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Repost with Local Update

This first part I posted at my other blog:

I think this rant is going to irritate my readers. Both of them. And I’m sorry about that, but I have to call things as I see them. Not as they are — I’m too much a phenomenologist to insist that my truth must be yours — but as they appear to me.

I tend to look at the world through various prisms. Politics and food are the biggies. I know: kinda stupid. But I am who I am. The world for me is not about sex, not about aesthetics, not about all sorts of things that matter to other people. The world for me is politics and food.

Politically the Italians are. . . how to put this? Irrelevant. No one anywhere, ever, asks the question: But how will the Italians react? Italy is not in the game. Russia’s in the game. China. Germany. France. Britain. India. Japan. Even Iran. And of course the US owns the game ball. But Italy? No one gives a ripe fig what Italy has to say about anything. Even the Italians don’t care. In terms of international politics Italy might as well be Uruguay.

Is this inevitable? No. Italy has a population of about 60 million and a GDP of 1.8 trillion dollars. This isn’t Chad we’re talking about here. France has a few more people and a little more money. The UK has about the same population and a little more money. How is it that Italy is an afterthought? Italy has a twentieth of the population of India but more than half the GDP. How is it that Italy carries no weight on the world stage and India does?

There is something trivial about this country. Something negligible. I don’t know why. I don’t have that answer.

The food thing is actually more telling to me.

Question: do the Italians love food and wine? Answer: No. They love their food and wine.

I’ll tell you something: I could buy better wine at my neighborhood Harris Teeter grocery store in North Carolina than I find in comparable supermarkets here. Why? Because Americans who love wine don’t care where the wine comes from. At my US grocery store — forget the local gourmet store — I had a selection of American, Australian, New Zealand, French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, South African, Argentinian, Chilean and Italian wines. The wines of at least 11 nations. In a suburban grocery store. In the south.

In my Co-op — a nice grocery store here in Pontassieve — you know what wines we have? Italian. And . . . Italian.

No California. No French. No Argentinian or Chilean or New Zealand. Even at the giant Ipercoop we have a few token bottles of foreign wine. No California. 95% Italian.

Is this because Italian wines are the only good wines? No. An awful lot of Italian wine is crap. Some is superb. But Italy does not have a monopoly on great wine. Not by a long, long stretch.

So, a simple question: if Italians love wine, why nothing but Italian? The only possible answer that makes sense: Italians don’t love wine, they love their wine.

There are a handful of Chinese restaurants in Florence, a major city. A smattering of Sushi restaurants. I think there may be one or two Mexican restaurants. But 95% of the restaurants in Florence are Italian. 90% have essentially identical menus. Pizza. Tagliata. Pasta. And when I say identical, I mean identical to a greater degree than McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s have largely identical menus. You could xerox the menus.

There are more differences by far between Pizza Hut and Papa Johns than there are between any two Italian pizzerias.

Are they catering to tourists with expectations of a particular cuisine? Sure, to some extent. But you know what? There are tourists in New York City, too. But in New York there are more variations between sidewalk vendors than there are between Tuscan restaurants. Contrast the NYC or Chicago or LA culinary scenes with that of Florence, Rome or Milan. Is there a country on earth that doesn’t have a representative of its kitchens in New York? Everything from Armenian to Zairian.

I can sample the cooking of 100 nations in New York. Maybe 80 in Chicago or LA. And perhaps a dozen in all of Italy. Why? Because the Italians love food? Sorry, if you love food, you love everyone’s best food, not just your own. It’s as if you claimed to be an art lover, but refused to look at any but American painters.

It’s a great big world full of cool things to eat. But when Florentines go to a restaurant they have the same half dozen apps, the same six primi, the same six secondi, the same four contorni, the same three or four desserts, and wash it all down with the same handful of wines. That’s not a love of food and wine: it’s chauvinism and narrow-mindedness.

Would I rather have a free pass to all the restaurants of Florence . . . or Chicago? Chicago without question. Not even close. Because in Chicago I can have great Florentine food. And everyone else’s food, too.

I want to expand a bit here at Sideways Mencken, because here's where I talk politics.

Americans can be divided into two categories (so convenient having just the two.) Those who believe that all things American are superior, and those who suspect that all things foreign are better. The jingoists and the hair shirt brigade.

This is for that second group.

Look, kids, if it is not okay for Americans to be culturally close-minded, chauvinistic and insular, why is it okay for other cultures to exhibit those same traits? Why is it all right for Italians -- to take the example at hand -- to refuse to learn any language but their own, to close their minds off to non-Italian influences, to shut the doors to immigration, to insist on the rightness of all things Italian, (or even Ligurian, Tuscan, Sicilian) and to fail utterly to use their wealth and potential power to accomplish anything useful in the world beyond their borders?

Why is it cute when it's them, but a cultural crime when it's us? Why is multiculturalism only for Americans?

We expect so much of ourselves -- save Darfur, end global warming, find a cure for cancer, bring peace to the middle east, find water on Mars, absorb half the population of Mexico -- and demand nothing of our economic peers, the Europeans. Isn't this the soft bigotry of low expectations?

They couldn't even deal with Kosovo by themselves, and they could have taken a cab to the combat zone. We had to send airmen 10,000 miles from Nebraska. Is there nothing we can demand of them? Are they children?

Or to put it another way: why is it okay that there are no Chinese restaurants in Tuscany?

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  1. Blogger reader_iam Says:

    Look, kids, if it is not okay for Americans to be culturally close-minded, chauvinistic and insular, why is it okay for other cultures to exhibit those same traits?

    It's not.

    Now you're gonna do this? Does this mean that others who've done it before, whom then you seemed to eschew, or at least felt free to ... question ... the motives of which, are redeemed?

    Or is this blank-slate time? And do we all get to have one?



  2. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Actually I've been on this for a long time. A lot of the documentary we were trying (and ultimately failed) to put together, was the question of European irresponsibility. I was using that Kosovo line (or variations) in Paris and Barcelona six years ago.

    And I have repeatedly criticized Europeans for their inability to assimilate foreigners, and for their knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

    But I'm also not impressed by people who, on the strength of no particular knowledge, assert the wonderfulness of all things American. Anyone who thinks we do all things well should explain JFK International, any LA freeway, our violent crime rate, our pathetic primary education, our energy waste, and our obesity epidemic.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    Your two categories might have been convenient but they weren't very accurate. You conflate two different groups here, the ignorant who aspire to some idealized version Europe that doesn't exist and those of us who believe that just because a European nation disagrees with us, doesn't necessarily mean that they're wrong.

    To answer your question, it's not ok for any nation to be culturally close-minded, chauvinistic and insular, especially if it means ignoring good food and wine from other nations.

    BTW, the albit portion of this rant answered a long running question for me. Why do all the restaurants in Boston's North End (the Italian section of the city) have the same menu? I always assumed it was just laziness. Thanks for correcting me.

  4. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    I remember reading some political writer years ago who said (and I paraphrase b/c I'm not about to go searching for the real quote)

    "America pays for the military security of the Western world so that Europeans can have free health care."

    In many ways, we're still in a post WWII mentality in the relationship between Europe and the U.S.

    As for the food -- I'd hate to be with so little variety. Maybe I will now stop being so bloody envious of you.