When Cuisines Collide: Mediterranean Foodways from Fascism to Neo-Fascism
In October 1935, dictator Benito Mussolini’s shock troops flooded the shores of Abyssinia, seizing Ethiopian cities and townships to establish Italian settler colonialism in East Africa. “When Cuisines Collide” examines the interplay of East African and Italian culinary culture from the Fascist period to the present day to trace the legacies of colonialism to contemporary kitchens. All five senses engage through the materials: marketplace maps, children’s cups and dishes, and breastfeeding photography demonstrate how the regime embedded political ideology in everyday actions like cooking and eating. Today, we see Mediterranean migration unfolding in reverse: Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Somali citizens navigate the dangerous and often deadly waters to seek employment and political asylum, bringing foods and foodways from the Horn of Africa to Southern Europe. Neo-Fascist parties such as Lega Nord and Fiamma Tricolore have framed these cultural shifts as an assault on Italian identity and nativist foodways: “Sì alla polenta, no al cous-cous.” Faced with both the return of nationalism and the advancement of racist and sexist ideologies, what do we do now? Interweaving recipes, oral histories, poetry, and photography from Italo-Ethiopian, -Eritrean, and -Somali cooks, artists, and authors casts this dilemma in the concrete details of women’s daily lives to explain what is at stake in the migration of culinary culture.
My second project argues that Italy’s manipulation of colonial food and foodways in sub-Saharan Africa drew power from scripted ways of cooking and eating. Here I pay special attention to intimate feeding work, such as interracial wetnursing and the preparation of African foods for Italian children. Ultimately, I suggest that domestic workers both past and present have subverted these scripts through culinary translation, rewriting Italian recipes with Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali ingredients. In doing so, they mobilize literary, bodily, and culinary production to address the political and cultural connections that span contemporary East Africa and Italy.
The materials for this project address all five senses: I will analyze recipes, menus (see image at left), maps, songs, photographs, and oral histories to connect Fascist-period depictions of East African women’s domestic labor in Italian homesteads in relation with the postcolonial and decolonial narratives that confront these representations. Thanks to the CLIR Mellon Fellowship, I have already begun my research for this project. I spent 2015-2016 in Italy interviewing Italo-Ethiopian, -Eritrean, and -Somali authors and poets about the culinary legacies of colonialism and the political significance of African food and foodways in contemporary Europe. During this time I also served as a Visiting Scholar for the Center for Migration and Racism in Italy and the Food Studies Program at the American University of Rome.
To reflect the transnational scope of my research, I interweave the voices of contemporary Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali, Italian, British, and American scholars in my theoretical approach. To demonstrate the importance of colonial period to understanding contemporary East African culture, I turn to the ethnographic oral history work of Feminist historians such as Ruth Iyob, Barbara Sòrgoni, Giulia Barrera, Patrizia Palumbo and Irma Taddia to trace the cultural, racial, and economic legacies of the period in modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Integrating these arenas of historical scholarship into my theoretical framework allows East African women’s voices resound throughout my project. Literary studies amplify this chorus: the personal narratives of postcolonial authors Gabriella Ghermandi, Igiaba Scego, Cristina Ubax Ali Farah, and Ribka Sibhatu echo concerns from the colonial period in their novels and their poetry, and demonstrate how oral history influences transnational literary culture today. To unify these disparate threads into a single narrative, I draw on the methodology of interdisciplinary scholars Heyaw Terefe and Mia Fuller, Cristina Lombardi-Diop, and Sandra Ponzanesi. These four academics model approaches for analyzing gender and race through popular culture such architecture, advertising, and photography.
Investigating the history of race and gender cannot promote diversity through content alone. Rather, research methodology, site and material selection, theoretical approach, and teaching methods intertwine to promote equality. “Black Milk” applies inclusive methodology such as oral history, material culture analysis, and reading against the grain to write women, the working class, and racial and ethnic minorities back into global history. I look for contradictions, occlusions, and complaints. Interweaving these methods not only allows me to critically examine state narratives using a broad body of evidence, but also highlights alternate forms of historical record: rice workers songs speak to domestic violence and recipes record abortion practices. These methodologies come together under the aegis of Food Studies: in my research, I read food as the evidence of political negotiations in everyday life. Everyone eats: following the food provides a democratic methodology as well as a broad catalogue of historical materials for analysis. Food demonstrates how power works by revealing the local variations of manufacturing, construction, and financing for state enterprises. In the context of Italian Fascism in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, food further demonstrates the unexpectedly significant extent of East African women’s involvement in public projects. By consulting a variety of hitherto underutilized sources from regional archives, I work to reconstruct the social history of those who did not write it.
To view additional examples of my materials, please see Ephemera Sample.
To see the research sites visited, please see Collections.