A seat near the table with Simone
by Scott Shultz
I first visited Italy around ten years ago, where I spent a week in a B&B that was run by a kind family in Piemonte. Perhaps because I hadn’t yet learned the word “basta” I enjoyed delicious and nearly endless meals each night. In addition to some kilos, I gained a lasting friendship with Gabriella and Pasquale. I also gained a new and deep appreciation for the variety and rich flavors of Italian food and wine.
It was with this in mind that my wife and I made the pilgrimage to Ann Arbor in late November to hear Simone Cinotto discuss some insights from his book, “The Italian American Table.” I have enjoyed a number of the Society’s special events, always finding some interesting new points to consider, or even moments to rejoice in the connections with others. And I must admit that somehow, although there was no reason for it, I suspected that after the talk we would share some wine and cheese with others in the room.
Traffic was unusually awful and we found ourselves entering late. Fortunately there were a few seats remaining and we settled in to hear of a modern diaspora. Professor Cinotto told us a wonderful story of people in search of livelihoods and opportunities for their families. Over decades, waves of immigrants from rural communities reached New York and formed a uniquely Italian community — this began even before the regions of Italy developed a shared sense of nationhood, or even deep understanding of one another. This remote and linguistically isolated community, fueled by exposure to regional dishes and advances in American food production, created a new family of Italian cuisine. This cuisine — in myriad forms — has proven its lasting appeal around the world.
This migration of people, driven by the grinding poverty of rural life in those days, led to long-lasting changes in America, and no less to how we think of food as an expression of national culture. His talk was entertaining and full of evocative detail. Professor Cinotto demonstrates that he is an accomplished student of history, and offers numerous insights in his 265 page book.
I left the talk that night with a sense of satisfaction that America too had contributed to the wonderful world of Italian food. Much later that evening we left the table of a nearby restaurant with an even deeper satisfaction.
The presentation with Professor Simone Cinotto was held on 22 November 2019 at the University of Michigan. Organized in conjunction with the IV Week of Italian Cuisine in the World, by the Dante Alighieri Society of Michigan and the Italian Cultural Institute in Chicago, in collaboration with the and the Italian American Club of Livonia Charitable Foundation (IACLCF) and the Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan. Under the auspices of the Consulate of Italy in Detroit.
Simone Cinotto is Associate Professor of Modern History at the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche in Pollenzo, Italy, where he is the Director of the master’s program “Master of Gastronomy: World Food Cultures and Mobility.” He has been Visiting Professor at Indiana University (2017), the Department of Italian Studies at New York University (2008-2010), and the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London (2015-2019). He has also been Visiting Scholar at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU (2013-2015) and Fellow of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University (2004). Cinotto is the author of The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and Soft Soil Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California (New York University Press, 2012); the editor of Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic Identities (Fordham University Press, 2014), which won the 2015 John G. Cawelti Award for the Best Textbook/Primer of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association; and the coeditor, with Hasia Diner, of Global Jewish Foodways: A History (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). Cinotto has three books in preparation: Cibo: A Modern History of Italian Food (Oxford University Press); The Puerto Ricans and Italians of New York: Migration and Mobilization in the Atlantic World; and Transatlantic Emotions: The Mental and Intimate Biography of an Italian Immigrant to America, 1905-1942. Cinotto is the Co-Editor of Gastronomica and on the editorial board of Food, Culture, and Society and Global Food History among other journals and book series. He organized a joint conference with NYU and the University of Toronto titled “Food Mobilities: Making World Cuisines” (Pollenzo, Italy, June 5-9, 2019), which will also develop into a book.