Convivio 1920-1930



The beginning of the decline of genuine foods
“ we may find in the long run that the food in the tin is a deadlier weapon than a machine gun

(George Orwell)

Back in the early 1900’s people may have worked hard, but there seemed to be time in spite of work, for leisure, and a family meal. That was when luxury was status, status was leisure and leisure was time for family. But in our time pressured lives, competition and productivity have taken up leisure.Status today means a diary full of schedules so that one can publicize their lack of time, and overextended workday.

I recall when meeting my husband in 1962, who had recently arrived in the United States from Argentina, that he questioned me as to why when you ask an American how they are, the response is always, “ I am so busy”. Initially I disagreed with him until
he suggested I ask around and see what the response would be.
Sure enough in those days, the answer by the majority of those I asked was, “I am so busy”.
In Argentina as in Italy at the time, possibly less today,status meant a break in the day for a family meal, maybe a nap, or time to just relax.

Mid-afternoon the world in Argentina would stop for mate, tea time, a custom they adopted from the English who settled there.Argentinians like my in-laws would follow this ritual religiously.
In the afternoon in Italy there was always la merenda, a drink and or snack with a friend away from work, to enjoy usually while seated at a table, to refuel for the rest of the day.In Italy when I arrived in the 80’s, my family, neighbours and friends all seemed to enjoy the luxury of leisure as the equivalent of the good life. Regardless how hard one worked, there was always time to nourish body and soul. It was a priority.

There was time to spend contemplating beauty, landscapes,dreams, family and friends. Most italians, regardless of their socio-economical status, were not willing to give up the ritual of the family meal, or the pleasure of a lengthy vacation.Regardless how hard the Italians may work they always seem to be able to have time for leisure if none other than the family meal.

One evening around the dinner table with my italian friends, the discussion led to the American table and how we fail to enjoy leisure and the simple pleasure that life gives us.I disagreed believing everyone enjoys pleasure and desires leisure time.I was corrected by my friends who define pleasure not by one’s purchasing power and the number of gadgets one may possess but to enjoy simple pleasures every day life can provide.

Leisure for them differed as well. For my italian dinner guests leisure does not impel them to fill idle hours with tasks calculated to justify idleness and accomplishments. Leisure might mean to enjoy a stroll after dinner, sit under a pergola with friends, watching a sun set on one’s patio, or stopping midday for tea with friends. .Listening to what I thought was their stereotype of Americans, made me wonder of the origin of their thoughts which led to the common denominator being our obsession with saving time.
Could we be influenced by our forefathers and the ancient puritanical adage, “An idle mind is the devil’s work?” Could that be the reason that citizens of the most industrial country in the world, America, have more time saving possessions than any other country, yet experience little time to enjoy life?.

Could that be the reason the once enjoyed simple pleasures of the family dinner hour has lost its importance? Could that be what eventually lead to a general lack of interest and appreciation for quality foods.? What happened to the pioneering woman who in spite of working hard and with little means, never failed to have as a priority her family’s well being.

The pioneering woman in America worked hard just as she did in her native country. She may have made her own bread, grew her own vegetables, baked like her mother, and may have even napped like her grandmother. She cooked as she did in the old country and had a reputation for her culinary skills, and being creative with what was available. Something happened that made American food get such a terrible reputation and the American homemaker stereotyped often as worthless in the kitchen. I recall when my husband announced to his Argentinian family that he was marrying an American girl, my mother- in-law was mortified at the thought.Her son would never be fed a decent meal because I would surely be feeding him out of a can. She was reassured it would not be the case when he informed her I was an Italian-American.How did America get the reputation for being the country whose citizens have the least amount of interest in quality foods? Yet, their ancestors cooked, ate and fed their family well even when having meager resources.

I believe it all came about around the 1920’s when the manufacturers of household gadgets decided to take the American woman out of what they called, the “drudgery” of the kitchen, and give her leisure time. Being a young nation and unfortunately the first to adopt the new cuisine, America gained an unfortunate reputation. Manufacturers and marketers advertised how time saving devises would allow the homemaker to set the table as the food was warmed up, creating a new cuisine developed with time saving possibilities. One particular item that became the stereotype of the American woman was the can opener. Woman’s magazines praised the new electric appliance alongwith the numerous new canned and pre-packaged foods that could liberate the homemaker from unnecessary physical exertions and old fashion kitchen slavery. Woman thought of this new streamlined cooking as an important step forward. But was it? Mothers who were once praised for their culinary skills, were now considered lazy.Husbands accustom to being welcomed home from work with the aromas of a hot meal in the kitchen considered the new culinary cuisine, barbaric. Children home from school, no longer were greeted by a mother preparing a meal, or the warm inviting comfort of kitchen aromas. Lost was the mother or grandmother as a role model in the kitchen, teaching one to cook, handle kitchen utensils, and share recipes through generations. Worst of all was how the new cuisine lowered the once honoured role of homemaker to that of “drudgery”,unfilling,and worthless..

Woman now felt liberated and excited to enjoy new leisure, with new electrical gadgets and the popularity of the industry’s line of pre-packaged food. .Unfortunately they soon discovered that labour saving devices may save drudgery but not labour. Her chores augmented instead of decreasing.Now she had all the new machinery to take care of, clean,repair, and often discard for another.
Her time became more valuable.Her new toys did not foster satisfaction but often just more work. There was no time for the little nap grandma took after lunch in the old country after preparing her family’s meal.As reported in the US Bureau of Home Economic, in the 1920’s, women were now called upon to spend more time doing other chores. She became busy shopping for convenience foods, and standards of cleanliness were higher since she now had electrical appliances requiring her to vacuum, clean and scrub carpets and floors, walls and windows. To take advantage of canned products and electrical appliances, she now was supposes to give her youngsters more maternal supervision than previous decades. The new streamline cooking gave her,so she thought, an opportunity to use her new leisure functionally by seeking possibly clerical work outside of the home.Venturing into business saw some financial gains to benefit her family and enhance life, but this sense of fulfilment often cost her personal relationships with family. Many found that the financial rewards without loved ones to share can be empty, and create unfilled victories..

Her need for hurry up dinners, gave her the status of “Super Woman” juggling her life with an overwhelming slate of commitments while concealing her exhaustion. Regardless that she worked harder than ever, the can opener still became her logo and that the little leisure time she may have had before, no longer was available.Initially when woman adopted the new cuisine she was considered the cause of family conflict and marital strive. Men, even if agreeing to the new cuisine still were nostalgic for his mother’s cooking. Children who cherished the loving care and kindness that their mothers put into their cuisine, now longed for her homemade bread, the emblem of a stay at home mom. Her husband longed for the apple pie, a symbol of the docile devoted wife. In the 1920’s the American wife was hurled into the future more than in any other culture. In Italy and elsewhere she became known, according to our dinner guests, as having a reputation as a lazy selfish being, hating to cook and living out of a can. Most were not aware of the fact that the new appliances made the American housewife’s life counter-productive.

Without the daily complements of her achievements in the kitchen, she lost her self-esteem. Not being the loving homemaker at the stove pleasing husband and children, she lost her status. At the time, the italian woman maintained both self-esteem and status.
With the new cuisine of time saving devices,
the American woman lost the collateral that an italian woman can bring to a marriage and essential for a happy home.Being busy as a super woman she lost the luxury of leisure and her envied position as the pillar holding the family together, which the italian woman has maintained, at least until recently. In spite of their differences in cuisine, there was still a characteristic the American woman had in common with the Italian woman of the 20’s an 30’s.The American woman in general managed to provide a dinner hour for the family to be enjoyed at the family table. The 1920’s is when I see in America the beginning of the decline of genuine foods which hascontinued to deteriorate through the years, particularly augmented during the post war years. Farmers following the war were able to obtain cheap fossil fuel which became the base for new chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would provide greater quantities of foods at the expense of quality. Inexpensive corn and soy along with inexpensive fertilizers and pesticides introduced the new cuisine from the can to a prepared and processed food item.

Mother’s nutritional wisdom on feeding a family based on tradition and culture was replaced by the wisdom of marketeers, and food conglomerates. Public health officials, led the unaware consumer to accept poor quality foods regardless of detrimental consequences for the environment, culture, health, and general well being.Simultaneously, the gaining in popularity of canned item was joined by a cornicopia of prepared and processed foods made available. This new cuisine of time saving devices proved to be cheaper for the consumer, a time saver for the homemaker, and a most profitable endeavour for the food industry. Unknown to the consumer was how the government and industry that introduced the new cuisine, brought with it a bug, a contagious virus from America that would soon effect the world.This virus I shall call, “ no time” which has penetrated the quality of foods around the world, creating a casualty of healthy living. Italy is not an exception. Countries without a food culture based on tradition and culture, experiencing more a uniform in taste, and a general decrease in quality, are those most susceptible to the virus. Countries with food culture, like Italy, that has maintained more than any other country, loyalty to the distinctive foods and wines of each region, creating the most popular and one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, are least effected. Therefore, it warrants looking into the food culture of Italy, for it holds some secrets to fight the epidemic before it too becomes infected. I have observed that “no time” has invaded areas of Italy where food culture shows a decline, confirming its importance in fighting this epidemic. Italy’s strong family, tradition, and food culture has worked until recently as the flu shot preventing its contagiousness.

Unfortunately, the marketeers, food conglomerates, selling convenience, hidden in the nucleus of the bug, continue to win battles against anti-bodies, to weak to be effective.Today the Italian woman like the American woman of the 20’s and 30’s has found work out of the home and finds herself in a cross road, with a juggling act of being the traditional wife and motheras well as working. La dolce vita for her is certainly less dolce as she experiences changes in her life as in America, trying to integrate professional and personal life. Although she may adopt some of the short cuts in cuisine, purchasing from la tavola calda, hot meals prepared to go, and hurrying about to fulfill chores on an overbooked calendar of activities, she continues as taught by her ancestors to seek out quality food and be less influenced by the “no time” virus. Changes she has had to make yet tends to eliminate other activities before convivio. Having experienced this when visiting and dining with working mothers in Italy in the last 30 years, I wish to share their differences before they too join the rest of the world, adopting the modern lifestyle,lead by America,distancing the world from the pleasures of the dinner table.