Back in 2004, members of the Lega Nord party gathered in the northern Italian city of Como and handed out bowls of polenta – a porridge of ground maize flour and a quintessential staple of the northern Italian diet – mixed with local cheese and butter. Not your average case of putting on bread and circuses, the event was a performance of anti-immigrant sentiment: plastered on walls across the city were posters reading “Yes to polenta, no to couscous.” The latter, a common ingredient in North Africa, served as a substitute for migrants, who began to come in greater numbers to Italy in the 1990s.
It is a prime example of what academic Fabio Parasecoli terms “gastronativism,” the ideological use of food in politics to advance ideas about who does and who does not belong to a community. Introducing and elaborating on the concept is the focus of his latest book, Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics.
“I was a little wary of adding another word to the lexicon of food studies,” he tells The Parliament. “But then there was nothing that looked at this sort of porosity, of this permeability of the different levels,” by which he means the local (the focus of studies re-evaluating local food traditions), the national (the focus of research on gastronationalism, or the use of food to promote nationalism) and the global, at least as it relates to trade.
Parasecoli observes that despite being siloed in terms of academic study, to him these three levels were seemingly linked to one another. “I was noticing these connections, these parallels, these repeating dynamics, I wanted to see if there was something there,” he explains. “I tried to look at the forest, if there is a forest, rather than looking very closely at each tree.”
The decision to take a bird’s eye view is risky and, frankly, refreshing from someone in academia. And such a bold choice pays off: Gastronativism documents the wildly different political positions and reactions adopted in response to the structure and flows of the global food system, itself a product of neoliberal globalisation.
Based on free trade and meant to achieve the unrestricted flow of goods, these policies, which became prevalent in the late 80s, created clear winners and losers and have been subject to pushback, particularly since the financial crash of 2008. According to Parasecoli, the embrace of food as an ideological tool has been used by conservatives and progressives alike, albeit to different ends. He consequently posits that gastronativism manifests as either exclusionary or non-exclusionary.
Non-exclusionary gastronativism is focused on extending rights to the disenfranchised and the oppressed. This can take the form of anti-globalisation efforts, the food sovereignty movement, and pushes to reform the existing food system to make it more just and inclusive. “Usually everybody’s invited to be part of those movements, even if the enemy is clear,” Parasecoli says. “That’s why I didn’t call it straight up inclusionary because there is still a definite enemy.”
Exclusionary gastronativism, on the other hand, occurs when communities feel threated by internal or external forces, circle the wagons and try to limit access to the perceived privileges that come with being part of the in-group. Lega Nord saying “no” to couscous, “yes” to polenta symbolises this approach, which is easily co-opted in authoritarian and autocratic projects.
“For those who feel their daily life threatened by forces that are difficult to understand and on which they have little control, as it happens when facing neoliberal globalisation, the past becomes something to prize and safeguard, a source of pride, and an anchor for the reproduction and the defence of cultural identities,” Parasecoli writes.
Currently a professor of food studies at New York University, the Italian native is upfront in the preface to Gastronativism that he is “part of the privileged, cosmopolitan, educated elite that populisms despise.”
But his varied and international work history – he earned a PhD in agricultural sciences at Hohenheim University in Germany, reported on politics from the Middle East and Asia for European publications and served as US correspondent for Gambero Rosso, Italy’s authoritative food and wine magazine – buttresses his qualifications for undertaking such an expansive investigation.
“I’ve always had an interest in food and politics, more from a cultural, social point of view,” Parasecoli tells The Parliament. While he had previously written about the intersection of food and politics in Italy, a few years ago he began noticing an uptick in illiberal and undemocratic tendencies in governments across the globe. “I started observing the repetition of certain dynamics, of certain themes, even sometimes the repetition of certain words, of expressions, in places as diverse as India and Russia, Brazil and the US. And I was like, hold on, something is going on here,” he says.
After deciding to pursue the idea as a book project, he made it a priority to use language and themes that would be accessible to a non-academic audience.
“Now that I’m a full professor with tenure, I can write for audiences that are not my 15 colleagues in the field,” explains Parasecoli, a prolific writer who has published on topics ranging from the history of food in Italy to place-based labelling and marketing systems.
“And I think it’s also an important role for academics. We spend a lot of time thinking and figuring out things, we need to be better at sharing our knowledge and making it relevant in civil society debates,” he adds.
We spend a lot of time thinking and figuring out things, we need to be better at sharing our knowledge
Gastronativism makes the case for rooting academic work in everyday life and zooming out to think globally, even if it means wrestling with fluidity and running the risk of falling into generalities. Parasecoli, however, manages to connect the dots, a reflection of the many years of scholarly investigation and fieldwork he has undertaken.
In addition to linking movements that appear quite disparate, outlining the various ways nation-focused politics interact (and at times clash) with gastronativism, and analysing the relationship between food and migrants, he also makes the case in this book for why food is so useful as a political tool.
“Through food – which is part of us, we ingest it, it becomes us – we can think of the world in different ways that do not need to be mediated by much reasoning or research. It’s something that you feel in your guts,” he says. Acting on instinct or a hunch is also part of the contemporary political discourse.
When Lega Nord pitted polenta against couscous in Como, claiming the former as the “true” food of Italians, the historical accuracy of such a claim was immaterial. “If you think about it, polenta has been in Italy for a much shorter time than couscous,” Parasecoli says, explaining how corn only made its way to Europe in the 16th century, while couscous has been in Sicily since at least the 10th century, when the Arabs ruled the island.
“That’s the point that I make over and over in the book: reality doesn’t matter. To a certain extent, facts don’t matter. History doesn’t matter,” he adds. Gastronativism is about communicating and building community based on gut instinct.