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Global Food Poisoning in Italy

Bra is the sort of town where old women really do wear all black to signify their widowhood and where the stores are closed for three, sometimes four, hours every afternoon. I went there to study Piedmontese regional food culture but instead found a...
January 13, 2013, 12:00am
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Bra, Italy is just an hour south on the three-car regional train from Turin, but it takes its character more from the hectares of farmland and vineyards that hem its boundaries than from Piedmont's gleaming center of industry and Baroque architecture. There is no McDonald's in the city center, no ethnic food available besides one Chinese restaurant and a smattering of pizza joints that also serve that ubiquitous European fast food—the Doner kebab. Nearly every restaurant plates the same regional specialties that highlight the bounty of the surrounding hills—the raw beef sausage, Salsiccia di Bra; the beef tartare-esque carne cruda, drizzled with olive oil; the fresh, eggy tajarin pasta; the roast-meat-stuffed agnolotti dal plin, washed down with a light Dolcetto di Dogliani or, if you're up for shelling out a few more euro, a full-bodied Barolo.


Bra is the sort of town where old women really do wear all black to signify their widowhood and where the stores are closed for pausa for three, sometimes four, hours every afternoon. It's a town where, by and large, the 30,000 residents don't speak a lick of English—where, when they detect the Dolce Vita twang of American accent in my Italian, they say things like, "Avete Obama ancora negli Stati? È meglio che l'altro?" ("Do you guys still have Obama in the States? Is he better than that other guy?") Followed up by, "Ma come hai imparato di parlare l'italiano cosi bene? Perché?" ("How did you learn to speak Italian so well? Why?") That is, if I can get them to talk to me at all. The Braidesi defy the stereotypical Italian openness; don't expect any strangers here to greet you with a kiss on both cheeks, let alone to smile at you when you pass them on the street.

I moved to Bra in November to pursue a Master in Food Culture and Communications at a small, private university here. As I got ready to say arrivederci to the States, I brushed up on my irregular verbs and the subjunctive tense. I watched Fellini movies and re-read Roberto Saviano's Gomorra. Three years back, I had spent a semester in Padua—one train stop away from Venice and home of Italy's second-oldest university. Dinner-table conversations with my Paduan host family about Berlusconi had edged me into the proficient category of Italian speakers. But I was certain that it would be in Bra that I would achieve my coveted fluency, the ability to pass in the country that three sets of my great-grandparents jumped ship from in the early 1900s. Bra would be the perfect Italian city to go for an immersion experience—a town that globalization forgot. And yet, it is here that I am a part of a more internationally oriented, melting pot of a culture than I was in 23 years as an American.


When I started at the university, I expected our coursework—though it would be in English—to be bent towards the Italian way of representing and relating to food. After all, Piedmont is widely considered to be Italy's greatest food and wine region, and the university is housed renovated rooms of the UNESCO-recognized 14th Century Italian castle where Barolo wine is said to have been first discovered. But with courses like "An Introduction to International Organizations" and study trips to visit farmers and fishermen in Macedonia and Finland, the university aims to promote a global perspective on gastronomy's many facets. To me, this makes the view of the Alps and the fact that nearly all the standing faculty are Italian seem besides the point.

My cohort of 28 represents 17 different countries across five continents. I'm often dissappointed that we don't communicate in Italian—only a handful of us speak it passably, and we have to set aside special coffee hours, moderated by the Florentine ragazza among us, to force ourselves to practice here. We chat in Global English, each speaker flavoring the new lingua franca with idioms and constructions of his or her mother tongue. My fast-paced East Coast speech, peppered with Philly-slang like "jawn," doesn't fly here. Where I had worried before about being able to blend in as an Italian, to incorporate "Che se ne fregas" and "Vai tranquillos" ("Who gives a damn," and "Don't worry about it.") into the right moments of chit chat with the locals at biweekly open-air markets, I am now in a position where my American English is left hanging in the air. I need to contort my speech so much when I'm trying to make myself understood to an Austrian, a Singaporean, an Indian, that I feel like I'm speaking a different dialect. And the different dialects throbbing around me sometimes have me leaving a conversation wondering what it means to "pain badly," what "mother hurt" is, and if when she said artichokes, she really meant anchovies.

The universal language for this global coterie, then, is not English. It is food. After all, it was the momentum to occupy our own food cultures and understand others that drove us to Piedmont. We are forever sharing forkfuls of brown-bagged lunches and inviting one another out for the Italian version of happy hour, aperitivo, which in Bra means automatically replenished platters of pizza and that ever-present raw salsiccia, which doesn't mesh well with my palate or my American sense of food safety (raw ground beef in a sausage casing? Che schifoso).

When my course threw a holiday party a few weeks back, it was of course food-centric, but we left behind the typical trays of pasta for our own comfort foods, each preparing a well-loved ethnic dish to share. We met on a Saturday afternoon at the villa in the hilly outskirts of town that houses the University's gastronomic society and got cooking. There were specially-ordered bratwursts getting licked by flames on a tiny charcoal grill; a half-wheel of pungent Swiss raclette cheese bubbling under a heated plate; kimchi pancakes flipping in griddles; and cardamom-scented ladoo cookies from India being arranged in a basket. I was plied with glasses of hot toddy by a Scotswoman and glühwein by an Austrian. My French Canadian friend emptied her last can of maple syrup into a pot so she could fry doughnuts in it. Even as the kitchen bustled, there was a sense of utter ease floating around—here was a chance to actually make ourselves understood, to explain what it meant to be Japanese or German or Finnish where language failed. With a stomach full of fares from around the world, I danced to the hired band's awful, Italian-accented cover of John Denver's "Country Roads" and started to grasp the extent of my new international lifestyle. I came to Italy to study Italian food culture and polish up my language skills, but for now all I could manage to do was to translate Global English via food, having understood better the Japanese spare ribs I was served than the language coming from my classmate's lips as she offered them up.

When it comes to winemaking, the French advocate terroir—the theory that the environment of a region imparts a flavor and character to a product made there— ensuring that a Bordeaux can only be a called such if the grapes are grown in Bordeaux soil. Making pierogi, aloo gobi, and mofongo at Italian stoves with ingredients smuggled from Poland, India, and Puerto Rico violates terroir. Can you really call it mofongo if you bought your plantains from a Thai woman who operates a tiny corner of the discount grocer in Bra, supplying students with their beloved Sriracha and cilantro? The purists would say no, and I would too: That mofongo was inflected with an Italian accent by way of pancetta. Recipe adaptations like that make an effort to calm the dissonance between this stubbornly Italian town and the globalization invading it. The Braidesi, though? They'll stick to their bollito misto and Barolo, grazie mille. And for me? I think I'll stick to the bollito misto for now too, and try to at least eat my way to Italian immersion.