C.P.: Apart from this question of pleasure, I mentioned that I feel we need to extend the scope of gastronomic science. Starting from pleasure, just as Slow Food has done, we need to work backwards and identify the underlying work, knowledge, methods and human, social and production relationships which make the final moment of consumption possible. In your book, coauthored with Alberto Capatti, Italian Cuisine, you quote a comment of Professor Rebora of Genoa: ‘Cuisine, rather than being an invention of the dominant classes, is a need of theirs, satisfied by the art of the lower classes’.
M.M.: I think that once we recognize that the lower social strata of society have considerable gastronomic knowledge, then we realize that a significant part of what we superficially consider the culture of the élite, is in fact deeply rooted in popular or ‘lower’ class culture. Let’s take methods of preservation for example. They are one of the fundamental features of ordinary people’s culture because it was necessary for them to invent some way of keeping food edible throughout the year and during periods of famine. This series of inventions then became part of the gastronomic heritage underpinning a whole area of traditional products. Today’s high class haute cuisine product is in most cases a preservable and transportable product using techniques such as salting or marinating that originated in the poorest strata of society.
C.P.: I would like to raise the issue of historical sources. The history of gastronomy generally depends on recipe and cookbooks from different periods to indicate the evolution of taste and cooking techniques. But they are documents produced by rich people for rich people. The food culture of the lower classes has not left us any written records even though it was responsible for nearly all the innovative breakthroughs, such as the methods of preservation you mentioned and which are now a backbone of the food industry. Yet we will have these authentic sources, in the flesh, at Terra Madre. What are your reactions as a historian?
M.M.: It is unsettling, since a historian studies things that no longer exist. At Terra Madre you had original sources to talk to, but I can’t speak to the peasants who lived in Medieval times and I can’t refer to any of their documents. Yet I am sure that as far as food is concerned, the influence of the lower classes is so great in all societies, that sources produced by the upper classes for their own use contain significant references to ordinary people’s culture. If we can read between the lines of the written records — not only looking at what is written down, which is fascinating in its own right, but what is taken for granted and evidently represents a common heritage — you can find references and reflections of the situation facing ‘poor people’s’ culture.
It isn’t impossible to get information where it seems a hopeless task, even if nothing is written down. In fact it is the historian’s job. The influence of poor people’s food was so strong that the written records could not help mentioning it thought they did not want to. Paradoxically, the written sources are founded on an ideology of social difference, so they tend to highlight the differences between rich and poor. But as soon as they make this comparison they reveal the situation they want to ignore. It is clear that they were very familiar with it and indirectly tell us a lot.
C.P.: From this perspective do you find a difference between the cookbooks written by humanists, scholars, lawyers etc., compared to those by cooks, which were perhaps more technical and remained anonymous for a long time before gradually being signed?
M.M.: The information is more useful if the author has more technical knowledge because ideology is always a powerful distorter, even where awareness of ‘others’ filters through. I will give an example — Bartolomeo Scappi, who in the second half of the sixteenth century wrote what I consider one of the most important books for the history of gastronomy, L’opera.
C.P.: He was cook for the papal court, perhaps the richest cuisine imaginable at that time, where every type of food was served, remembering that it was already after America was discovered. He clearly expressed a rich cuisine, he cooked for the Pope, he was the highest placed cook of the time.
M.M.: Yet he had an extraordinary knowledge and respect for popular culture, which you would not have expected. If a historian knows the situation at that time, the food that was available, what peasant farmers grew, which were the luxury products, the economic and agricultural conditions, then reading his recipes makes you sometimes feel you are in a peasant’s house rather than the Papal court. The things that Scappi mentions are perfectly compatible with the peasant economy at the end of the sixteenth century. Like the minced fava beans for example which he used to make a really simple dish as though it were a standard food of the time. It is not that there were no differences, but he inserted them into an underlying ‘peasant’ cuisine, by basically doing two things. He either added something precious to the original recipe, or he served the peasant dish alongside something else. In the case of the fava bean dish for example, he added a little bacon fat before serving it with a sprinkling of spices, which were then a rich and rare ingredient in society. It was a final gesture which made a simple dish fit for a king but did not conceal the cook’s considerable knowledge of ordinary food culture. It was a culture the rich elite were very familiar with, and for this reason felt the need to introduce so many differentiating features.
C.P.: If we look at the situation today, don’t you see a tendency among a certain élite to yet again appropriate knowledge for itself and funnel it into the famous ‘niche products’, while a standardized mass-produced product is dumped onto poor people? I mention this thinking about the communities that came to Terra Madre in Turin, who maintain traditional food cultures, methods and biodiversity which are facing unparalleled threats. And at the same time peasant knowledge is being incredibly depleted, expropriated or forgotten, but in any case it is an insult. Not to mention another huge and symbolic form of modern expropriation: genetic piracy or attempts to patent seeds. It is as though those with power are waging a campaign against peasant farmers — they once physically occupied the land and now are resorting to subtler attacks such as exacting royalties on their seeds. Do you think it is a valid analogy or are we facing a different situation?
M.M.: One thing is certain: what was once, in pre-modern societies, done within small communities is today done on a world scale. Conflicts in feudal, medieval societies saw social classes with well-defined interests opposing each other. The conflict is now at a global level and is between exploiting and exploited economies, to a backdrop of a disorientating degree of complexity. An occasion such as Terra Madre provided an opportunity to highlight the wealth possessed by the exploited economies. But we need to realize that in contemporary society this wealth risks being forgotten, while in medieval societies it tended to be integrated. The danger is that the industrial system will kill these cultures off and not just ‘expropriate’ them, not even as a cunning tactic or act of cultural imperialism. At one time expropriation occurred because the dominant classes knew and appreciated this culture. Industry risks not understanding and thus causing immense damage.
There has always been conflict over the control of resources, but in the past it rarely led to their destruction. The changed situation means that we need different strategies. Faced with a phenomenon like industry which moves at a global level, the production forces connected to traditional knowledge also need to act at the same global level, otherwise they will not survive.
C.P.: and here we face the big contradiction: on the one hand these cultures must be embedded in their local areas because otherwise we won’t be talking about sustainability, and on the other they have to act globally, not so much to transport their product, but to transport their knowledge and their right to exist. There is probably a greater need to know about the existence of these communities today — just as we know about figurative art or any other facet of world cultural heritage — rather than, for argument’s sake, have yak milk available at the supermarket.
M.M.: The crisis today is that there is not a common awareness and knowledge connecting the various social and cultural levels in society. In premodern societies the peasant farmer, the estate manager, and the landowner were all connected by interests and culture. The owner wrote instructions for the manager, who passed them on to the peasants: it was marked by conflicting interests but around something that involved everybody and that everyone knew. The problem is that today the industrial world, modern society, has lost contact with cultures of the land. Consumers do not even know what they are eating and the success of industry and the industrial model of society plays on this ignorance.
Adapted by Ronnie Richards