• June 8, 2023

Medvedev and that hateful “spaghetti eater”: but where does this saying come from?

Medvedev, or an unlikely ascetic. Moving from words to deeds, the former Russian president should have already banned from his table all delicacies of European cuisine “from the Alps to the pyramids, from Manzanarre to the Rhine”. Yes, precisely those Westerners “eaters of frogs, sausages and spaghetti” as the former Russian president thundered, criticizing the premier’s visit to Kiev Mario Draghi with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The dramatic priorities on the agenda obviously justify any lack of reply from those directly involved: in any case, the departure of the vice-president of the Russian security council fuels a stereotype that has never subsided and is in any case ineffective. Yes, because the Italians let that epithet slip quickly, proud of their spaghetti and recipes that the whole world has envied and tried to replicate for over two hundred years (with most often questionable results).

But what is the real origin of a cliché that laughs at the pride of Italian cuisine par excellence? The origin can be traced, as always, in popular poverty and in the contempt of the powerful on duty towards the weak or the different: spaghetti followed the Italians in their emigrations to the five continents, but even before that they were prepared by the “maccaronari”, the ancestral “Street cooks” who thus gave life to a delicious popular food within everyone’s reach (at the time strictly “cacio e pepe” since the use of tomatoes was not yet widespread). The same canvas can be applied to French frogs. Here the Russian arrow can be, indeed, even more inappropriate, given what today is a dish chased by haute cuisine has a war origin: specifically, that of the Hundred Years fought between the French and the English in the hardest century of the European Middle Ages. It lasted from 1337 to 1453: left with nothing to eat, the transalpines were reduced to feeding on frogs (once very poor food also in the Piedmont of the Novara and Vercelli rice fields, which remained popular until the mid-twentieth century).

In reality, frogs and spaghetti soon ended up on the tables of the respective aristocracies: Ferdinand of Bourbon, the “King Naso”, ate macaroni and vermicelli with his hands even at court, regardless of the horrified reproaches of his wife, Maria Carolina of Habsburg. But anyway: the bubble of poor foods is hard to eradicate and the connected stereotypes persist over the centuries, accompanying the dark pages of contemporary history. The epithet of “spaghetti eater” travels with the Italians on steamers bound for the New World and enters even more dramatically behind the fences of the Nazi concentration camps where, after 8 September, the military internees of the Royal Army were greeted with spit and al shout in the face of “Makaroni, Badoglio!”. Meanwhile, a troubled fascism had already lost the battle of the Futurist movement against pasta, accused by Marinetti of being a “barbaric dish that lived in our ultramodern civilization” and a symbol of an absurd gastronomic religion. The crusade of the Fascist poet against pens and macaroni therefore breaks down, as well as in the indifference of his fellow countrymen, even in a famous photo taken of Marinetti himself in the Biffi restaurant in Milan intent on consuming a clandestine as well as abundant supply of vermicelli.

After the war, cinema is experiencing its boom. The ‘Italian spaghetti eaters’ also arrive on the big screen, starting with the 1964 short film’ It ‘Not Just You, Murray!’ where mother Scorsese brings her son in prison another generous plate of spaghetti. Other times it is the Italians themselves who make self-mockery: there is the “macarone” that provokes Alberto Sordi (An American in Rome 1954), of course, but also the films of the Eighties that clear clichés with a good laugh. This is how, for example, for Fantozzi’s holiday in Ortisei (Fantozzi against all, 1980), greeted very hastily by the local guide: “You can do rock climbing if you like, or slimming treatment in our famous clinic! Take advantage of this Italian mobster who always tips spaghetti! ”. The juxtaposition “mafia-pasta” is, however, a very mined ground and leads to a long and justified controversy following the publication of a cover of Der Spiegel at the end of the Seventies, depicting a gun lying on a plate of spaghetti. The slip was repeated in 2018 when, on the occasion of the party on June 2, the German weekly published an image of a forkful of spaghetti simulating a noose and the title “Italy self-destructs and drags Europe with it “.

In America, the Italian-pasta maker is represented most of the time with sympathy or even with the pure poetry of a timeless cartoon: the case is that of Lady and the Vagabond, where the two dogs court each other in front of a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, while the cook Tony and his second in brigade accompany them with an accordion and mandolin serenade. Spaghetti and meatballs, are actually a pride of Italians who emigrated to America, who have developed the tradition in a parallel way: the recipe, not surprisingly, was remembered with a pinch of pride also in the video walls of the USA pavilion. ‘Milan Expo 2015. After politics and cinema, the national-popular roundup of the teasing of pasta-al-sugo is completed with football and music: among the many examples, just to mention the most recent, the tribute (de core , however) to Antonio Conte by Tottenham fans (“Antonio Conte, he eats spaghetti, he drinks Moretti”) but also the less happy slip of the American Music Awards when, to present the Maneskin, a table was set up on the stage. trattoria set with red and white squares and the inevitable plate of spaghetti accompanied by a flask of wine.

In short, the stereotype will resist and will last again. Much longer than the war against Ukraine and, of course, even Medvedev’s autarchic diet. If there is.

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