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Italy's Culinary Paradox

Riots are ugly events that expose even uglier truths. Reports of recent unrest by African immigrants in southern Italy have underscored the dirty little secret that, lo and behold, there’s racism in Italy. Lost in the condemnation of Italian xenophobia, however, is a less obvious but equally important discovery: Italy’s bucolic countryside — the heart of its pristine agrarian image — is sustained by foreign migrants living in, as one official put it, “subhuman conditions.” Those imported canned tomatoes that go into your classic tomato sauce obscure a world of hurt.
This is not what I want to hear when contemplating the land of slow food, ancient farm houses, rolling vineyards, and leisurely lunches over pasta, bruschetta, mozzarella, and fine wine. It’s not what I want to hear when savoring the near-spiritual identification between Italians and their legendary pastoral landscape, blessed with its inimitable air, soil, and produce. Something about “subhuman conditions” spoils the fun, dampening my enthusiasm to, as one Italian agritourismo outfit promotes, “see what the real Italy is like.”
Getting to know “the real Italy” — at least in terms of the country’s food and agriculture — means getting to know a migrant from Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, India, or, of course, Africa. Italy on the ground, Italy down in the dirt, is a multinational scrum, a place where an exploited foreigner is more likely to have picked your succulent olives than a perennially employed, well-compensated Italian. Only 5 percent of the Italian natives work in agriculture. Foreign migrants are 60 percent of the seasonal labor force.
Why is this? It’s often said that Italians won’t deign to pick their own produce. I’m not terribly swayed by such gross generalizations. But still, when an internal report by the retailer Coop Italia explains, “Italians do not accept jobs picking tomatoes for industrial use,” you have to wonder. Furthermore, Italy’s unemployed are likely to see their unemployment benefits reduced if they take on seasonal and low-paying agricultural work — which is to say they’re better off economically on the dole. The most pervasive answer, though, takes us back to Econ 101: foreign migrants are cheaper.
Unfortunately, Econ 101 often by-passes Ethics 101. All reports — not to mention the riots themselves — suggest that the abuse migrants endure is hellish. According to a 2005 study, 50 percent of the Africans working in Italy are illegal, 50 percent live without running water, 40 percent live in abandoned buildings, and 75 percent contract a chronic disease due their living conditions. They’re paid about 20 bucks a day for 12 hours of work. And so on.
Seeking insight from the ethical foodie perspective on this troubling culinary paradox, I turned to Slow Food International, the go-to Italian-based advocacy group that highlights fair, local, and fresh food. The organization’s stated mission is to counter “people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” There’s not a word, however, about the riots. Instead, there are interesting pieces on a heritage livestock facility, how eating locally will curb obesity, and a video of Slow Food’s founder visiting the Sydney opera house.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect an organization dedicated to eating well to dissect an incredibly complex and distressing labor arrangement. Food is fiction, after all, and there are many advantages to keep telling beautiful stories that brighten our day by enriching our palette. Plus, the moment we might start thinking about the culinary implications of a riot, things can become pretty tasteless.