Carlo Petrini Talks To Massimo Montanari – PART ONE

13 Nov 2004

I have a sensation of the 5,000 people who came to Turin for Terra Madre as representing a very different culture. I mean this in the sense that they express social classes that are very far from the levers of power, wealth and western cultural values.
I suppose one could make a parallel with what have historically been called ‘lower’ social classes. If we want to gain a historic perspective of what Terra Madre means, we have to think about the issue. For this reason we met Massimo Montanari, an expert on medieval history and one of the foremost scholars of world food, so that we could gain a better understanding and see if the ‘lower’ rank of the participants at Terra Madre should be looked at in a different light given the complex situation we face today.

C.P.: Reading about the history of food, I have come to the firm conclusion that the premise — always assumed and often explicitly stated — that we should study the history of food and the history of gastronomy as two separate and different things, is completely wrong. For centuries it has been unquestioned that the history of food is all about how humans eat to survive while the history of gastronomy is about an elite who can afford to combine their daily food with pleasure. I prefer an approach such as that of Brillat-Savarin, who takes gastronomy as a complex and multidisciplinary science. This is why agriculture, natural sciences, anthropology and culinary techniques are all part of the same body of knowledge connected to food.

M.M.: I have been examining these issues for over thirty years and must say that I have gradually come to the same conclusion. It was not quite what I thought when I started out on my studies of peasant food in the early Middle Ages. I also initially assumed that the history of food and the history of gastronomy were two different things: on the one hand economics and necessity, on the other culture and pleasure. This was, and still is, a deeply rooted idea running through our tradition. But after thinking about it for thirty years I have come to the opposite conclusion — it is not justified, correct or supported by the evidence to exclude pleasure and culture from necessity and economics. Gastronomy has always been part and parcel of eating. It is obvious that survival is man’s first need, but human beings have always tried to do this in as pleasurable a way as possible. In any case there is no reason why they should have not wanted to.

C.P.: So the ‘lower’ classes, the peasant farmers who have always been at the bottom of social hierarchies, can also claim a right to pleasure and a legitimate position in the history of gastronomy.

M.M.: It is a complex question because it is yet another example of the dominant culture expropriating from the ‘lower’ classes. Not only did they commandeer agricultural produce from the lower classes and take over their technical developments, i.e. the gastronomic innovations introduced by ordinary people to make the food enjoyable, but they even claimed that these things did not belong to those lower down the social scale, because poor people who had to combine lunch and dinner would not have the opportunity to enjoy food. The dominant classes appropriated for themselves the right to pleasure.
This is still a powerful misconception when people talk about food culture. One of the things I always try to clarify is that gastronomic culture is not the culture of the knowledgeable experts as opposed to a world of ignorant people who do not have it: it is nothing more or less than the production, consumption and enjoyment of the food we eat to live. The knowledge and know-how accumulated over the generations about how to transform food is not only about survival, but it is linked to culture, even if that is a somewhat simple and generalized way of putting it. It is linked to everything to do with people’s lives, it is something that exists in every society and in all social classes.

C.P.: So there is not a majority history of eating for pleasure and a minority history of eating to live.

M.M.: This dichotomy between need and pleasure is an artificial distinction and there are reasons why medieval thinkers were so obsessed about it. They saw the pleasure of eating as a danger for human spirituality and were obsessed by the idea of developing ways of eating just for survival needs. Of course it turned out to be hopeless exercise, it was attempting the impossible. From a historical perspective I think it is now not only correct but an ethical duty to give the right to pleasure back to the ‘lower’ classes.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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