Italian Food for Thought

USF’s Italian Program and its director emphasize significance of food – in theory and practice.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 1, 2012) – USF’s Italian Program in the Department of World Languages owes its growing vitality to Associate Professor Patrizia La Trecchia and both are powered by food.


One example of La Trecchia’s food-focused pedagogy and creativity was the second annual “Bites of Italy: A Visual and Gastronomic Tour of Italy in Tampa Bay with the USF Italian Program” in cooperation with the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.


The invitation-only community event on Sept. 7 provided an enogastronomic tour of theregions of Italy through the photography of renowned food and style photographer Cinzia Trenchi accompanied by La Trecchia and Italian food critic Vincenzo D’Antonio. D’Antonio writes for one of the most popular Italian food magazines, Italia a Tavola and also for the independent guide to wine and oil SipItaly.


And no one went home hungry.


Food was flown in from Italy via FedEx, “thanks to our sponsors Consorzio Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) and Consorzio per la tutela del formaggio Asiago DOP,” La Trecchia said. She and her colleague explained “the mindset that has helped Italians perfect the art of food.”


Also on the menu were Asiago cheese DOP and three wines that are DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) – Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Taurasi – from the winery Terredora Di Paolo.


Dan Bavaro, the owner of Pizzaiolo made pizza with Asiago and also prepared the mozzarella they served. Malio’s Restaurant lent the wine glasses.


The museum, locatedin the core of the Downtown Tampa Arts District, provided the perfect setting.


“The architecturally impressive contemporary art space of themuseum’s new home (the Cube at Rivergate Plaza) is a wonderful venue especially when you consider how important design is in Italian culture,” La Trecchia said.


Impressed with food’s power to “evoke our deepest memories and the capacity we have to store the past in a meal,” she asserts, “Learning the language and about the culture should always involve food.”


And she puts this conviction into practice.


Students can almost guarantee food will be involved in La Trecchia’s courses. In addition to the enjoyment of learning the language and/or learning about the culture – even in English – students will have reason to cook and/or eat Italian food. Students who take her course “Italy and the Italian-American Experience” engage in discussions on the cultural relevance of food. The section of the course on food and identity, “has inevitably led to sharing delicious meals,” she said.


Her students with an Italian-American heritage provide her with the possibility to understand the culture of her Italian-American ancestors. Her maternal grandmother was, in fact, American-born.


“These students have brought to class dishes that my grandmothers used to make,” she said. “It is for me a moving discovery. They almost allow me to travel through time.”


Ultimately, La Trecchia wants people to recognize “you are what you ate as much as what you eat, if not more so.” By this she means more than calories and nutrition.


“Food practices alternatively code, demarcate and define cultural boundaries and ethnicities,” she said. “Everything about food – the ingredients, the preparation, who was there and how you felt form a complex story that shouldn’t be taken for granted.”


In an essay she wrote for the journal Italian Americana titled, “Identity in the Kitchen: Creation of Taste and Culinary Memories of an Italian-American Family,” La Trecchia explains, “Early food memories remain etched in our minds to remind us how subtly and substantially food, which is so central to the sustenance of our lives and the most natural manifestation of our humanness, affirms our cultural identity and our ethnicity and is associated with our significant social relationships.”


Food isn’t all about the memories and the taste buds. The psyche, the personality and even class are also deeply involved when exploring the ways food culture is linked to identity.


“I came to realize that all the relationships I have had in my life have been punctuated with memories of food. I have always thought that the relationship we have with food mirrors the relationship we have with ourselves,” she says, adding, “Taste is actually the product of upbringing and education.”


According to La Trecchia, food provides a way back to one’s heritage and connects with home no matter how many generations removed. In her own travels abroad – to the United States as well as throughout Europe, La Trecchia said food is an important touchstone with people wherever she goes because through food, “I am able to interact with and understand them. Furthermore, I have used my food choices as a way to define and affirm myself and the way I present myself to the world.”


In addition to finding comfort in cooking familiar recipes and eating familiar foods, she has been able to “recreate the old meaning of the recipe in a new cultural context.” She points out how immigrants, wherever they find themselves, tend to do the same, not only in re-embracing the familiar but, at times, in rejecting the new and strange in order to feel safe and at home.


But there’s more to what we eat every day. “Food achieves a high social, political, as well as personal significance to individuals,” La Trecchia states. “Culinary habits and the acquired tastes that ensue are linked to social status because they are viewed as distinguishing symbols of class.”


Through her own stories of eating and cooking as she grew up in Italy she discovered, “Memories that revolve around food preparation and consumption emerge not as moments of nostalgic recollection but as critical acts that bear crucial implications for the immigrants’ exploration of their identities. Recipes and memories of food resonate with our heritage, our languages, our dialects, our cooking techniques, our eating habits, our feelings and our emotional states, and even our stories of love or hate.”


Any issues she had about being Italian and identifying with one region over another – in her case between Northern and Southern Italy – came to an end when she left home.


“The restoration of my ethnic dignity took place while living outside of Italy during most of my adult life,” she wrote. “From being ‘displaced’ in other countries and cultures and while living for over a decade in the United States, …I developed a sense of ethnic belonging that is frequently discovered through food.”


Then there’s food as an idea, something to be “consumed by the eye and one’s imagination,” particularly when it is put to use to convey notions of “high art” and “haute cuisine.”


In contrast with her own “cultural and sociological analyses,” La Trecchia’s essay also discusses an article by New York Times columnist Molly O’Neill. According to La Trecchia, the article attempts to confer “nobility” on the everyday practice of cooking, a skill that is considered to be well outside the realm of the fine arts.


“She describes culinary practices as high art events tout court,” La Trecchia said. “She shows how food gives powerful signals upon which we base our social judgment.”


Her approach, according to La Trecchia “could be considered elitist because it effectively marginalizes or ostracizes certain social groups from the appreciation of certain foods or qualities in some foods understood to be high-status.”


On a more personal note, the essay is dedicated to the memory of La Trecchia’s paternal and maternal grandmothers, “in thanks for the greatest gift they taught me while in the kitchen.” More specifically she pointed out, “What my Southern Italian grandmother with the black dress taught me is that identity is made, kneaded like bread or crocheted like a bedspread.”


La Trecchia has given several conference presentations on the topic of food at different institutions, among them the Calandra Italian-American Institute in New York and the Umbra Institute in Perugia. She has another monograph in mind tentatively titled, Food and Emotions: The Narratives of Food in Our Lives.


“The book will braid together a series of specific themes, such as the connection among narratives of food, emotions and identity, through an overview of how these themes have been explored across Western civilization in different culinary traditions and cross-cultural exchanges and how they have affected individual and collective identity-formation across different historical periods and cultures,” she said.


Her life is not all research and scholarship. With the passion of a food critic, La Trecchia enjoys local restaurants in Tampa.


“When I have an opportunity to taste Dan Bavaro’s wonderful pizza, I feel that if I close my eyes with a bite of his pizza in my mouth, I could actually be in Italy, specifically in Naples, as Dan makes the true Neapolitan pizza – the one that actress Julia Roberts could not stop eating in the film Eat, Pray, Love. It’s not just me. My friend Vincenzo said exactly the same about this pizza.”


One Italian dessert she “adores” locally is the torta millefoglie that her friends Alessandra, Guido and Gino Tiozzo, owners of Donatello’s Restaurant, made for her birthday party.


“It is the best torta millefoglie one could possibly find in Tampa,” she says. During a few mozzarella tastings arranged by SipItaly, that she attended over the past month, she and D’Antonio provided some entertaining remarks for the guests, explaining everything they needed to know about the mozzarella di bufala Campana. The real thing comes from Campania in Southern Italy.


“Italians all over the country consume mozzarella di bufala campana only when it is fresh or within a couple of days of its preparation. After two days, they only use it as an ingredient for the preparation of other dishes such as lasagna. When it arrives frozen, the authentic taste is altered,” she said.


When she cooks for herself, making do with local ingredients, La Trecchia always feels “something is missing.” Nonetheless, over time, she admits the “new” becomes familiar and she adjusts, especially because she enjoys a wide variety of ethnic cuisines that can be easily found in the United States.


“Indian food has a special meaning for me deriving from the time I spent in London where gourmet Indian food is very popular,” she said. In Tampa, she has had the opportunity to try the local Cuban traditions and learn about the different dishes. Once in a while, she prefers the local café con leche to her usual cappuccino.


In the spring, La Trecchia will be teaching “Italian Food in Film,” in English, on Wednesdays from 6:20 to 9:05 p.m. This course is part of the new Certificate in Food Studies directed by Humanities and Cultural Studies Assistant Professor Annette Cozzi. Will it involve more than a feast for the eyes?


There’s a good chance.


“I realize in class with my students that it is very hard for all of us to talk about food without actually eating it. We usually share meals together and it is amazing how food allows us to connect and bond. Food truly allows people to share who they are,” she says with a broad smile and adds, “If we do not know what we eat, how can we know who we are?”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.