by Lapo Lappin
Recently I was sucked into a WhatsApp group chat called ”The Italians” – a safe haven for Erasmus students far from the peninsula. The thumbnail for this group was a ”Hawaii pizza”, the chunks of pineapple clearly visible in the foreground. As soon as the group was created, every member of the group immediately piled with abuse and miscellaneous profanity against this culinary horror. Never have I witnessed a more effective icebreaker. Nothing binds friendships like a common enemy – in this case, pineapple.
These kinds of peculiar paroxysms continue to perplex international observers. Twitter accounts like ”Italians mad at food” catalogue angry outbursts plucked from every corner of the Internet. There was even the case – and this is my only justification for writing this piece in a magazine about foreign affairs – of an Italian ambassador to the United Kingdom, who went as far as to write to The Times to explain that pineapple should under no circumstance be placed in the vicinity of a pizza. But while this phenomenon is observed with puzzled bemusement, it remains something of a mystery. In this essay, I will try to shed some light on this question. Why are Italians so mad at food? The reason is – bear with me here – fundamentally political.
It is, after all, hard not to see late capitalism embodied in the American pizza, in a marriage of figurative and material aspects. Cheesy slabs of cheese-filled crusts, buried under stratified layers of seething, bubbling cheese, whose tectonic transformations sometimes reveal a bedrock of cheese-flavoured tomato sauce. None of the above-mentioned cheese – it goes without saying – is actually cheese (at least according to most international regulations).
The anti-hero to the American pizza, in this mythical face-off, is meant to be Italian culinary culture. This, however, should not be understood as the wine-stained word-salads of vaguely Italianate syllables that sprout up like mushrooms in the form of restaurants in central Stockholm. It is rather the daily reality of the kitchen and dinner table. Here, meals are not produced, but created – not consumed, but enjoyed. It is therefore interesting that, in the contemporary Swedish discourse, especially on the political Left, cooking is referred to as the paradigm example of the finite economical good as such. Both the Yale-based philosopher Martin Hägglund, as well as the legendary feminist icon Nina Björk, have repeatedly brought up cooking as an example of an inevitable burden, pleasure-less slavery to sustain our basic material needs. Of course, no one is disputing that planning and executing every single meal can be a pain in the arse. The struggle is – as TikTokers would have it – real. But still, there is a difference between these two philosophies: according to the latter, food is an irksome necessity; according to the former, food is an aesthetic experience that marks a rupture in these irksome necessities of daily life. I have no idea how Nina Björk serves her snabbmakaroner, but suspect it may well come under a pink blanket (of Heinz ketchup).
It would seem then, that political economy lies at the heart of the question of food. But perhaps the relation also holds the other way around. Perhaps, at the heart of the question of political economy, is the question of what food is. Is food – as Björk and Hägglund would seem to imply – a necessity, to be dealt with in the most effective way possible? Or is food something else – something which is not reducible to the economy of limited goods? A good meal cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts – something nutritionists (the gastronomical equivalent of the venture-capitalist) will never understand. Food is the locus where the most material matter becomes pure spirit, where that which is the expression of finitude opens onto the infinite.
The error of Marxists and capitalists alike is that they do not understand pizza. The economy, according to both these views, is a finite calculus of stuff, that can be superadded to one another in an algebraic relationship. Dough + oregano + pineapple + kebab + curry = pizza. But that is patently false. The pizza is not the sum of its individual ingredients.
As the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico demonstrates in The Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (1710): there is no such thing as finitude as such; the finite is enveloped in a constant stretching towards the infinite. The pizza shows itself as a place where the finite assemblage of parts cannot make it what it is. Fior di latte, dough, basil, crushed tomatoes, the purpose of making a pizza, time, love, dreams, and so on – all become something much more than their sum, something infinite and unquantifiable, a pizza, an aesthetic experience, the port after stormy seas, the Proustian memories of pizza-savour tinged with iced tea, the faithful companion of a candle-lit marriage proposal… And, of course, through an uncountable aggregate of parts that make it what it is – and always more than it is – it also coughs up, finally, choleric Italians on the Internet.
By Lapo Lappin
Illustration: Therése Lager