A chocolate bar wrapper in Italian

Feeding Fascism, Gender, and Food Work: An Interview with Diana Garvin

Rather than fearsome dictators, tabletop politics take center stage in Feeding Fascism: The Politics of Women’s Food Work, a new book published in 2022 with the University of Toronto Press by Diana Garvin, Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Oregon. Feeding Fascism considers Italian women’s everyday experiences under fascism through their efforts to feed and provide for their families, stories that transpire not only in the home and kitchen, but also in the clinic, the factory, and the fields. Garvin analyzes everything from cookbooks, recipes, and kitchen design, to culinary propaganda, breastfeeding promotion, and women’s agricultural work songs of protest. She situates women as consumers and producers, as individual bodies and the national body politic, as workers, writers, and rebels (even if in quieter and more “low profile” ways)—all at a time when the fascist regime sought to cast them aside and into the home. Garvin closely examines fascinating objects—decorative bowls, stamps bearing images of tomatoes, country almanacs, ricettari recipe pamphlets, cardboard chocolate boxes, spectacular toasters, and sunlit, white tiled kitchens—and places them in rich context: both in motion, from place to place, and in use, as part of these women’s daily life. Feeding Fascism delivers an abundant, interdisciplinary cultural history of food and gender that leaps from the page with sensory and material detail.

Diana Garvin om a red blazer
Author of Feeding Fascism, Professor Diana Garvin. (Courtesy of the author)

Emily: Let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to this research project? And how did it grow or change as you visited many archives, aiming to study fascist politics and women from, as you write, not only the bottom up, but also from “side to side”?

Diana: Ten years ago, the idea for this book popped out of an Art Deco toaster at the Wolfsonian Museum. The curators had gathered all the interwar kitchen appliances together on one shelf: espresso makers, milk carafes, and Futurist tea sets. It looked like a parking lot for rocket ships.

I’d seen that silver shine and those sharp edges before. Geometry and gleam marked the fascist regime’s big architectural projects, like train stations and hospitals. That toaster inspired me to shift focus away from the public and towards the private, to see how fascism shaped kitchens. These spaces show how intimately food and power are connected.

With this idea in mind, I planned research trips to major Italian cities like Rome, Milan, and Turin. But the renowned libraries mostly had government documents. I could not find materials addressing the five senses. Juice cups and cafeteria menus had been considered unimportant in their own time, often because they were associated with women and food work. Happily, small, regional museums, like the Barilla pasta company’s Gastronomic Library, held the watercolor menus and splattered recipes I wanted to study. These museums revealed the power of the small.

Emily: For those unfamiliar, how do you define fascism? And why is Italian women’s work around food such a compelling way to understand it more deeply?

Diana: It’s a mouthful, but I like British historian Roger Griffin’s definition of fascism: “palingenetic ultra-nationalism.” Fascism has a calling card. It always contains a core myth of national rebirth (“palingenesis”). If you see that myth, then you know you’re dealing with fascism specifically, rather than totalitarianism more generally. Fascism and strong man regimes share many qualities, like machismo, newspeak, and suppression of the press. But the call for revolution to spark a national rebirth is the so-called “fascist minimum” – without that origin story, you’re talking about a different kind of regime.

An orange book jacket with an illustration of a woman holding a pizza in front of a black military shirt
Feeding Fascism. (©University of Toronto Press)

Benito Mussolini vowed that only a fascist dictatorship would resurrect the greatness of the Ancient Roman empire. The ensuing fascist ventennio (1922–1945) provides a particularly clear lens for studying women’s food work. Culinary conservatism recasts poverty as patriotism. Suddenly, the regime wants to peek into your kitchen cabinets to make sure that you are cooking for the nation. That means buying Italian products and preparing traditional recipes. Fascism is not so much representative of Italian cultural history as it is hyper-representative. The bombast of dictatorial politics amplifies general tendencies in gendered food work that are often too subtle to see. There are parallels between life in fascist Italy and the resurgence of authoritarian politics on the global stage. In many ways, this book brings to life a historical situation that echoes our current moment, as I discussed in this 5-minute conversation with Oregon Public Radio.

Emily: One of your methodological contributions is an interdisciplinary focus that emphasizes the material culture of food, gender, politics, and women’s history. This extends to the materiality of your book itself, which is quite special, printed in a slightly larger size with a wonderfully evocative cover design, and features more than eighty images, dozens printed in color. Could you describe a couple of your favorite material objects rendered in the text, and share how they fit into the book’s larger arguments?

Diana: I just learned from editor Jaimee Garbacik at Footnote Editorial that this oversize trim is called a “Super Octavo.” The large format provided space to show off the illustrations, like kitchen plans and furniture, cookbook covers and recipes. The book is like a museum exhibit, and makes an academic contribution by collecting all of these creations by Italian women living under Fascism in one place. It brings the Wolfsonian Museum’s kitchenware shelf to the reader, so they can examine these fascinating objects. Additionally, the book showcases objects from Italian food archives for Barilla pasta, Peroni beer, and Perugina chocolates. To research Luisa Spagnoli’s chocolate empire, I sifted through hundreds of chocolate wrappers to learn how candy-making changed under fascism. Surprisingly, it all began with a kiss.

The Bacio, invented by Luisa Spagnoli 1922, crafted luxury from leftovers. Saving scraps and using domestic fruits and nuts was not only lucrative but also an increasing necessity given the broader political picture. The company’s fortunes rose, and Luisa sought the assistance of Giovanni Buitoni, the pasta heir and a marketing dynamo fifteen years her junior. Realizing the value that lay in castoffs, Luisa rolled a small handful of loose chocolate into a ball, topped it with a single hazelnut, and covered the creation in fondant. She named it the cazzotto, or punch, because the resulting form resembled a closed fist, with one nut-knuckle popping out of the top. But offering one’s lover a box full of punches was not very romantic. A marketing lightning bolt struck on a steamy afternoon: the two became lovers, and it was Giovanni’s whispered suggestion to turn cazzotti into kisses.

Illustration of a woman carrying two large dishes of pasta
Pasta Combattenti Cremona advertisement, c. 1936, cardboard. Designed by Gino Boccasile. Milan, Italy. (Museo della Communicazione, Parma, Italy. BOC.2.5233)

Emily: What are the key lessons you hope readers will take from Feeding Facism?

Diana: Kitchens seem like they’re a space in the house that exists outside of time and politics, but in fact, their design – the layout, the colors of the walls, the appliances – all of that is shaped by politics at the national level. This is why I try to use examples from Italian history to de-domesticate the kitchen. Really, it’s a boxing ring, where government and industry and individuals (often women) duke it out over what we eat and why.

Emily: What can you tell us about your next project?!

Diana: My next project is “The Bean in the Machine: Coffee under Fascism.” Coffee, bitter yet bracing, is an acquired taste. In Italy, its energy and speed made coffee both a staple and a symbol in the nationalistic movement Filippo Marinetti dubbed Futurismo in 1906. The industry that grew out of Luigi Bezzera’s invention of the espresso machine in Turin a few years before allowed like-minded flag-wavers to point to homegrown technology as proof of their country’s rising status in the world. Mussolini was quick to harvest the seeds these and other figures had planted; during the Fascist ventennio (1922-1945), coffee became a central player in Italy’s drive for economic self-sufficiency. Seizing East African coffee forests and establishing colonial coffee plantations in Eritrea and Ethiopia turned into chapters in a romance of caffeine and aluminum that chronicled a new Roman Empire in the making. In this book, I will share this untold story of caffeinated imperial aggression, of local resistance, and of the rise of a global coffee culture that speaks with an Italian accent.

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