Advertisement

Italian food? It's American creations and fairy tales, says leading critic

Alberto Grandi
Alberto Grandi

A leading food expert prompted outrage in Italy by claiming that many of the country’s most revered gastronomic offerings are based on myths and falsehoods.

Spaghetti carbonara is an American creation, parmigiano cheese from Italy is inferior to its closely related cousin in Wisconsin and tiramisu is a recent invention, Alberto Grandi said.

Mr Grandi, a food historian at the University of Parma, the home of parmesan cheese, accused Italians of clinging to “fairy tales” about their cuisine as a way of reinforcing their national identity.

Pizza was unknown in Italy outside the country’s south until after the Second World War and panettone, the beloved "traditional" cake served at Christmas, was invented by an Italian food brand in the 1920s, he pointed out.

Carbonara was invented in 1944 using the bacon, cheese and powdered eggs that only American troops had access to in a country that had been brought to its knees by years of war.

Parmesan made in Wisconsin by the descendants of Italian immigrants is truer to the original cheese than the stuff produced in Italy, he insists.

Pizzerias were invented by Italians who migrated to the US, rather than in Italy, he added.

Writing a full page article in one of Italy’s leading newspapers, Mr Grandi said the idea that Italians have taught the rest of the world how to eat and cook is “offensive” and wrong from a historical point of view.

His comments were a doubling down on similar remarks in an interview with the Financial Times at the weekend, which prompted a wide chorus of protest in Italy, ranging from nationalist politicians to the country’s leading agricultural organisation.

Mr Grandi, who has written a book and produces a podcast debunking the myths of Italy’s culinary heritage, said many Italians were fixated on tradition.

They agonise over whether to use pork jowl or bacon in carbonara, but he argued that recipes should not be “carved in marble”. In the lean years after the war, when many Italians did not have enough to eat, they would not have been bothered with such niceties, he said.

He said he was surprised that a “simple interview” had turned into a “nationalistic controversy”.

Coming after the coalition government of Giorgia Meloni had proposed that Italian cuisine should be awarded World Heritage recognition, some commentators had imagined that he was part of “an anti-Italian plot,” he said.

Many Italian dishes that are viewed as being steeped in tradition, such as spaghetti all’amatriciana, “in fact have a very brief history,” he wrote.

But Italians “continue to tell themselves reassuring fairy tales” about their national cuisine.

His critique earned him the wrath of Coldiretti, Italy’s national farmers’ association, which accused him of launching a “surreal attack on the iconic dishes of Italian cuisine”.

Mr Grandi had “trivialised” Italy’s food heritage, “from carbonara to panettone, from tiramisu to Parmigiano Reggiano,” the association said. His accusations were based on “imaginative reconstructions” of Italy’s culinary history, it claimed.

Plate of carbonara pasta - Chris Canton/Getty Images
Plate of carbonara pasta - Chris Canton/Getty Images

The Consortium for Parmigiano Reggiano, an organisation that champions the regional cheese, pointed out indignantly that it is made according to a recipe that dates back to 1254.

Mr Grandi was also criticised by Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the hard-Right League party.

Mr Salvini, who never loses an opportunity to link Italian food to nationalist pride, said foreigners were jealous of Italy’s gastronomic excellence.

But Mr Grandi was unrepentant and questioned the value of Italy trying to win World Heritage recognition for its cuisine.

“If we get it, what will happen? People who love Italian food will continue to love it and those who don’t like it will continue to not like it. And why Italian food – why not Greek or Turkish, for example?”