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On a magnificent summer day on Friday 5 July 2019, at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, University of London, specialists in French and Italian history, literary and culture gathered together at ‘The Taste of War: Values and Meanings of Food in WWII Italy and France’ conference to discuss the material and imaginary importance of food in wartime Italy and France – countries characterised by similarities in terms of agricultural economies, Nazi occupation and Allies liberation, requisitions and black market. The day of study was very enriching and pleasant.

The conference opened with a keynote address by Kay Chadwick (Liverpool) and focused on food as a means of propaganda, used by both the Vichy regime and Free France in London. As an expert on radio propaganda in WWII France, Chadwick analysed the extensive Vichy radio propaganda and the BBC’s French Service, the main means of communication of Free France with metropolitan France, and reconstructed the dynamics of their food propaganda using a wide range of archival materials. She argued that given the food scarcity endured by the French population during the Nazi occupation, it was of vital importance for both Vichy and Free France to win the game of blame to ensure the solidarity of the population.

Karima Moyer-Nocchi (Siena-Roma Tor Vergata) looked at the psychological, political and national importance of bread in Italy from the fascist period to the high peak of the Resistance fight, between 1943 and 1945. Making use of documents of the time, recipe books and oral testimonies, Karima reconstructed a story of bread that goes from the mythical concept of white bread of ancient Rome to the pane bigio in the second part of the 1930s, and to pane unico –  the brown government bread, the only legally available bread from 1941-.

With the deterioration of the living conditions during the war, witnesses narrated all sorts of coloured bread, from green to white bread, obtained with flour cut with clay, chalk, calcium carbonate or marble. It was the time of pane nero, that was, as Karima aptly puts it, ‘not just a statement about the color, but about the very animus of the people in a country destroyed by war’.

The paper by Paula Schwartz (Middlebury) discussed food protests in Paris, highlighting the fundamental role of women who led these riots. Crucial in the protests considered by Schwartz is the work of women’s groups of the French Communist Party. In my paper, I also discussed food protests that took place in various parts of Italy. In particular, I highlighted how the news of these protests was reported in the official and the clandestine issues of the women’s journal Noi donne. I contrasted these representations with the accounts of food and taste given by some women partisans in their memoirs, emphasizing the expression of an independent subjectivity that speaks of the personal transformation generated by the modification of social norms.      

Teresa Fiore (Montclair) is working on a new project investigating food practices, military operations and human mobility in Sicily at the time of the Allied landing. She began her paper with an analysis of the food dynamics presented in Leonardo Sciascia’s novella ‘The American Aunt’ that in Fiore’s reading, illustrates how food becomes the metonym for the myth of America deriving from the experience of immigration in the earlier decades and reinforced by the US army landing.

As Sciascia rejects the black and white description of Sicilian poverty and American plenty, so Teresa Fiore allows a nuanced understanding of those food and cultural dynamics by complicating her reading of Sciascia’s novella, using recent interviews with Sicilians who experienced the 1943 landing. In these video-interviews memories of hunger intertwine with memories of food availability; more homogenous are the memories of the unusual food brought by the US troops.

While Sciascia’s novella emphasises the post-war American influence on food gifts that were sent by Italian American aunt, Fiore concludes her paper by looking at a more contemporary example of food memory: a dish by a Michel-star chef from Licata inspired to the K-ration of the US army, but paying tribute to the struggles of Sicilian mothers and grandmothers of the period.

Lisa Payne Ossian’s paper also focused on America, and in particular on its role in the effort against famine in the immediate aftermath of the war. She has worked on Herbert Hoover’s Famine Mission in Europe and has indeed taken us on a journey illustrating Truman’s reasons to appoint Hoover, and the extensive journey that took Hoover through Europe, and of course Italy and France, and on to India, China, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

Marta Brunelli and Anna Ascenzi (University of Macerata, IT), an historian of education and a social educator, specialised in school culture, have worked extensively on ‘material school culture’ a field of historical-educational research aimed at reconstructing the educational practices and cultural behaviours that really took places in schools and classrooms, and also on a gender approach to the history of education.

In particular, in their paper Brunelli and Ascenzi studied how the fascist regime put in practice what they call a ‘war pedagogy for women’, an educational system aimed to educate women in home economics, food hygiene and home production needs in wartime. They made use of a very large range of primary sources: from textbooks to journal’s magazine, from booklets of cooking and home management to booklets released by the Party’s propaganda office after Italy’s entry into the war and consisting in pocket-size manuals expressly addressed to housewives. In their presentation, Brunelli and Ascenzi underline a correspondence between the content and linguistic choices in these materials and the school educational guidelines, showing the complexity of the propagandistic and educational apparatus of the fascist regime up to 1940.

Maria Grazia Scrimieri (Côte d’Azur) has provided a cultural memory perspective by analysing the recurrence of food-related episodes in the novel by Renata Viganò, L’Agnese va a morire and exploring the recognition -or lack of recognition- of women’s work during the Resistance. She illustrated how food in this novel acquires several functions, but it is in Agnese’s participation at the Resistance, therefore in relation to her political actions that Scrimieri sees a link between the food-related images and the character.

Tommasina Gabriele (Wheaton College) provided a perfect conclusion to a day rich in comprehensive analyses and new perspectives. She looked at the socio-political critique of fascist and post-fascist Italy presented in Alba de Céspedes’s Dalla parte di lei (1949). Gabriele highlighted the protagonist’s material struggle to survive and her struggle to adhere to an unattainable ideal love relationship between equals.

In Gabriele’s analysis food becomes a symbol of patriarchal and matriarchal authority, class injustice, political subversion and queer desire. It is illuminating to see through Gabriele’s reading how in this novel the cipher of food allows the representation of women’s disillusionment after the war, and the passage from a patriarchal environment in the rural Abruzzi to the unrecognized women’s role in the urban post-war Rome. Gabriele demonstrates how food in de Cespedes’s novel acquires several functions that shed light on socio-political and gender critique.

The discussion following the papers and the interconnections in French and Italian cultures of the time suggest that the topic is a fruitful one for further analysis. We thank the University of London Cassal Fund and the Society of Italian Studies for funding the event.

Patrizia Sambuco (IMLR)