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Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 8 months ago

On Culture, Food and Classicism

8 Feb 06


Recently, a friend of mine regaled me with a story that moved me enough to write about it.


He was telling me about a party he was at, where he had a chance to speak to a (I'm guessing) first generation Italian Canadian who's involved in various academic and cultural circles in Thunder Bay. When they started talking about culture, this gentleman reportedly said that it's a shame that when a lot of Italians talk about their culture, they focus only on the food and the music. He appears to think that without reference to art, any reference to "culture" would be cheapened, maybe even demeaned.


What kind of misguided soul would think that it's a bad thing to share one's story, one's history through food and song?


There are many definitions of culture, but many focus on attitudes and behaviors characteristic of a particular social group or organization. Many Italian immigrants that came to Thunder Bay (a group I was born into and am a bit familiar with) during the post-WW2 years were generally poor, but hard working people looking for opportunities they couldn't find in a then-war-torn homeland. Although they came from many different regions of Italy, each with its own distinctive cultural reality, I think the characteristics these immigrants shared are a reflection of 'Italian culture', or maybe more specifically, Italian immigrant culture.


These immigrants, like so many others from so many other lands, were obviously homesick, so they wanted reminders of "the old country". While many of them may have had artistic sides, most of them were working class folks, with a history of having to work long, hard hours in at back breaking work with little recompense, leaving few resources to travel or explore outside one's own region. As such, close-to-home comforts, like food and music, could play an important role in bringing a bit of the old country to the rooming house or half-lot bungalow the immigrant now lived in.


On a practical level, level, though, think of the experience of the immigrant as one of, "what would you bring to a desert island?" I still have the wooden suitcase my own father came here with in 1952 to live and work at a gold mine in northwestern Ontario. One of the things I regret not talking more to him about was his experience in coming to a foreign land, where he didn't know the language. One thing I'd love to ask him would be: what was in your suitcase when you came here? When presented with limited cargo space with which to start a new life, not knowing the next time you'll return, it's interesting how food made it onto the immigrant's desert island list. To this day (as anyone working at a port of entry through which Hyphenated-Canadians return home can tell you), the easiest-to-carry, important thing many people coming back from their respective old country bring with them is food.


This isn't to say that immigrants have not enjoyed or loved paintings, sculpture, architecture or other artistic reflections of culture. Seeing the impact of Italian immigrants and their children in the world of fashion, design, film and other endeavours around the world shows the tendency is there. However, in a sort of Darwinistic way, it wasn't these reflections of the culture that made it onto the immigrants' desert island list. You can always fit a salami or a small mandolin in a space where a painting or a sculpture won't fit. In the case of music, you don't necessarily even need an instrument if you can sing - you carry some of your history in your head when you bring the songs of the old kitchen gatherings with you to your new country.


As a chowhound, I also think that food is one of the nicest ways to share culture and history with others as well. Italian cuisine is known for its use of what's available regionally, so it's more of a question of "regional Italian cuisine" more than Italian overall. What better way to show what's found in the home region of your heritage than to share the food from that area? At the risk of sounding uncultured, not everyone can necessarily enjoy a mural or a fresco, but who's immune from a bit of homemade wine, some home-made pasta sauce, or piles of cured meat?


Yes, there's lots more to "culture" than food and song. Calling a culture demeaned and stereotyped because of the sole focus on food and music, though, shows either an ignorance of the immigrant's experience in coming to a new land with only limited space to bring part of the old world with them, or a classicist prejudice against the working class that many of these gritty builders of Canada came from.


Special thanks to Chris S. and David Y. for their insights into this.

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