The presence of food in
literature and especially in the novel is an unsurpassed realistic referent of life. It sets the socioeconomic context of the story, the cultural, aesthetic, religious, geographical, and political valence of the characters. It also signals a gendered representation.
The relationships women establish with food in literature traditionally underscore their gendered role as nurturers, providers, and caretakers. They extend from the basic lactating stage to the daily practice of cooking for oneself and others. Because of her biological lactating capacity, woman is also a metaphor for survival, life sustenance, nature. Italian novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries regularly exhibit such representations, from the resigned passivity of Giovanni Verga*’s women characters struggling to provide food, to the rich symbolism of Elio Vittorini’s
character of Concezione (Conversazione in Sicilia,
), whose food puts in motion the protagonist’s quest for a higher ethical awareness.
In women’s writings, however, the representation of food, of its preparation and cooking shows something more than an automatic gendered practice. There is a tendency to valorize this experience through self-reflectiveness by introducing women as
creative subjects of their practices. Wartime novels such as Renata Vigano`*’s L’Agnese va a morire (1976) and Elsa Morante’s La storia (1980) demonstrate how female characters establish a new and different relation with food as they procure and supply it in critical historical circumstances, and in the process transform themselves from politically and physically oppressed individuals into subjects of history. The aging woman in Gina Lagorio’s Golfo del Paradiso (1987) is consciously using the food she prepares to propitiate life, to triumph against danger and pain by relying on the power of food to recall better moments and anticipate the seasons. She has an ironic awareness of her role as homemaker, as wife and ‘‘mother’’ of her husband, and her food is one of her ways of controlling her physical and human environment.
Control and personalization characterize the rapport with food in Clara Ser-eni*’s Casalinghitudine (1987), where recipes are the building blocks of this autobiographical novel. Not just a few recipes, but 105 of them, organized in chapters, interspersed with narratives moving from past to present. Food and recipes are central to the understanding of the protagonist’s formulation of a personal identity and of her connection with others, especially the other women of her past and present life, whose recipes she recovers and presents with her own variations and personal meaning. The valorization of cooking and food does not imply normalization and passive acquiescence to a gendered role. While Sereni seems to imply that homemaking and cooking can be an opportunity for a woman to recover a space of her own, her self-reflective narrative also indicates that the rapport with the domestic implies always a risk, and thus the need for a woman to challenge and question it.
Bibliography: Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, Identity. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Sereni, Clara. Casalinghitudine. Turin: Einaudi, 1987; Biasin, Gian Paolo. The Flavors of Modernity: Food and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993; Miceli Jeffries, Giovanna. ‘‘Caring and Nurturing in Italian Women’s Theory and Fiction: A Reappraisal.’’ In Feminine Feminists: Cultural Practices in Italy. Ed. G. Miceli Jeffries. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 87–108.
GIOVANNA MICELI JEFFRIES
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