The Miracle of Castelvetro
On the morning of March 4, 2020, wine flowed from the faucets of homes in the small Italian town of Castelvetro di Modena. When residents got up to brush their teeth and wash their faces, they were greeted with a generous flow of bright red, subtly sparkling liquid with notes of ripe berries, toasted nuts, and a hint of ginger. Alarmed at first, they called town officials. As it became clear that the liquid was nothing but Lambrusco and not harmful in any way, some had a free morning tipple. Others gathered as many empty bottles and glass containers as they could find and filled them for leaner days.
The “miracle” of Castelvetro lasted about three hours. During that time, a thousand liters of the finest Lambrusco Grasparossa wine (bearing Italy’s second-highest geographical distinction) flowed from the wrong tap (albeit somewhat diluted). In the early days of COVID-19, this unusual occurrence was destined to break the drab routine of strict lockdown, perhaps even enticing speculations about a supernatural event of biblical proportions. The truth was somewhat more mundane: a faulty valve at the local winery had released the wine into the water system. But this simple explanation did not prevent news organizations around the world from reporting on Castelvetro’s intoxicating hours, nor did it lessen residents’ delight at the extraordinary phenomenon.
There was nothing unusual about the wine itself; residents had likely drunk no small amounts of Lambrusco Grasparossa and similar wines before that day. But there was something transgressive in the wine’s crossing of the iron demarcations of local plumbing, flowing uninhibited from taps usually carrying free and unlimited water. Perhaps residents also felt a sense of excitement at infringing on the winery’s commercial territory from the comfort of their bathrooms (some even called the winery to let them know how much they had bottled). And perhaps the levity many residents described was felt all the more acutely precisely because it contravened the somber reality of the pandemic. “We need odes to outlast this dry season,” writes Gregory Emilio in his poem about the Castelvetro incident in this issue. The issue assembles his poem and similar stories of boundaries crossed, of borders disrespected, of demarcations of food, established, broken, and transgressed. With the attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine on February 24, borders have once again reached new heights of visibility. Refugees of war seek safe territory beyond their nation’s boundaries, while those who remain strive to defend their borders at all cost. As we continue in this dry season of war and pestilence, the contributions to this issue remind us of the power of unity, of forging connections across divides, and of “outlasting”—against all odds.
Despite the quasi-biblical nature of the events at Castelvetro, they did not involve utterances in tongues; nevertheless, the first section of this issue is dedicated to barriers of language. A new Gastronomica initiative calls for translations and reflections on translations in food studies. As part of this initiative, Gastronomica, the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Kansas recently organized a roundtable on “Translating the Foods of the World.” Hosted by Krishnendu Ray, and featuring Miranda Brown, Saumya Gupta, Eric C. Rath, and Robert T. Valgenti, the event explored what it means to translate food texts, the challenges and opportunities that can be found in translation, and the ways in which translation changes in a field with texts that rely heavily on implicit and Indigenous knowledge. In a rather meta turn of events, the process of translating the roundtable into a text for this issue was itself not without its translation challenges, as the automatically generated transcript clearly struggled to pick up various speakers’ accents—a translational bias built into transcription technology. M´onica B. Ocasio Vega, by contrast, seeks to recover what is “lost in translation” in her article on the Hispanic Caribbean notion of sabor. Her article sets out to trace the “the flavorful moments in which the written language is not enough to represent the wholeness of the dish.” Often misused as a trope to stereotype Caribbean food cultures, sabor, according to Ocasio Vega, is really a multisensorial way of remembering and relating to food that makes room for erased voices and knowledge in the Puerto Rican and Caribbean culinary record. Recipes and literary representations of rice and beans, in Ocasio Vega’s reading, reveal culinary uncertainties with different relationships to sabor: they either obscure the contributions of Afro-Diasporic food knowledge and traditions or accentuate them by articulating that which cannot be grasped through language.
For those who traverse not only linguistic but also physical borders, food can offer a way of connecting across migrant communities. In “what is fried is gold,” Jason Edward Pagaduan encounters the comforts of fried food and friendship among a group of immigrant women from various parts of the Caribbean who form part of a mall walking club in Toronto. Connecting exercise with regular breakfasts at McDonald’s, the club functions as a network of informal support among first- and second-generation Canadians, whose relationship to fried and other food is characterized by notions of care and a communal “richness,” defying Western boundaries of healthy nutrition. Migrant experiences solidify into assertions of authenticity in Consuelo Carr Salas, Colleen Hammelman, and Sara Tornabene’s article on online reviews of Latin American and Caribbean restaurants in Charlotte, North Carolina. In a place of rapid demographic change, reviewers of restaurants establish authority, draw boundaries around expertise, and perform belonging to a place or group through food. Food experiences across borders have the power to reaffirm but also reshuffle webs of affinity and kinship. At the same time, the reality of migration is often erased within constructions of migrant cuisines. As Jennifer Dueck shows in “Seeing Mediterranean: How Food Journalists Re-Imagined the Middle East and North Africa in the Twentieth-Century United States,” Middle Eastern and North African migrants to the United States were conspicuously absent in the imaginary Mediterranean culinary geography created by US food journalists in the last decades of the twentieth century. While their foods were subsumed under a caucasianized cosmopolitanism, their voices remained absent from the Mediterranean discourse. Some, however, pushed back, reclaiming the Mediterranean label to assert their own culinary realities or to resist exoticization. Culinary imaginaries, Dueck teaches us, can uphold as well as erase boundaries.
Food imaginaries also form the core of three pieces that explore the possibilities of rethinking the study and history of food beyond conventional professional demarcations. A recent decision by the Italian Senate to blur the boundaries between organic farming and biodynamic agriculture prompts a reflection by Eleonora Rossero and Andrea Barbieri on the compatibility of biodynamic and scientific approaches to viticulture. Rather than an abdication of scientific principles, they observe, biodynamic agriculture functions as a form of cultural resistance to a managerial, reductive, and short-sighted relationship to the vine. Endia Louise Hayes and Norah MacKendrick challenge the limits of existing professional canons in food activism historiography that locate the genealogy of contemporary food movements primarily in a standard set of white European and North American actors from the 1960s. Against this widely circulating but myopic narrative, they offer an analysis of the food imaginaries of three African American food visionaries—George Washington Carver, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Edna Lewis—based on the historical work of Monica White, Rafia Zafar, and Toni Tipton-Martin. The food imaginaries of this set of actors, they suggest, provide novel visions of food as a pathway to “freedom, autonomy, pleasure, and joy.” Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcel ´on closes this section with an ode to B. Smith, a US-American restaurateur, television host, model, writer, and entrepreneur. B. Smith defied professional and racial boundaries and established herself as the first Black woman to own a white-tablecloth restaurant in New York’s Theater District and as a vastly successful food media personality. Her restaurant also functioned as a meeting space for Black artists and activists. Like the actors examined by Hayes and MacKendrick, B. Smith’s importance goes beyond a mere correction of the food historical record and enhances our understanding of Black food spaces as particularly vibrant arenas of co-construction for food and political activism.
The last section of this issue explores practices of food rearing and preservation defying and blurring the boundaries of time. In her study of Egyptian rooftop gardens, Noha Fikry examines the practice of rearing and slaughtering animals as food for “tomorrow’s meals” on the top of private houses. Rooftop gardens, she shows, extend the household metabolism across spatial and species boundaries. They constitute annexes to the house and kitchen while their animals form familial appendages to the immediate relatives owning them. The gardens recycle waste from neighboring restaurants and households as fodder; in turn, garden produce and animals feed their immediate family as well as the wider community. Rooftop gardens also transgress legal boundaries. A law introduced in 2007 prohibited the rearing of poultry on rooftops, but the law was never effectively enforced. The rearing of rooftop animals is deeply gendered and relies on female knowledge of the “culinary biographies” of animals—where they are from, how they have lived, and what they have eaten. This rooftop knowledge and the gardens where it is generated, Fikry argues, should be recognized as part of Egypt’s culinary infrastructure. Following Fikry, Indira Arumugam’s evocative account of sun-dried provisions in central Tamil Nadu places practices of preserving meat and vegetables at the heart of kinship relationships among village residents. Across geographical borders and familial ties forged over repeated waves of migration and re-migration, preserved dried foods solidified communities and collapsed the distance between nations and generations. “Our kinship was initially formed in flesh, blood and emotions,” Arumugam writes. “It is forged and continuously sustained through exchanging and eating meat and fish.” To close this section, Kelly White has the last word—or in this case, the last two words. Her humorous and pun-laced resignation letter penned by customer service agent “Great-Aunt Berrie” of the FabJam JamLine pays tribute to a confessionary space constructed around the consumption of preserves and other pectin-laced products. Overburdened by the oversharing of her callers, Great-Aunt Berrie figures she has “earned the boundaries” that she has for years told her callers to set for themselves.
This issue thus concludes with a spot of hope, even a sense of lightheartedness, not unlike the relief felt by the residents of Castelvetro over their free dose of Lambrusco on the morning of March 4, 2020. But the events of this year have only sharpened the borders—national, linguistic, professional, temporal—explored in this issue, and in some cases complicated the research that produced the articles assembled here. Fikry’s interlocutors on Egypt’s rooftop gardens operate at the fringes of legality and fear identification by authorities if they reveal too much. Salas, Hammelman, and Tornabene’s restaurants in Charlotte rely on migrant food workers who were subjected to intensified crackdowns by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency during the time of their research, which significantly impacted the researchers’ ability to conduct their work. While the pandemic and the ongoing war have captured much of our attention, it is also the struggles of these workers and food growers—brought about, to a large extent, by the persistence of unequal political borders and arbitrary legal boundaries—that this issue seeks to bring to light.
—Lisa Haushofer, for the Gastronomica Editorial Collective, Zurich, March 2022