Lifting the lid on how fascism affected Italian women’s daily lives

Under Mussolini’s regime, Fascist ideology seeped into all aspects of life in Italy – even the country’s cuisine
Feeding Fascism, by Diana Garvin, is published by the University of Toronto Press

By Prathap Nair

Prathap Nair is a writer based in Germany, who covers culture, food, environment and travel for various publications.

03 Apr 2023

Co-Author Sabine Verheyen

Baci, the dome-shaped Italian confection made of chocolate and hazelnuts enrobed in fondant, has a pride of place in contemporary Italy. Yet very few know of its frugal origins in the Fascist period. 

Luisa Spagnoli, the businesswoman behind the Perugina chocolate company, came up with the recipe for these “kisses” in 1922, when cacao was in short supply due to import bans. So as not to waste the chocolate shavings left over from making truffles and bonbons, Spagnoli rolled them into a ball-like confection that she originally called cazzotto (“punch” in Italian) because it resembled a closed fist.  

Later rechristened Baci, the sweet treat is a prime example of the increasingly necessary – and sometimes lucrative – practice of saving scraps in the Fascist era, when food shortages were widespread, as Diana Garvin explains in her book Feeding Fascism

Revisiting the turbulent period when the Kingdom of Italy was governed by the National Fascist Party, Garvin’s book investigates the intersection of Italian foodways with Fascist ideologies, exploring how the country’s women negotiated these politics in their kitchens and workplaces.  

The main policy influencing the ordinary Italian kitchen was Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s decade-long Battle for Grain (Battaglia del grano) campaign.

Launched in 1925, its aim was to achieve “alimentary autarky” – the phrase Garvin uses to describe self-reliance in food production – and wean the population off foreign wheat. As a result, the production of rice was heavily promoted in northern Italy.  

Garvin dug through small, regional archives to hunt down the everyday culinary ephemera of women’s lives, from diaries to drawings.

Together with these materials, she used Italian newspaper articles from the time, works of fellow cultural historians, feminist ethnographers, recorded oral histories and cookbooks to glean insights into how this policy influenced what women cooked and how they fed their families.  

Her close reading of cookbooks also highlights how inflation in the wake of the First World War and, later down the line, Italy’s entrance into the Second World War fuelled food scarcity. Innards, once frowned upon, became commonplace in recipes, as did inexpensive sources of protein like rabbit, fish and pigeon. Foraged foods such as mushrooms, chestnuts and chicory likewise showed up more often in ingredient lists. 

Italian women, as Garvin details, were expected to cook, grow vegetables and birth more children to increase the population, despite living under a hostile regime. 

Garvin’s book investigates the intersection of Italian foodways with Fascist ideologies

But Garvin isn’t concerned solely with homemakers. She also attempts to reconstruct working-class women’s histories, contending that “female citizens and the state actively negotiated for sovereignty over women’s labour in both the public and private sphere through food”. 

That includes profiles of female entrepreneurs like Spagnoli of Perugina, as well as authors like Lidia Morelli, Ada Boni and Amalia Moretti Foggia whose cookbooks advocated frugality and locally sourced ingredients – women, in other words, who benefited from the Fascist emphasis on self-reliance. 

The book also documents the stories of dissenting Italian women who didn’t take changes to their culinary traditions lightly. In northern Italy, the mondine – the female rice weeders – sang protest songs while labouring in the fields. Homemakers in Rome refused to eat in communal cafeterias in public housing and lit outdoor cooking fires in protest. 

Feeding Fascism is for a general audience, and Garvin succeeds in making the material accessible – no dry prose or unfamiliar academic jargon here.

By using the less-explored lens of women’s food work, she sheds light on a moment in history that threated to profoundly changed Italian culinary traditions.  


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