Everything you think you know about Italian cuisine is wrong

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Photo by Vincent Rivaud

Everything you think you know about Italian cuisine is wrong.

Or at least that is the argument made by the academic and author Alberto Grandi.

Pizza? Few Italians had heard of it until the 1950s.

Carbonara? That comes from the United States.

Panettone? Created, as we know it today, by the Motta food brand, and only made by independent bakers in the 1970s in a bid to compete with supermarkets.

Tiramisu? Popularised as late as the 1980s.

For a national cuisine, built on tradition and authenticity, this is controversial to say the least. The food and drink sector accounts for around a quarter of Italy’s GDP.

But Grandi’s point is that nations need myths. As Napoleon once said, “history is a lie agreed upon.”

“It’s all about identity,” Grandi said in a recent interview with the Financial Times.

“When a community finds itself deprived of its sense of identity, because of whatever historical shock or fracture with its past, it invents traditions to act as founding myths,” Grandi says.

For Italy this came in the post-war boom, when standards of living soared, especially from the late 1950s.

At the same time millions of Italians had emigrated, many of them to America. There, new dishes were created, many of which made their way back to the old country.

Food and drink became the tie that binds.

The best example is probably pizza. Discs of dough topped with ingredients have been popular throughout the Mediterranean region for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, from pittas to pizzas.

But according to Grandi, the world’s first pizzeria opened not in Rome, Milan, Florence or Naples, but in New York, in 1911.

Foundation myths are important for brands as well as nations.

Häagen-Dazs sounds like a Nordic company, but the name has no meaning in any language, and the brand was created in New York. The founders thought Häagen-Dazs sounded premium.

Ray-Ban has a foundation myth that the company’s aviator sunglasses were designed in the 1930s to protect the eyes of US Air Force pilots. While the sunglasses were eventually adopted by the military, the design was actually created for civilian use, and the Air Force did not begin using them until much later.

As Tony Wilson once said, “When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend.”

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