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From the mammas to cosmopolitan restaurants

One century of Italian restaurants in the city of São Paulo (Brazil)
Des mammas aux restaurants cosmopolites: un siècle de restaurants italiens dans la ville de São Paulo (Brésil)
Janine Helfst Leicht Collaço
Translated by Eric Sawyer

Abstracts

The city of São Paulo was officially named as a World Gastronomy Capital, following a widespread campaign which started in the late 1980s and ended with this recognition awarded in 1998. Since then, the city has been trying to establish a foothold as a center of fine cuisine, given it has so many restaurants and a wide variety of cuisines, as a result of the cultural diversity brought by successive waves of immigrants.

Italian cuisine acquired notoriety throughout several phases, from the arrival of the first foreigners to the present time. If at first this cuisine was confined within ethnic neighborhoods, with eminently domestic and feminine characteristics, over time it gained visibility, especially in public spaces, through the creation of restaurants. This process shows how flexible a cuisine may be in its expression of “us” and “the others”.

Therefore, rather than exhausting such a wide subject, I focus on the links between cuisine, immigration and urban spaces through Italian restaurants in São Paulo. I divide the study into three time periods: start of the 20th century, mid-1960s and late-1990s, when the city was declared a World Gastronomy Capital, and profound changes were occurring as a result of globalization.

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Revision: Catherine Gucciardi.

This article was published first in Portuguese (“Das mammas’as ao restaurante cosmopolita. Um século de restaurantes italianos na cidade de São Paulo (Brasil)”) in Anthropology of Food 2010: http://aof.revues.org/​6753

Introduction1

  • 1 This project was led by Sônia Maria de Freitas and her Ph.D. dissertation, defended in 2001, was th (...)

1As the result of a worldwide campaign which started in the late 1980s, the city of São Paulo was officially recognized as a World Gastronomy Capital. Since then, the city has been trying to establish a foothold as a center of fine cuisine, given its numerous restaurants and wide variety of cuisines, as a result of the cultural diversity of successive waves of immigrants.

2Italian cuisine acquired notoriety throughout several phases, from the arrival of the first foreigners to the present time. If at first this cuisine was confined within ethnic neighborhoods, with eminently domestic and feminine characteristics, over time it gained visibility, especially in public spaces and in the food served in restaurants. This process shows how flexible a cuisine may be in its expression of “us” and “the others”.

3This article raises some questions previously discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation (Collaço, 2009), in which I emphasized Italian cuisine outside the household, focusing on restaurants that exist for more than fifty years in São Paulo. In order to do this, I established contacts associated in one way or another with these establishments and worked with their memoires. I also used testimonies available in the Immigrants’ Memorial, attempting to locate interviews with people knowledgeable about restaurants, but many had either passed away or were no longer accessible.1

4Therefore, rather than exhausting such a wide subject, I focus on the links between cuisine, immigration and urban spaces through Italian restaurants in São Paulo. I divide the study into three time periods that are considered to be central to the construction of an imagery of this cuisine: beginning of the 20th century, mid-1960s and late-1990s, especially when the city was declared a World Gastronomy Capital, and profound changes were occurring as a result of globalization.

New voices in the kitchen

5Food is not a synonym of identity per se, or a cultural expression of a people, group or territory, as is commonly believed. It is an extremely flexible material open to representations at distinct levels which intertwine to give consistency to the act of eating. It should be kept in mind that food products have been selected and processed for someone’s consumption, at a given moment. Food is relational, as its identity, so that the same material can be subject to different interpretations.

6When Italians first came to São Paulo, Italian food was considered a poor man’s food and was disdained by the local population. It circulated strictly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants and drew the mobile boundaries between exclusion and inclusion, which varied according to circumstantial adjustments. On the other hand, local cuisine was not at all noteworthy. It was predominantly domestic and based on a limited number of products such as beans and cassava flour.

7The city of São Paulo at the start of the 20th Century was very different from the current cosmopolitan megacity. It, rather, was a modest project maintained by the elites who made their fortunes from coffee plantations and who later, in the 1910s and 1920s, bankrolled industrial development of the city.

8Mass immigration from Europe contributed to this project. The argument was that with these white European workers, São Paulo (and to a certain extent the country) would at last manage to overcome its recent past of slavery, and get its passport to modern times.

  • 2 See Fausto (2000), as well as Schneider (1996).

9However, it is important to remember that the origins of these immigrants were dissimilar to the above. At the end of the 19th Century, Italians who came to Brazil were mainly from Veneto. They were small landowners seeking land in southern Brazil. After 1902, on the other hand, the situation changed, and the Braccianti, or landless rural proletariat, arrived in search of employment, mainly work on coffee plantations in the São Paulo countryside. Originating from Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria, they shared a dream: to make America. 2

10Thus, the substitution of slave labor and the “whitening” of the population were justification for receiving thousands of immigrants from Europe as instruments for civilization. It did not take long before this image was profoundly altered, when reality turned out to be quite different: most immigrants were illiterate, unskilled, “dirty” housekeepers and violent defenders of their turf. This earned them the image of disorderly foreigners.

11This new population faced many difficulties, especially the terrible working conditions on plantations in the interior, which induced many to flee to the city, as well as discouraging the newly arrived immigrants against moving inland, staying in the city instead.

  • 3 See Anderson (1991) for the idea of imagined community.

12In this case, the city of São Paulo began to absorb predominantly Southern Italians, although having regional roots in common was not enough to ensure mutual recognition as a single group. There were differences among dialects, types of food, saints worshipped and economic livelihoods. Regional differences were strong, due in part to a lack of national Italian identity, which was still in construction at the time. The meanings of Italianity3 were therefore various and such diversity extended to the kitchen.

13In turn, cooking was not yet practiced in the same way among the new inhabitants.

  • 4 See also Helstosky (2004), who discusses strengthening of a type of Italian cuisine shaped by immig (...)

14Something similar was observed by Levenstein (2003a) when analyzing the trajectory of dietary habits of Italian immigrants who went to the United States. He called attention to the fact that before their arrival nothing similar to Italian cuisine was known. In the same way, in São Paulo,4 Italian immigrants had had little contact at the time with types of cuisine other than their own.

15Levenstein (ibid., 2003b) also noted that food eaten by immigrants in the United States was strongly stigmatized. Associated with a group marginal to mainstream society, it was considered inferior, with an image that was far from positive. In this case, garlic was abandoned as the main element of this negative distinction, a mechanism of adaptation to this new cuisine. Fruits and vegetables, although heavily consumed by Italians, were scarcely available at the time and regarded as less important in North American nutritional orientations than dairy products and meat. This difference was one of the main points of conflict in attempts to change eating habits of immigrants, particularly Italians.

16Nevertheless, there was not, in São Paulo, a campaign to change the eating habits of the immigrants. There were attempts to control alcohol consumption, especially among immigrant men, in order to make them more docile and orderly and better prepared for work in factories, since arguments often led to outbursts of violence and, at times, murder.

17The habit of planting herbs and vegetables in pots and backyards was common in this group, accustomed to maximizing the yield of their land to keep away the ghosts of past hunger. The same custom was maintained in São Paulo. This low-scale supply made possible circulation of some products which were previously unavailable locally, such as broccoli, zucchini, eggplants and tomatoes. It was complemented by making small-scale homemade bread and pasta, thanks to a considerable improvement in the supply of wheat flour, an ingredient considered by Italians as fundamental.

  • 5 Helstosky (2004) analyzes growth of some Italian food industries, such as pasta and tomato sauce, w (...)

18This fluctuation between abundance and scarcity of products, also pointed out by Levenstein (2003a, 2003b), contributed to the development of ethnic trade and appearance of small shops to supply the homes of new inhabitants with imported and homemade products. Neighborhoods of São Paulo with large populations of immigrants were filled with new shops, which were generally small, and sold a little bit of everything: onions, cans of olive oil, canned tomato sauce, cheese, olives, wine, etc.5

19Among the dishes which quickly came to the tables of the Italians was pasta, mainly macaroni noodles with tomato sauce. However, differentiated acceptance of this dish between São Paulo and the examples mentioned by Levenstein (ibid.) point out questions about cultural connections with certain locations.

20In the United States macaroni with tomato sauce was already on the menu in some more refined restaurants, although bearing a slight French touch (thus avoiding the negative connotation present in Italian food). It was later chosen as the main dish in the campaign to improve the nutrition following the 1929 economic crisis. São Paulo, unlike large American cities, had almost no restaurants at that time and macaroni with tomato sauce was limited to Italian neighborhoods. It broke through the ethnic barriers only years later.

  • 6 In fact, several attempts were made throughout the Vargas era to nationalize these immigrants, an e (...)

21In North America, macaroni with tomato sauce was, to a certain extent, a type of resistance by Italian immigrants to assimilation,6 as noted by Levenstein (ibid.). They gradually overcame ethnical, regional and social class barriers, thanks to generational and kinship changes, economic problems, wars and abundance of industrialized products.

22Macaroni with tomato sauce was an ethnic food in São Paulo, in spite of its stigma. Immigrants shared common experiences and the nostalgic flavors of food helped them forget hard times.

23The immigrant’s new experiences in the urban setting made them keenly aware of cultural differences. In this historical context, uses of the city in different rhythms and temporality came about, determining forms of sociability which did not exist previously. Immigrants were a small cog in the interplay of interests at various levels, but they nevertheless had to organize their daily lives.

24Their everyday lives were therefore, to a certain extent, a recreation of their original neighborliness, which were rural and tightly knit in character, albeit not without ambiguities. Cooking and the food itself were spaces of contradiction which outlined the identity of groups with profound differences amongst themselves, without dissolving regional bonds or being mistaken for other groups of foreigners, and making this brutal rupture somewhat less severe.

  • 7 The term mamma refers to Italian mothers in general, women dedicated to domestic life and with hone (...)

25Family played an important role and was the center of people’s social relations, including their relations with other immigrants. In part, this family-based system reproduced kinship and economic organization in both urban and rural areas, and was capable of ensuring some stability in daily survival. Women were an important part of this model, since they were responsible for making food and often had other family members sell food products in the streets, especially food products. Interviewees rarely mentioned this aspect of women’s labor, and only referred to the cooking skills of mammas and nonnas7.

  • 8 The word “cantina” in Italian means pantry, the corresponding type of restaurant in Italy is the O (...)
  • 9 A similar process took place in France with the mères (mothers) who contributed to the construction (...)

26It was this relation between women and cooking that paved the way for new arrangements. With help from the family, women set up small spaces, not quite restaurants yet, almost an extension of the house, where meals were served to outsiders. These were the first osterias,8 in a process which also took place, as mentioned by Levenstein, in New York, emphasizing the modest origin of these first Italian restaurants.9

  • 10 Activities related with sewing, such as production of coffee sacks; food, sweets, breads, pasta and (...)
  • 11 Levenstein (2003a, 2003b) as well as Helstosky (2004) discuss the use of garlic, but among intervie (...)

27In São Paulo, without a clear distinction between home and street as Rago (2004) noted10, these first cantinas (osterias) were extensions of the low-income multi-family dwellings (cortiços). Customers were often served on the sidewalk, at small tables which might only be wooden boards with simple chairs, devoid of any decorations. The clientele was certain – Italian workers – served in a friendly manner by the husbands or sons of the cooks. The women prepared meals as if for their own families. Soups, pasta with tomato sauce, homemade bread, imported olives, processed meats, some roasted meats and wine were offered, with no written menu. Noteworthy characteristics included cooking tomato sauce for many hours, use of grated cheese, preparation of pizza and roasted goat meat11.

28It is undeniable that mammas were protagonists in this new cuisine by bringing knowledge and flavors from Italy, preparing homemade food often inspired in rural settings. They were highly attached to the view of a family nucleus, which was also considered the main economic means for survival, as Machado Borges Pinto (1984) observed. It was a form of establishing a foothold in a new society filled with obstacles, a type of low-cost labor inspired by domestic knowledge, in which products and meals were meant for a predetermined public, the paisani. This phenomenon was, for many families, a means of subsistence given their difficult conditions.

29The cantina model arose from these adversities. The lack of definition of the limits between public and private opened a space where women became the central figure in this model, inspired by the household and seen as an ethnic instrument. Without the use of differentiated ingredients or complicated techniques, this cuisine was substantial and carried out by underprivileged women who served people undergoing similar experiences.

30In the memories of this period, however, women are only mentioned in supporting roles rather than active elements in this process. This silence points out the delicate issue of gender hierarchy and appreciation of women’s work, as well as memory lapses or adjustments, which may be influenced by recent experiences.

31It was a cuisine that spoke of difficulties, the need for adaptation, the search for recognition and settling down in a new location. These first Italian women with their modest knowledge managed to create a space, the cantina, which not only provided improved quality of life for their families, but also a more public cuisine appreciated by other immigrants. They also managed to plant the seeds for Italian restaurants as well as starting a process which culminated in nomination of the city as a World Gastronomy Capital.

Dissonant voices

32The modus operandi of the cantina model, eminently ethnic, domestic and feminine, prevailed for many decades, although it was more visible in Italian neighborhoods. However, starting with the growing separation between public and private universes, new forms of sociability and uses of space emerged, as well as new uses of time in the city. Daily life changed, even in immigrant neighborhoods.

  • 12 For more information regarding this discussion, see Arruda (2001).

33After World War II ended, new habits emerged and the United States began to have stronger influence. It was also during this period that intense cultural activity started in the city, with new cinemas, theaters, radio stations and television networks. In this new context, the central part of the city became a gathering place with new entertainment options and, consequently, new establishments where people could eat, drink and talk12. This new scenario witnessed habits until then rarely seen in the city. Dining out or going out for drinks was incorporated in the habits of the urban middle class.

  • 13 This new dynamics is briefly mentioned in Fausto (1998). Regarding the idea of a proper meal, see M (...)

34The first cantinas continued to operate in their original neighborhoods, but also underwent transformations. Less attached to the house, mammas remained in their kitchens, but with the help of employees. Family businesses were opened to the public. The Italian workers of yesteryear were joined by families of Italian descendants who climbed the social ladder and moved out of the neighborhood, but enjoyed returning to their origins for what they considered a proper meal13.

35Interviewees do not identify this transition clearly, but changes introduced at the time unfolded on several levels. Regarding sociability, the descendants of immigrants were more integrated in local society and established new relations outside the limits of ethnical neighborhoods. Also at this time, women conquered public spaces, circulating more freely on the streets, going to stores and feeling comfortable going alone or with friends to visit the brand new tea and coffee houses.

  • 14 Van Otterloo (2002) noticed something similar in the process which gave origin to international cui (...)

36In the center of the city, Italian restaurants were oriented with this new dynamic. Different clients were served, ranging from prosperous immigrants among the elites to representatives of the new cultural wave, such as actors, journalists and writers interested in getting to know the new flavors available in these establishments14. This process expanded circulation of this cuisine among a highly qualified public with significant impacts on formation of new habits in the city.

37The food still remained true to the mammas’ recipes, although to a lesser extent, since labor became almost exclusively male, both in the kitchen and the dining area. This service was no longer performed by family members, but rather by professional waiters, often Italian and Spanish immigrants who were less fortunate in their new country.

38Another type of Italian restaurant also arose, even more refined, inspired by French cuisine techniques and in large part opened by Italian immigrants who arrived in the second wave, after World War II. Unlike their predecessors, these immigrants brought cultural capital. Some also had economic capital or rapidly found well-paid jobs, or even arrived from Europe with signed contracts. Engineers, technical experts and various professionals quickly joined new urban occupations and kept their distance from Italians who had arrived before, considered by these newly-arrived as “rustic”.

39Many Italians from this new group had already worked in fancy restaurants in Europe as waiters or chefs. Their novelties were introduced in the scene of a city still in the process of becoming a metropolis which offered few options for eating out. Most came from Northern Italy, which immediately created a distance between the two groups and their cuisines, since the first group of Italians came, mostly, from Southern Italy and served food regarded as being from the South, and, therefore, of lesser value. The social dichotomy was reproduced in food, although this was not perceived in the city, which saw the group as homogeneous.

40These new establishments thus kept a distance from cantinas which served food of humble origins and often prepared by women. This food was allegedly associated with rustic, poor, illiterate people who performed manual and heavy labor, according to post-war Italians. On the other hand, restaurants opened by Italians from the first wave of immigrants and their families also had their reservations regarding new Italians and their food. In their opinion, new establishments were too “snobbish”, due to French influence (and, to a certain extent, more civilized). This created among Italians of the first wave a negative image of their fellow Italians, whom they regarded as proud and lazy, since they did not want to work.

  • 15 For more in this regard, see also Capatti and Montanari (1999).

41Cantinas were thus associated with the first immigrants and the characteristics which they considered advantageous were turned into stigmas by Italians who came after World War II. Regionally speaking, it was a cuisine considered “southern”, were tomato sauce and cheese were predominant in dishes, in addition to being ingredients associated with poverty15 and in dishes from which new Italians wanted to keep their distance.

  • 16 Risotto is a traditional Italian dish. It is made with rice, wine and stock (meat, chicken, fish or (...)
  • 17 Polenta is a popular Italian dish and even more in Northern Italy. It is made from flour cornmeal b (...)

42It was at this time, in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, that several dishes previously not associated with Italians were introduced, such as fish and some vegetables. It was also at this moment that risotto16 became popular. Although it was served in some hotels since the late 19th century, it was little known. Polenta17, popular in Southern Brazil and introduced by Venetians, was practically unknown in São Paulo. This “Northern” cuisine, more masculine and professional, became a benchmark of elegance in São Paulo and remained as such until globalization brought new winds.

43This social distance was evidence of the rupture between cuisines which was present not only in regional differences, but also in the “who” prepared and “who” served and was served. Dishes which were considered sophisticated were prepared by chefs and served by waiters to a clientele not solely made up of immigrants. Mammas, in turn, prepared dishes in their cantinas with domestic reference and the family itself on many occasions served clients, who were mostly Italians or their descendants.

44The dissonant voices established new dialogs. Women were still in the kitchen, especially in traditional cantinas, but were now in competition against new chefs from Europe who trained their employees. Restaurants with simple “Southern” food made by the mammas were pitted against professional, elaborate “Northern” cuisine startups. In between these opposing forces were the cantinas which opened downtown, selling domestic food to eclectic clients served by specialized European waiters.

  • 18 Bixiga was not, for many years, an exclusively Italian neighborhood, but was also a region in which (...)

45The cantinas continued to explore the ethnical bias, but the domestic cuisine of the first mammas become increasingly restricted to households and cantinas in neighborhoods connected with the Italian community. Some regions in the city were famous for housing large numbers of cantinas18, unlike new regions of the city, which housed establishments with the new characteristics. In these new restaurants, women’s labor was not considered appropriate, especially since women “should stay home, not work,” (comment heard from an important Italian restaurant owner). Mamma cooking was good for neighborhood clients, not new cosmopolitan ones.

46Mammas continued to glean the sympathy of families of descendants who sought to preserve elements of proximity and comfort in these flavors, even when these clients held privileged positions in the city. Among new immigrants, perception of this cuisine was a solution for the needs and difficulties faced in the early days, devoid of any refinement or sophistication, albeit “homey”, a meaning not appropriate in any upscale restaurant.

47Women were unfortunately trapped in this less appropriate perception of Italian cuisine, at least in the eyes of those who claim to know it well. According to the newly arrived, this influence lowered the value of the food, since their wives and daughters were not required to “work to support the family,” as was the case with the first immigrants.

48Curiously, at no time was any type of technical or professional training pointed out among men who worked in these restaurants, either in schools or specialized institutions. In reality, the first professional chefs who came to the city came upon invitation from the new restaurants and became symbols of elegance.

49These chefs trained local cooks who would later move on to other restaurants and contribute to dissemination of Italian cuisine throughout the city. But everyone learned the trade at work, the same way many women did. The difference was where this transmission took place and how it would be retained by memory to formulate identities.

50It is thus clear that, starting in the 1950s, new connections including work, women and Italian cuisine were formed. Beginning to leave the kitchens, women took on the role of caring for house and family, some still involved in activities, especially in cantinas, but their work is generally conceived as a type of consultancy and not in the daily routine, at least where restaurants are concerned. It is now the time of chefs under the limelight, even if their sources of inspiration are still the mammas’ kitchens.

Polyphony

51Throughout the trajectory of Italian cuisine in São Paulo restaurants, the posture of the local population also changed. The inexistence of a local cuisine and the rise of Italian cuisine which was gradually domesticated, in the sense given by Goody (1982), created a perception that its presence is natural, taken as something belonging to the city which could set it apart from other national and foreign metropolises.

52The acceptance of new flavors is not a process which can be foreseen, since it generates distinct relations which become incorporated to a greater or lesser extent to food. But, if consuming is a form of distinction, it is also a form of approaching, and Italian food is currently a local flavor. The domestication referred to by Goody (ibid.) is precisely in this process in which distances are shortened, although maintaining links to identify Italianity. However, with more intense circulation of persons, products and information, Italianity which marked immigrants and their food was revised by new cuisines rising from the gastronomical scene in the city in the 1990s.

53In part, aspects of this dynamic began to sprout a decade earlier, amid a Brazilian economic crisis. It was at this time that many cantinas went to nobler neighborhoods, both due to the real estate opportunity and to provide leisure alternatives to the urban middle class in times of economic trouble.

54These new spaces managed to make Italian cantinas food popular, with its domestic and feminine origin, although these characteristics were diluted by the demand for large servings, to be eaten by two or three people, at accessible prices for the urban middle classes living on tight budgets. This was a moment of mass popularization of this cuisine, as in the case of the filet parmegiana (Milanese steak covered with cheese and tomato sauce, roasted in the oven), pasta with white sauce and cheese, enormous salads with garlic toast, in addition to the previously known pasta with tomato sauce and cheese and roasted goat meat.

55This was also a period of great expansion for pizza, another affordable dish for families, consumed in less formal environments than restaurants, the pizza parlors. Next to these establishments, small businesses which delivered pizzas also came into existence, close to residential areas. For those who desired a more refined experience, elegant pizza restaurants flourished with a novelty: small pizzas for one person.

56In any event, it was during this period that Italian food was consolidated outside its original boundaries, but it was also at this time that signs of exhaustion appeared in older restaurants which were faced with new meanings incorporated since the 1990s. In preparation for its nomination as a World Gastronomy Capital, or simply gastronomy capital, granted in 1998, the city underwent an intense increase in alternatives for eating out.

57At this time, there was an explosion of restaurants with many serving systems (fast food, buffet, all-you-can-eat), restaurants of various cuisines (especially of Asian origin) in sync with the latest fashion trends present in other metropolises. Driven not only by globalization, but also growing urbanization, changes in family relations, use of time and new habits, particularly eating out, these new establishments expanded the choices available to clients and began competing for their patronage.

58In the case of Italian food, in addition to cantinas and refined restaurants of the 1950s and 1960s which were still in operation, restaurants which served Italian food differently arose, such as fast food restaurants in shopping mall food courts, chains of Italian restaurants with Mediterranean touches, a rage at the time, and modern Italian restaurants considered sophisticated.

59These establishments introduced new flavors and techniques, distant from bonds with immigrants and their descendants, as well as women’s labor, since new players were introduced, the chefs who generally acquired their knowledge in courses or working in renowned restaurants, preferably abroad, and free of any ethnic involvement.

60In this context, regional cuisines also came forth, considering that they were previously diluted by older restaurants to create a homogeneous image of the Italian community which shared a common cuisine. Mammas were partly responsible for this form of organization of Italian cuisine, which would currently be considered heresy, since it is precisely these regional differences which are nowadays pitted against a standardized international cuisine.

61But it was also this aspect which brought about the downfall of old-school Italian restaurants, since their cuisine which was already adapted to local tastes and less connected with regional distinctions represented a stigma in times of gastronomic capitals. Faced with a renewed Italian cuisine, with ingredients and techniques which did not exist in old immigrant restaurants, this type of cuisine was in trouble. It was the target of criticism by specialized media, a segment of the media which began to stand out, and started to lose clients who began to see these restaurants as representative of second-class Italian food.

62Although regional identities were lost as Italians were incorporated into local society, being classified as immigrants when the first ships came to shore, later as Italians, these differences reappeared in kitchens of the gastronomy capital, even without a direct relation between Italians and restaurant. This point appears to be the great differential between Italian descendants that owned restaurants and restaurant without Italians, even though they served such food. Italian contemporary cuisine in some establishments would then be imitations, copies, lacking tradition and value. In sum, competition for authenticity arose under different perspectives.

63New Italian cuisine showed that old restaurants and appreciation of Italianity through work, progress and family values were no longer the way to go forward. The meanings in this cuisine and what it stands for did not disappear, but were reinterpreted.

64Other types of Italian restaurants and new pizza parlors appeared on the scene. Fast food restaurants offered Italian food, which was not always authentic, but these spaces met the needs of quickness, proximity and price, something old restaurants could not offer. More refined restaurants, in turn, offered a different experience, with contemporary flavors and so-called “real” Italian food.

65Various expressions of Italian cuisine tapped into their repertoires to find forms of legitimacy, thus demarcating their space in the city. Tradition is claimed by old restaurants, which hold the key to validation of their food in immigration and knowledge of the mammas; while new Italian restaurants searched for authenticity in their proximity to contemporary Italian cuisine, the strength of regional differences and the knowledge of the chefs.

66In the case of cantinas and more refined restaurants of the 1950s and 1960s, tradition resides in handing down recipes and techniques from one generation to the next. However, this strategy did not overcome a growing lack of interest on the part of clients, who were no longer concerned about the loyalty of the restaurant to “old” recipes. Those few which became tourist attractions maintained this characteristic in order to help attract large numbers of travelers who come to the city because of its cultural circuit.

67In contemporary restaurants this concern is less important, since recipes, when old, are being “reinterpreted” by the chef, whose knowledge and techniques can gain widespread recognition. Thus, chefs who “recover” old family recipes and offer “homemade” food on the menu, gained positive opinion.

68Deciding whether to maintain dishes on the menu, or accept a chef, move and appropriate the historical heritage discourse are strategies to face the pressure from new restaurants opened in more upscale areas visited by cosmopolitan clients. Older restaurants, particularly when family-based, transfer the problem to new generations, which then bear the burden of “making it work”.

69Loyalty to the family concerns location, “a name to be preserved, that name there on the sign in front of the restaurant” said a traditional cantina owner from an Italian neighborhood of São Paulo. This matter was not as serious in restaurants with professional cooks, although older ones were considered old-fashioned, given their mistrust of innovations.

70In any event, this process takes into account elements of the past and attempts to find means of making better use of this heritage. In this coming and going between past and future, little or nothing is said about women’s work. Associated with the domestic world, their contribution does not count in public history, immigration or cultural plurality of the city, nor is it adapted to the context of a gastronomical capital. Their work was appropriate at the time when the cantinas were an extension of the household, but as restaurants became more accessible to the public, their work became less valued, distancing them from their domain.

  • 19 This subject is thoroughly discussed in Bourdieu’s work, especially La Distinction (1979).

71These matters are not central in more recent restaurants, since they use other means to attract clients and their authenticity depends on recognition by the “experts”19 who legitimate this new Italian cuisine – media, opinion makers, journalists, etc. – as well as the opinion of other chefs.

72Like objects, Italian food also became easy to reproduce outside of its original context, in such a manner that establishing scales among types of food accentuated the differences among restaurants and exclusive access. In this case, characteristics closer to what is made in Italy currently and preparation by professional cooks would grant more authenticity to Italian food, especially when compared with the result of local adaptations by the immigrants and according to the dominant outlook which tends to appreciate differences as being cosmopolitan.

73Not all differences, however, are well accepted. Women, in spite of their intense collaboration, did not and do not have the same recognition as male professionals. In fact, although it is claimed that there are equal opportunities and access, this is not what happens in reality. In the kitchen, the roots of this imbalance are made clear in the trajectory of Italian cuisine, a distance aggravated as new Italian cuisines came on board.

74The city, in its quest for recognition of its fine gastronomy, accentuated this movement when it had to discard elements which could be harmful to its image and, in this case, food made by women, “homemade food”, does not seem appropriate in a city which wishes to be seen as a center of cultural plurality translated into restaurants and cuisines.

75The presence of mammas became appropriate within the boundaries of the home, and though their food was well accepted in cantinas, they gradually waned nearly into nothingness in the World Gastronomy Capital. However, this know-how had a positive connotation in simple restaurants with the purpose of keeping workers well fed. In this case, women’s knowledge was fundamental.

  • 20 Some mammas managed to open restaurants throughout the 1990s, but did not serve cantina (osteria) f (...)

76Such was not the case with Italian food, women gained visibility if they were recognized as chefs20. The ethnic past persists, but in dialog with local and global matters, speaking of ancestry, integration and communication with Italy. Thus, both Italian food and pizzas bear witness to the polysemous character of cosmopolitan cities, though not failing to consider Italianity and the relations between women and the kitchen.

77Deep down this is a dispute which tends to reaffirm the city as a center of fine gastronomy, corroborated by new global flavors and needs to reallocate the interpretation of Italian food and women’s labor in order not to lose its positive image. Women had important participation in this trajectory, and they currently struggle to depict their existence as more than fragmented ghosts on the history of the city, its groups and families.

78They want to be more than “helpers” in businesses, although they still face many conflicts, especially when the enterprise is inherited and part of a broader family network. Women remain invisible, although they still fill anonymous stomachs in the plural city and feed the creativity of others. To recognize this work is to take the profound involvement of women’s labor out of darkness in activities which common sense reserves for the masculine world, but, as can be seen in this study, are perceptions still trapped in the chains of inequality.

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Notes

1 This project was led by Sônia Maria de Freitas and her Ph.D. dissertation, defended in 2001, was the source of valuable information. Among those who had already passed away were Alfredo DiCunto (DiCunto Pastry Shop) and Domenico Laurenti (Basilicata Bakery), in addition to Piero Grandi Luisi, who, albeit not deceased, was still lucid at the time of his interview.

2 See Fausto (2000), as well as Schneider (1996).

3 See Anderson (1991) for the idea of imagined community.

4 See also Helstosky (2004), who discusses strengthening of a type of Italian cuisine shaped by immigration, which created a vast popular imaginary which was also absorbed by Italy.

5 Helstosky (2004) analyzes growth of some Italian food industries, such as pasta and tomato sauce, which took advantage of consumers abroad. In São Paulo, at the start of the 20th Century, several products made in Italy could be found in São Paulo. The demand created by this population also cooperated with the establishment of the first wheat mill in town, made by an immigrant who would, years later, become a symbol for prosperity, Francesco Matarazzo. For a discussion on this topic, see Collaço (2009).

6 In fact, several attempts were made throughout the Vargas era to nationalize these immigrants, an extension of a current of thought formulated in the United States, where it was believed that these new inhabitants could be absorbed by local culture in a process of “Americanization”. Power to do so would come precisely from the process of becoming an American, albeit ethnical caveats, particularly in terms of skin color. The melting pot idea was predominant, although not all groups settled in the country had the same rights, and no effort was made to avoid a policy of immigration quotas. At the heart of this basic condition was the fact that local society would take responsibility for immigrants and their descendants through a widespread educational effort, including dietary habits. Faced with this, countless actions were outlined in schools under the supervision of social workers to teach foreigners about good dietary habits, replacing their traditional products by milk and derivatives, as well as meat. In the Brazilian context, the outlook suggested expansion of this concept of melting pot. The idea most strongly circulated was fusion of immigrants and local inhabitants, resulting in “Brazilianization” of these foreigners. In reality, it was an aggressive process in which it was not enough to be assimilated, but erase a cultural trajectory that had been born of other dynamics.

7 The term mamma refers to Italian mothers in general, women dedicated to domestic life and with honed cooking skills, as well as grandmothers (nonnas).

8 The word “cantina” in Italian means pantry, the corresponding type of restaurant in Italy is the Osteria or Trattoria, according to one of my interviewees. It is possible that the origin of this name resulted from the fact that these first spaces housed wine vats, cheeses and processed meats hanging from hooks, in a type of “stall”. Perhaps therein also lies the origin of the custom of decorating current osterias with these elements.

9 A similar process took place in France with the mères (mothers) who contributed to the construction of another gastronomy capital: Lyon. This city is highly praised for its gastronomy, its fame attributed to the contribution of home cooking by the mères who built a reputation in the city and were icons of the first movements for appreciation of local cuisine, in response to political encouragement of regional differences as the basis for French national identity. See Laferté (2002).

10 Activities related with sewing, such as production of coffee sacks; food, sweets, breads, pasta and preserve production; clothes washing and others were common activities among many Italian women which contributed to the quality of life in the families.

11 Levenstein (2003a, 2003b) as well as Helstosky (2004) discuss the use of garlic, but among interviewees, this ingredient was never mentioned.

12 For more information regarding this discussion, see Arruda (2001).

13 This new dynamics is briefly mentioned in Fausto (1998). Regarding the idea of a proper meal, see Murcott (1982).

14 Van Otterloo (2002) noticed something similar in the process which gave origin to international cuisine in the Netherlands, from the hands of Asian immigrants, remembering that restaurants which were considered “exotic” were visited by intellectuals and players with large cultural capital, contributing to a rupture of ethnical frontiers, a phenomenon which started in the mid 1940s. See also Arruda (2001, 2005).

15 For more in this regard, see also Capatti and Montanari (1999).

16 Risotto is a traditional Italian dish. It is made with rice, wine and stock (meat, chicken, fish or vegetables) added until the rice is done. Usually the best risotto is prepared with short and medium grain rice (Arborio, Carnaroli or Vianole Nano) and obtains the creamy result expected of a good risotto.

17 Polenta is a popular Italian dish and even more in Northern Italy. It is made from flour cornmeal boiled in water to create a dish similar of porridge. It can be used as a base of toppings (meat, cheese, sauces).

18 Bixiga was not, for many years, an exclusively Italian neighborhood, but was also a region in which many former slaves were concentrated. Both groups, according to one of the interviewees, got along well, but no doubt the image of an Italian neighborhood stood out. Nowadays it is still explored in the yearly feast of Saint Achiropita. This diversity was not a subject of the Ph.D. research, but it may raise other instigating issues regarding food, gender and city.

19 This subject is thoroughly discussed in Bourdieu’s work, especially La Distinction (1979).

20 Some mammas managed to open restaurants throughout the 1990s, but did not serve cantina (osteria) food, but rather “refined” Italian food. But as early as the 2000s, they had all but disappeared, as had their restaurants. This topic will be discussed in a future study.

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References

Electronic reference

Janine Helfst Leicht Collaço, « From the mammas to cosmopolitan restaurants », Anthropology of food [Online], S8 | 2013, Online since 01 March 2013, connection on 22 October 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/7353

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About the author

Janine Helfst Leicht Collaço

Professor and Researcher of Universidade Federal de Goiás (UFG/FCS), Brazil, janinecollaco@terra.com.br

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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