FOOD AND CULTURE
Food is basically nourishment, sustenance, and a need, but it is also culture, superstructure, and a way of thinking. Actually, food is a form of communication, a symbolic whole that identifies the relationships among social classes, establishes the uniqueness and diversity in comparison with others, and separates “us” from “them”.
After all, we all know that preparing a dish is a cultural act, in which we can recognise the geography and history of a people, the adaptive strategies applied by a community in relation to its environment. The rhythm of the seasons would mark the production and preservation of food; there were times of the year when food resources became scarce and the necessity of spotting them became impellent, also determined by the disparity between social classes.
The almsgiving, for example, which usually marked the beginning of the year, namely the coldest period, and went on till Easter, had a double purpose: the ritual one associated with “death” and the renewed beginning of the agricultural cycle, and the social one, in which in a sort of paternalistic manner the upper classes took care of the needs of the lower ones. Religious aspects were also added to this basic act of meeting needs (Canto all’Uovo) although with the passing of time and the overall improvement in the living conditions, the almsgiving rituals have been enriched by a more playful note, becoming the excuse for a merry celebration.
Another cultural aspect of food becomes manifest in the preparation of “ritual meals”, namely those meals that are strictly associated with gatherings having the purpose of sharing and/or honouring nature first and then the saints (the bonfires on St Joseph’s Day are a typical example).
Eating particular kinds of food is also linked to another aspect of folk tradition, which is that of home remedies against diseases; even if in some cases they were not able to heal, they certainly reduced the morbidity. Medicinal foods used to be, and sometimes still are, administered by persons who knew the properties and use of plants that grew wild or were grown especially for such purposes.
The healing practices (like the ‘affascina’, for example) find in certain foods their preferred ingredients: the use of oil as a therapeutic element is widespread in many communities, as it is considered the symbol of positivity, while water has been used since Antiquity to divert negativity and evil spirits (among ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans, it was already used for purification or lustration rituals, often with the addition of salt).
Food that becomes intertwined with the rites of passage of human life, food that underscores the sacredness of a religious event, food and prayer, magical food that heals, food of the rich and food of the poor. “In other words, food was born with us and represents an essential part of our life, it merges with our emotions, with our value system […]. If we look at all its meanings, it cannot possibly be considered just from the viewpoint of its biological significance, it is actually a downright language: a language as old as humankind.” [Cfr. Schiavon, “La parola al cibo”]