One of the books I got for Christmas was a 'Dear Francesca', an account of the movement of two families from the Abruzzo, in central Italy, to Edinburgh, where they eventually met and set up a deli called Valvona and Crolla, which is now somewhat posh, I understand. It is written in the form of a potted family history recounted to a grandaughter, and also includes general culinary advice and recipes. I like food and enjoy cooking, and my better half is Italian, which means that I automatically have a willing partner in crime for my enjoyment of food and cooking, as well as being interested in Italian life, so there's every reason to think it would be a good present.
However, 'Dear Francesca' is, I think, in many ways a deeply reactionary book. It embodies an attitude, which is worryingly part of the mental wallpaper of Guardian-reading liberals everywhere, who ought to know better, towards food, and Italian food in particular, which fails to understand the ways in which food and eating are tied into often very traditional ways of life. Another good example of this is Matthew Fort's 'Eating Up Italy', where he travels up Italy on a scooter, visiting restaurants and food producers as he goes. Both eulogise Italian peasant cuisine, organic farming and the relaxed pace of life revolving around gigantic meals: if it didn't take hours to make, hours to consume, and doesn't use only ingredients produced by the local farmer in the manner his great great grandfather did, then it's just not good enough. If you bought in a supermarket, heated it up in the microwave and eat it because you're hungry and want to get on with the rest of your life, then you have failed. As I said, I like food, and I like eating several course meals with family and friends, so I ought to be sympathetic to this kind of thing. I'm not though.
What both books ignore is the set of social arrangements which often sustain this kind of relationship to food and eating. One of the perenial claims about the virtues of Italian life is that good, locally sourced food is cheap and widely available. Good food is cheap in Italy because Italy has the highest ratio of small businesses per head in the Western World, many of which sell food, and so salumeria have to keep their prices low in order to hold onto their custom. The reason Italy is able to sustain so many salumeria with such low profit margins is largely because salumeria owning families evade paying taxes at a stupendous rate and work ridiculously long hours from a very early age for what is, even with the tax-evasion, a virtual poverty wage. Generally, poverty wages, ridiculously long hours, child labour and tax evasion are bad. Since this is what sustains the availability of cheap good food in Italy, I think we should be a little more cautious about singing the praises of this aspect of Italian life.
There is also the issue of exactly who is going to be doing all this immensely time-consuming cooking. I'll tell you who: Mamma, the life-giving, life-sustaining icon around which all Italian life revolves. Her proper place is the home and the hearth, providing care and affection for the men-folk who venture out into the harsh realities of the world to bring her the material means to work her wonderous magic. The Italian family is a deeply conservative institution, and Italian attitudes to the proper place of food in life are strongly linked to this institution.
All this conservativism understandably links into mini-rants about faceless capitalists and bureaucrats destroying the time-honoured and proper patterns of life of these poor people. Matthew Fort, for example, during his travels goes to an Adriatic fishing town, and bemoans the regulations the EU has imposed on the fleet there. Now, I don't know what regulations the Italian government, through negotiations with other EU countries, has passed affecting the Italian fishing fleet, but neither does Matthew Fort (or if he does, he doesn't say). The chances are though, that as more or less everywhere else, fish stocks are dwindling, and unless some regulation is passed a genuine tragedy of the commons will occur, where there are no fish left at all, because it is in no one person's interest to stop fishing.
In short, the attitude towards food and eating both these books evidence is socially reactionary, and is only able to justify itself by ignoring the way in which such attitudes are linked to obviosuly bad social practices and pretending that the good which many of the developments they explicitly and implicitly oppose has brought doesn't exist. Supermarkets have made available to Britons food they had never heard of forty years ago, let alone seen or eaten. We don't tend to eat vast meals as families as often anymore because we have other, better, things to do than slave over a hot stove for hours every night. Food safety regulations (another of Matthew Fort's bugbears) are designed for the health of the public, not to destroy small businesses. I'm not saying that these things are unreservedly good: supermarkets treat staff and suppliers appallingly, spending time with your family is usually a good thing, and a lot of national and supra-national regulation leaves much to be desired. It's just the attitude I'm condemning does not even bother to look for, let alone at, the positives.
The attitude is patronising, because in Britain, the people who can afford to choose to live like this are the middle class: they're rich enough to shop in Italian delis, and have the flexibility and resources to periodically do a half-decent impression of a stereotyped Italian family meal. When the writer of 'Dear Francesca' dismisses all processed food as awful, what I think she really means is: only poor people would eat this; we're better than them; don't. Now, when this attitude is part and parcel of the mores of what is supposedly the part of the left in Britain, I get worried.