Saturday, January 31, 2009
News from the motherland is that some Italian burgs are banning adding any new establishments that offer "ethnic foods."
[Side note: One of my favorite signs in the local supermarket is the one designating a certain aisle for "Ethnic Foods" -- things like soy sauce and salsa, which are probably in the refrigerators of ninety percent or more of households in America. That may be surpassed in entertainment value, however, by the presence of an "Ethnic Products" section in the local drug emporium -- and what they mean by so-called "ethnic" includes products such as Murray's Hair Pomade, Ultra Sheen, and Ambi lotion.]
Anyway, apparently some Italians don't like the plethora of kebab and shawarma shops in their piazzas. Interestingly, I believe I've heard people who've spent time in Italy talk about how "un-diverse" the cuisine is, and that it can be very hard for someone used to American-style variety to try to find good, affordable Thai or Japanese food; I suppose it depends on the city.
As the article points out, the supreme irony is that many staples of Italian cuisine, including the New World tomato that is paramount in the south, are of non-native origin. One wonders what the Romans were eating; I've never really thought much about that. Spit-roasted lamb with rosemary and a side of bulgur wheat?
There always seem to be people who become nervous or feel under attack somehow due to the penetration of various "ethnic" businesses or communities in their midst. Possibly it's just due to fear or dealing with the unknown. I don't understand it well because I've mostly surrounded myself with people who love ethnic variety, for lack of a better phrase. Though I did argue with my brother a couple Christmases ago because he couldn't understand why, and seemed to be slightly perturbed by the fact that it seemed that almost every gas station in New Jersey is owned by Punjabis (he may have actually uttered the word "towelhead," but I choose not to dwell on that too much). I still don't understand why it even bothered him, although I feel that part of it has to do with the influence of my conservative, xenophobic father (with whom I'm no longer in contact).
I also recall working with a sweet Jewish woman named Lil almost twenty years ago. She and her husband had recently moved back to New Jersey after living for many years in Miami. She had rather benignly said something once about how Miami was "almost like a foreign country" with all kinds of Latin American restaurants and shops and so many people speaking Spanish. I naively and guilelessly made a comment about how "that must be kind of nice and interesting sometimes," to which she shot back very bluntly, "Not in my country!!" Needless to say, we changed the topic of conversation rather quickly.
I love ethnic enclave communities, as much for the culinary variety they provide as anything else. When I go back to New Jersey, I love the fact that Oak Tree Road in Edison is a true Little India of restaurants and shops. I love the fact that the neighborhood in which my grandmother grew up has again become a very Polish area (if it ever, in fact, stopped being one). Then again, I grew up in a very different time, in a New Jersey that was already becoming very ethnically diverse with the "new immigrants" of the sixties and seventies. And of course, that was after the great immigrant waves of the early twentieth century, the result of which made it seem that almost everyone one knew was either Italian, Polish, Irish, Hungarian, Greek, German, or some combination thereof.
I wish Italy luck in sorting this out. Perhaps the city of Lucca may be written off as a provincial, closed-minded backwater, but the fact that this is spreading to Milan in the wake of rising popularity of the Northern League does not really bode well. In the meantime, Viva il Döner Kebap!
Posted by Joe at 23:06