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Why Food Has Become a New Target for Nationalists

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In Europe, immigrant-owned food stalls are fighting to survive

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Food has become a new target for nationalists. Shutterstock

Good luck finding a kebab shop in Florence’s historic quarter, a plate of fried rice in Verona, or a burger in the tony Italian beachfront town of Forte dei Marmi. Since 2009, town governments throughout Italy have been banning “foreign” or “ethnic” food shops from opening up, with varying explanations.

Last year, Florence’s government was worried that the city’s Italian culture was being watered down through the proliferation of foreign food. “Mass-produced foods are replacing our traditional trattorias and historic food shops. We have to put an end to it,” Florence’s mayor Dario Nardiella told an Italian newspaper. In northern Italy, Verona’s mayor told the Telegraph that a provision limiting most “ethnic” or deep-fried food would result in “no more openings of establishments that sell food prepared in a way that could impact the decorum of our city.” Reportedly, Venice is also considering one of these so-called UNESCO laws, which preserve and protect historic cities from outside influence.

Italy isn’t the only country barring foods with a whiff of foreignness. In 2011, France banned ketchup from its school lunches (with the exception of a dip for french fries, which could be offered no more than once a week). When some people caught on to the fact that Denmark was serving halal meatballs in hospitals and schools, they were infuriated: The Danish People's Party, which wants to restrict immigration and force assimilation of the country’s immigrants, believed that such practices “discriminated against Danish culture.”

Italian politicians are trying to angle their aims differently. “This measure has nothing to do with xenophobia — it is about protecting and valuing our culture,” Umberto Buratti, Forte dei Marmi’s mayor, said in 2011 about its ban on “foreign” foods. “We would also say no to American hamburger chains.”

But if you’ve read anything about Brexit, the “Muslim travel ban,” or any of the numerous other government reactions, you should already know the narrative: Globalization is scary! Industrialization is killing all our jobs! Immigrants — particularly Muslim ones — are inundating countries in tsunami-like waves that will drown their culture once and for all!

Though some countries (hi, USA!) are trying to restrict immigration altogether, in others, lawmakers find it more politically palatable to concoct statements like “we don’t want our [nation’s] culture to be diluted or Disneyfied.” Sure, maybe people really are worried that their cultural heritage is being washed away. According to Fabio Parasecoli, director of food studies initiatives at the New School and author of multiple books about Italian food culture, some Italians feel that “tourists don’t come [to Italy] to see Chinese restaurants or McDonald’s,” making it important “to maintain the atmosphere that is important for tourism, which is one of the most important sources of revenue in towns and cities.”

But it’s hard to look at these laws and the often anti-immigrant political parties behind them and not see them as simply a new form of nationalism.

In 2007, a PEW survey found that 94 percent of Italians thought “immigration was a big problem” and 73 percent thought immigrants had a negative impact on the country. Just to rub salt in the wound, Italy was particularly hard hit by the recession, and the IMF recently projected Italy wouldn’t return to a pre-2007 economy until 2020.

In many cases, the bans have very real consequences for Italy’s business owners. “The majority of the eateries and small convenience stores impacted by such bans are indeed owned and run by non-ethnic Italians,” says Gregoria Manzin, an Italian studies professor at La Trobe University.

Italy is very protective of its food culture, as Manzin says, because “Italians are Italians because of what they eat and how they eat it.” Yet there are also economic consequences for the consumption of nonlocal foods. The agricultural, food, and restaurant industries in the country make up 8.7 percent of the country’s GDP. The economy is failing, the birthrate declining, and yet more immigrants — and their non-Italian foods — keep pouring in.

Parasecoli has some sympathy for this perspective, and says that “there is a strong sense of being overwhelmed” by immigrants who often come to Italy before moving to other European nations where there are better job prospects, although “at the same time, there are whole sectors that function thanks to immigrants.” He says Italy is “becoming a country of old people,” and that many schools only have enough students to stay open thanks to immigrants.

It’s a volatile combination: a country with strong traditions that fears change and a populace that is somewhat resentful of a need to bring in outsiders just to keep their nation functioning.

Slow Food International, which got its start protesting the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, sees a big difference between protecting traditional food and restricting foreign influences. “We promote short supply-chains and not an ideological attitude of cultural closure,” Paolo Di Croce, secretary general of Slow Food International, writes in an email. He gives the example of a Chinese restaurant owner in the Italian city of Turin who has a garden where he grows Chinese vegetables in order to prepare traditional recipes with fresh ingredients. “That chef is definitely in the Slow Food network and we support him,” he says.

People buying street food in Milan, Italy

It’s important to note that banning “foreign” foods would be much harder in a nation of immigrants like the United States or even England, where immigrants have had a longstanding (and, some believe, beneficial) effect on the country’s cuisine. “These [bans] are only possible in a context where there is a strong awareness of an existing and seemingly agreed-upon national or regional cuisine,” says Heather Benbow, a University of Melbourne professor who has studied issues of food, diversity, and xenophobia in Australia and Europe.

“Non-European and settler societies (the United States, Canada, Australia) have embraced migrant cuisines as a desirable, even essential part of urban life,” she says. Yet even nations where foreign foods are accepted and craved can have their own undercurrents of culinary xenophobia: the fear of Chinese food loaded with MSG, for example, or when you just know you got food poisoning from that Thai restaurant you ate at without ever suspecting the salad you had at a farm-to-table establishment.

Food isn’t just a way to bring people together; it’s a way to tell them apart. “Food can really amplify any existing intercultural tensions and provide an outlet for their expression,” Benbow says. We often group people together based on what they eat — from the Whole Foods set to McDonald’s lovers to vegans — and attacking someone’s food culture is low-hanging fruit. Add the fact that restaurants are more accessible to the public than other immigrant-run businesses in ethnic enclaves, and you have an easy target for vandalism, hatred, and xenophobia — even in a settler society like the United States.

Last year a fried chicken restaurant in New Jersey was inundated with Yelp reviews that referred to the owners as “terrorists” (among other epithets) after the owners’ son was outed as a suspect in recent bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey. The CEO of Chobani yogurt got death threats as well as calls to boycott his company after he stepped up efforts to employ refugees. Thriving immigrant-run restaurants or grocery stores become public symbols of success that are easy for anyone to access, and often become a target of violence. Within the last year, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Oakland identifying itself as a “sanctuary” was vandalized with feces, an Indian restaurant in Denver had the words “hail trump” scrawled across one of its signs, and a Galveston restaurant owned by a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan was vandalized twice in one week with bacon, forcing it to close, according to the owner — and that’s a very small sample.

People like to wax poetic about how food can lead to acceptance between foreigners. But solving immigration politics and ending xenophobia requires a bit more than an inclusive dinner table and a hearty appetite. As Benbow says, “Certain ethnic cuisines can be really popular without necessarily resulting in greater cultural understanding for those migrant groups among the majority population.”

More than a few politicians who have banned food that they say is a “bad influence” on local culture have compared the surge of kebab shops to “Disneyfication.” But their definition of the word leads me to believe they’ve never actually been to a Disney theme park. Removing signs of immigrant life and its influence on a nation’s culture doesn’t somehow make your country more authentic; it whittles everything complex away until visiting those great UNESCO heritage sites feels little different from going to an Epcot Italy exhibit. It’s not so different from saying the only real Italian food is pizza and the only real Italians are the ones who are either in the Mafia or talk like Mario. The only explanation for a food ban is that tourists can’t be trusted to care about Italian culture without resorting to stereotypes.

Spaghetti and tomato sauce, a hallmark of simple, pure Italian food, is as much a culinary mutt as any kebab shop in Verona. The first mention of the dish in a cookbook was in 1844. The tomato originated in South America and didn’t make its way to Italian kitchens until sometime in the 1500s. Spaghetti arrived in Sicily in the Middle Ages thanks to Muslims. Of course, none of these details ever show up when people talk about food bans — just like the fact that many French people eat fries with ketchup is conveniently forgotten when people start trying to ban food to save the empire left and right.

Forte dei Marmi’s mayor believes that the only way to “protect and value” Italian culture is to ban foreign foods. But to freeze Italian food into its 2017 form doesn’t show respect for the cuisine at all. No culture has just one history or one food, and to try and put Italy, France, Denmark, or any other nation inside a glass box doesn’t just keep it from evolving. It denies the influences that created those great nations in the first place.

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and former New Yorker who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @TKDano.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Daniela Galarza