. Openness and curiosity often guide these encounters and both are certainly qualities to pursue. This same spirit led Venetian merchants back in the 1600s to taste a dark, suspicious, and pitch-like drink, coffee, and introduce it from Constantinople to Venice, the first city in Europe to open cafes, and have solid commercial ties with the Ottoman dynasty.
Food not only represents who we are, our culture, our identity, and our personal history, but also our roots and traditions, as described by the food historian Massimo Montanari in his book Food is culture. The plate in front of us tells many stories and helps us understand some dynamics in today’s reality. For example, recent versions of pizza with kebab found in some pizzerias in Italy tell the story of pizza, an ancient Mediterranean dish that dates back hundreds of centuries, it tells the story of tomatoes, introduced from the Americas to Europe in the 1500s and came to be a part of Italian cuisine over a century later, and lastly it tells the story of recent migration waves that took place in Italy towards the end of the 20th century and of the gradual acceptance, with some resistance, of other nationalities in the Italian peninsula.
Food and cuisine reveal important messages; they carry memories from travel, migration, war, and famine, but also from abundance, gatherings, festivities, and other joyful encounters. They have a profound emotional, cultural, social, and often political meaning.
REFUGEES, MIGRANTS, FOOD FROM HOME AND FOOD FROM “THE OTHER “ On the one hand, we find refugees and migrants, and on the other, we have local communities and dynamics between the two can still be difficult to balance. For the newcomers “home food” represents the world that they were forced to leave behind and are emotionally attached to. It has a deep emotional and cultural importance with a tinge of nostalgia and sense of loss. Traditional dishes represent home, family, friends, roots, traditions, and identity, that all too often become fragile memories in a new country. Clinging to what you ate in your previous life is an attempt to remember who you are and where you come from, and finding support in a new and unknown place that can cause worry and fear. The Italians that migrated to the United States over the last century remember such feelings well, since they were referred to as “macaroni eaters”. Comfort food is well known to all of us and can make us recall memories and emotions from the past. “Proustian memory” then comes into play and allows us to travel in time and space using our senses of taste and smell. The French writer, Marcel Proust, mentioned that Madeleines magically brought him back to Sunday mornings spent with his aunt Léonie during his childhood, where he would dip the madeleines in tea. On the other hand however, getting closer to the food and culture of a new country is an attempt to fully integrate and feel as though we belong. Over the years, some people begin to reject their past and their food and desperately throw themselves into a new life looking for acceptance and inclusion and strive to be part of a community.
HOSTING COUNTRIES AND FOOD: NEOPHOBIA, GASTRONATIONALISM AND CALIFORNIA CUISINE
There are then natives in the host country to be considered, who are also often lost in the face of rapid and sudden changes in their living environment. Neophobia, the fear of what is new, is triggered and also applies to food. It is a normal defense reaction to what is unknown or what can potentially threaten survival. Once “recognition memory” is activated, defenses loosen up, and the once foreign stimuli are recognized as “safe” and “familiar.” Ultimately, this leads individuals to overcome their fear of consuming new foods, seeing and experiencing new objects, or meeting new people. This process can be lengthy and difficult and often last multiple generations. Hence the attitude taken toward “foreign foods” can suggest a resistance to transformations in our native countries or a willingness to embrace change, without forgetting the obstacles faced during the process.
On the one hand, we have what sociologist Michaela De Soucey describes as “gastronationalism”: food or culinary practices with a profound cultural and political significance, that strengthen the sense of belonging to a nation and identifying with a community and often openly criticize others. This is what happened in Italy when political slogans compared the autochthonous polenta with couscous, forgetting that: 1) corn comes from the Americas and is not a European product; and 2) couscous, or cuscusu in Sicilian dialect, is also an ancient Sicilian dish dating back to the Arab domination of Sicily in the ninth century or to later influences and that was already mentioned in 1785 in Michele Pasqualino’s Sicilian Etymological, Italian, and Latin Vocabulary.
On the other hand however, we have more fluid and flexible situations and, as recent events show, there are attempts to create inclusion, curiosity, and steps to start exploring new territories. These are represented in our postmodern time by Fusion Food and Fusion Cuisines, which aim to be more inclusive of a variety of foods and venture into new areas. A great example is that of sunny, multicultural, fast-moving, and energetic California. Since the seventies, “California Cuisine”, a real food movement, has incorporated the experiences of the communities in its area (Mexican, Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, etc.), and has adapted them to create a culinary environment in which fresh, seasonal, local and organic products are used, such as avocadoes, and health is a main value. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main in Santa Monica started this food trend that has brought dishes such as California-style Pizza to restaurants all over the world, with fresh and local ingredients such as artichokes, goat cheese and avocadoes, among others.
THE REFUGEE FOOD FESTIVAL AND THE ROAD TO HUMAN SOLIDARITY
In conclusion, food, a primary and fundamental necessity, has an enormous power and reveals emotional, cultural, social, and even political dynamics. For this reason, paying attention to what you eat and sharing meals with others, as is commonly practiced in many religious traditions, is an important factor in creating strong relationships. For the same reasons, the initiative of the Refugee Food Festival, which began in 2016 in Paris and received support IN 2018 from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), is both interesting and admirable. With a deep desire to overcome discrimination, stereotypes, and conflicts, the restaurants of many European cities have made their kitchens available to migrant chefs on the World Refugee Day and have opened their doors to members of the public interested in learning about “the food of the other”. Unfortunately, the current health crisis has not allowed the festival to take place this year. Nevertheless, now and in the future, it is important to take action by opening up to the unknown, by paying attention to food cultures, and by sharing food with those around us, especially with refugees who have overcome great hardship and suffer from injuries and tears that are difficult to heal and forget. As sociologist Zygmut Bauman once described it, “I don’t think there is a quick and easy solution to the current refugee problem. Humanity is facing a crisis and there is no other way out than through human solidarity.”
Bauman, Zygmut and Evans Brian. “The Refugee Crisis Is Humanity’s Crisis”. The New York Times, May 2nd 2016.
DeSoucey, Michaela. “Gastronationalism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union”. American Sociological Review. Volume: 75 issue: 3, page (s): 432-455. June 1, 2010.
La Cecla Franco, Pasta and Pizza. Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007.
Montanari, Massimo. Food is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003.
Ukers, William. All About Coffee. Heritage Illustrated Publishing, 2014.