Italian Meatballs in Italy

Anthropology: Italian Cultural Traditions Surrounding Family and Food

Spaghetti Carbonara
Source: Spaghetti Carbonara, picture by Author in 2018


Picture a huge family coming together for an elaborate dinner after a long, stressful week. Grandparents, parents, children, and even cousins, aunts and uncles. The meal takes around three hours with multiple courses and drinks surrounded by laughter, jokes, and maybe some moderate to mild family drama. Non-family members are rarely invited for meals because families desire the intimacy and private space with their own families (Black 2010). American Christmas meals are similar to almost everyday meals in Italy, and at the table some of the most fondest and beautiful memories are made.

My great-grandparents grew up in a small town near Ancona in the Le Marche province and came over to the United States while they were in their early 20s with very little with them. They continued to cook traditional Italian food, and raised my grandmother to cook in that tradition too. My grandmother always prepared separate lunches for my grandfather and my mother and uncle when they were young, and she also cooked elaborate meals for dinner, which would sometimes including a main course, salad, and fruit. Even though their meals became more Americanized over the years, my grandmother still made a traditional big, family Sunday pasta lunch and elaborate dinner. My grandparents also cared for a very large garden, and everyone would participate in the gardening and care of many different vegetables and fruits in their own backyard. The men would even go out fishing and hunting. They would bring back several large walleye, and deer and rabbit to eat later in the week. My grandparents even made their own wine. However, my grandmother ultimately served as the mediator in the kitchen. She did not allow my mother to ever partake in any of her cooking processes, and this power allowed her to raise her children and satisfy their needs as well as communicate her love and influence her family.

Italian food is known as some of the most special, memorable, and finest in the world. From region to region, the food changes from risottos (rice dishes) to wheat dishes (pasta, gnocchi, and pizza). Lots of fish dishes are abundant on the coast. The finest food can be found in the Bologna region, which is also known for its prosciutto and heavy and rich food while another location such as Genoa is considered to be the “home of gnocchi,” pestos and fish stews.

For many centuries, food habits have been highly valued in Italy, and cooking can be seen as an expression and serves as a way to hold groups of people together. Most importantly, economic class and the size of the family affect how members perceive food and also serve as a basis for family identity. Many contemporary Italians still wish to have their food prepared the right way and are passionate about eating the highest quality of foods. Food structures kin and the actions of food procurement and preparation, shopping and eating together around the table all bring families closer together. In contemporary Italian households, the food and cooking practices are associated with pleasure and the senses, and bond family members together. The changes in modern Italy have not “altered the emotional structures” of the family and role of food in family dynamics (Harper 2009).

Family eating together around the table

The Dinner Table

Recent findings (e,g Moiso et al 2004; Black 2010) suggest that cooking provides a framework for intimacy and expectations regarding parental roles, especially while dining together around the table. Slow cooking” refers to the Italian movement in the mid-20th century where people emphasized the importance of slowing down, cooking and savoring food (Parasecoli 2014). In Italian, gola means throat as well as the desire for food, which reveals that food is a central agent for self-expression in Italian cultural life. Depending on the type of meal, some dishes can take hours to prepare. Many contemporary Italians still prefer to have food prepared the “right way” with the highest quality and are also very passionate about eating their local foods since they do not want to experience outside foods too often (Harper 2009:237,252).

A typical weekend meal can take up to three hours and consist of aperitivo (drink), antipasti (starter), il primo (first plate), il secondo (second plate), contorni (served alongside secondi dishes), insalata (salads), and dolce (dessert) served alongside caffe (espresso). Sometimes digestive is also served which is an alcoholic drink like limoncello, amaro or grappo. Changes in contemporary Italy have shown that some families do not always dine around a full meal this elaborate anymore, but some still value it on a weekly basis. 

Italian Table Etiquette in Italy

Manners at the Italian Dinner Table

Shira Offer (2013) presents how parents continue to regulate child behavior even while eating at the table. Female control is used to influence good behavior at the table, which includes how to eat certain kinds of foods and topics that are acceptable to discuss (Pontecorvo and Fasulo 1999). In several home visits by Ochs et al in America (1996), children have been found to express the foods they like and dislike, and food is generally seen as either nutritious, material good, or reward. They also gave low priority to pleasure and expressing their love for food. 

Developmentally, children are socialized to develop good manners at the dinner table, which includes eating slowly and finishing all of their food before they can leave the table while being treated with compassion and kindness (Moisio et al). On the contrary, Italian children are encouraged to express individual tastes and focus on pleasure, as opposed to American children who focus on nutrition and material rewards  (Ochs et al, 1996). Because Italian meals are so elaborate, families are able to spend at least an hour interacting with each other. Meals “unite and divide” and “connect those who share them” (Parasecoli 2014:427).

Common manners that children learn at the table consist of not raising their elbows above the table, not eating until the host arrives at the table and begins to eat, and keeping the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left. When passing food around the table, the dish always goes to one’s left.

Italian Meatballs in Italy
Source: Author photography, 2018

Transforming Gender Roles 

Another advancement reflects how Italian families have gone away from the traditional, domestic structure with women as the main cook in the family. Men have just been involved in food procurement as women and have been shown to be more responsible for buying the right cut of meat, liquor or wine. In the past, men had primarily been in charge of collecting food, turning milk into cheese, and butchering animals. Some men share the cooking process with their wives, and children have also begun to provide their own food if their parents are too busy to cook for them.

Women who are employed or have less time to prepare food are less able to control the food that comes into the home. However, Italian families still value eating together, and mothers and grandmothers still love home cooking, whether it has started to decrease or is only done on the weekends and holidays. Every Italian family has at least a few special family recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. Mothers remain the center of their families because they provide a constant flow of “totalizing care” primarily for their children, but also for their husbands as well (Harper 2009). Although pressures from the workforce threaten family values, food is seen by many Italians as a means to express affection and hold families together.

Italian mothers cooking for their children

Italian Mothering

According to Counihan (1999:48) food preparation serves as a way for women in Italy to control their children. Food is related to nurture because it is fundamental for child development and highlights the way mothers feel obligated to fulfill their roles inside and outside the home (Barry et al 1959; Barry and Schlegel 1986). The home is a location where family and gender become defined by “non-commoditized care and responsibility” (Walter 2009:2). Feeding a family is a chore that many women actually feel proud of and find satisfaction in even when working outside the home, and a busier mother actually raises more responsible and nurturant children (Barry et al 1959:88, DeVault 2008). Women who are employed or have less time to prepare food feel they are less able to control the food that comes into the home. Food has become a symbol of control and these norms are consistent throughout Italian families as a practice of everyday life (Counihan 1999; Allison 1991).

However, an Italian mother’s control is not just for exerting power and physical nurturing, but symbolizes her affection for her children too (Ochs et al 1996:8). While it is true that Italian families plan, procure, prepare and eat particular items, they actually love every step of the process (Ochs et al 1996:25). Feeding a family is a chore that many women actually feel proud of and find satisfaction in even when working outside the home, and a busier mother actually raises more responsible and nurturant children (Barry et al 1959:88, DeVault 2008). Humans convey messages by “manipulating food combinations, cooking mode, color, texture, taste and form” and a “woman’s control over food preparation gives her influence in her family” (DeVault 2008). These various findings imply how vital it is for Italian mothers to maintain deeply affectionate bonds with their children.

Another advancement reflects how Italian families have gone away from the traditional, domestic structure with women as the main cook in the family. As women desire employment and more men have begun to cook, the changes in modern Italy have been affecting the value in food and time spent mothering and performing tasks around the home. However, cooking practices are still highly valued and associated with nurture.

Town in Italy

Significance in Anthropology

Eating is central to family life in Italy. Young children, especially, are dependent on their parents for food and are socialized into slow eating practices around the table. The Italian mother commonly holds a strong role in her mothering position, but uses it to convey her love as well and connect with their children through food.  Because family is such as an important part of Italian culture, this blog post highlights Italian culture and how food is one of the ways that women use to express their love for their children. Preparing meals occurs within separate social, economic, and cultural frameworks that “determine when and with whom we eat, what and how much we eat, what we buy and where we go to buy it, and when and with what tools and techniques we prepare a meal” (Carrington 2008:259).

Many further research studies are still needed to compare cultural interactions surrounding food from culture to culture as well all aspects of food consumption, preparation, motivation for cooking, and the tools and techniques used to prepare different foods. Values for different meats, fishes, cheeses, and even more unique ingredients and cooking traditions may vary from region to region, and it may be interesting to compare separate regions as well. An Italian meal is structured in a logical way, and how Italian families frame their meals and how much time they take out of their day to eat together is imperative in understanding Italian culture. It is also important to see who is given special treatment, who dominates the table, how likes and dislikes are expressed, as well as if children actually support their mother’s cooking or food procurement. Do Italian women really control their children’s behavior and what their children eat as an act of love or is it something else?

Strong ties to food still prevail in Italy despite the growing workforce even if cooking family meals has significantly decreased to only a few times a week. Cooking is not just a form of control, but reveals mothers’ love and their desire to nurture their children (Harper 2009). Children become exposed to social norms through food procurement and eating practices, and Italian parents value giving priority to their children (Pontecorvo and Fasulo 1999:38). Ultimately, meals and food practices play a significant role in Italy and love can still be expressed by mother’s procurement and cooking of food.

Dish of rigatoni carbonara in Italy


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