I'm a fanatic when it comes to lifestyle programing, or cultural centric food shows, where I can be a voyeur, escapist, into the life and world of another culture. When it comes to Italian themed ones, it's not hard to find them, as they've multiplied at a contagious rate. They are all beautifully filmed, with what seems to be charming Woody Allen curated soundtracks, showing off the idealic life of 'la dolce vita' and that sensually appealing 'golden age' of southern Italian aesthetics. But too much is too much, and these replicas tend to present the same fantasy world, in the same ways, of a simple life that can only be enjoyed by ones that can afford to live simply, void of reality. A life for those that are rich in money and in free time.
I've seen most of these lifestyle shows, and I can honestly say, that although I have a guilty affinity towards them, they always fall short. This was until I stumbled across Two Greedy Italians. Once again, BBC programing rules over North America's 'processed', 'synthetic' competitive based programing, by airing great educational documentaries and other similar programs. This two season series was no exception.
What made Two Greedy Italians so different and successfully done, compared to the other pastiches? So much.
Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo address very real and often serious issues in historic and contemporary Italian culture and how it has affected the culture as a whole and the people that participate in it. They share the same beliefs in food as I do; that food transcends mere taste, cooking, nutrition, and nourishment, and remains the fabric of life, social interaction, tradition, identity, and existence. The true powers of food. The series balances the beauty and fantasy of 'la dolce vita' with the harsh realities of the death of culture, modernization, and the battle between tradition and western progression. An added bonus is that both chefs and cultural activists (as I believe they should be called) have experienced both sides of the coin, living in both historic and also modernized environments, have been cooking authentic regional Italian cuisine all their lives, and actively participate in the contemplation and dialogue of Italian culture: what it was and what it is now. When they speak in this series, whether it would be a personal memory or their opinion on 'a changing Italy', you believe them.
I remember one of the first episodes I saw dealt with the notions of Italian women and the 'kitchen'. Go back 50-100 years, men went off to work in the city center or were drafted into the army to fight wars, which left women at home to take care of the home and children. I can already hear the feminists calling as I type, and to tell you the truth, I was shocked at some of the conversations in the episode at first. Antonio was interviewing young Italians about whether young women still knew how to cook. Most of them said they didn't and that the concept of women cooking for 'the man' or for their family was an extremely archaic and outdated belief, as women are now more career driven and have full autonomy over their lives. The fact of the matter is, if you are an Italian that has learnt anything about food, you learnt it from your mother, or Nonna, or even Zia, and they in tern, learnt it from their mother, Nonna, or Zia. It doesn't matter who learns how to cook, whether you are male or female, the core message is that you know how to. Cooking for someone else, to me, is the most intimate, caring, gratifying, and lovely thing you can do. It is also the only way culinary traditions are kept up. Without this, old regional Italian traditions and recipes are lost forever, which is what's happening now, and is what I'm advocating to prevent as one of my life's purposes. With the generation of Nonnos and Nonnas, Zios and Zias dying out (that experienced the wars of the past, and had no other option than to cook for their families), their traditions; our traditions, will go to the grave with them.
Other episodes dealt with ideas extremely prominent in Italian culture that most people outside the sphere don't know about. Ideas like 'l'arte di arrangiarsi' or the art of arranging one's self, being resourceful when resources are scarce, is an art all Italians are experts at. That's how we all survived and continue to, and is also a reason why we become so proud to show what we've accomplished and the things we have, because they often resulted out of stubborn determination and hard work. This then leads into "la bella figura' or beautiful figure, which is a kind of keeping up with appearances so to speak. This concept can be misinterpreted and confused with arrogance or an exercise in ego, but the core of the phrase is the pride of coming from nothing and then having things, as a result of hard work. It's a tradition of honest work ethics, ambition, and courage, to attain the life you want to live. It also relates to wanting to give back to the people you care about; in the form of celebrations, feasts, gift giving, and the universally recognized 'Sunday dinner'.
The series then takes a turn and delves deep into contemporary issues, like loss of tradition, the fusion of exotic food with Italian food, smaller families and the loss of family values, cheep processed fast food from North America staining the young generations, tourism taking over historic sacred places, the extinction of religious practices and self agriculture (gardening), contemporary dating and the 'match making' industry, the list goes on. These things allow this television series to be more than an exercise in fantasy idealic Italian living, and more of an enlightenment on contemporary Italy and the threats the culture is facing.
With all this said, I still remain an appreciator of successfully curated aesthetics and this series doesn't fall short. Beautifully filmed, successfully written, with two hosts that could not be any more different, and could not be any better of a choice to be the representatives of a past Italy and explorers of the contemporary one.
Before I leave you with a couple of episode clips of the series for you to enjoy, I want to leave you with this....
Whether you identify closely with your own culture/cultures or not, what are you doing to preserve or reinvent them, make them more relevant to exist in your contemporary life? What is your relationship with food? With cooking? With your past? If you don't fit into your culture or the traditions of your ancestors, how can you? Can you create a dialogue, and if so what would it be? How can you do it? If we don't take value in the power of food and cooking, of our past ancestry, their traditions (our traditions), we loose the foundation of our own identities, and the world will homogenize into an unhealthy culture of ego, materialism, and faux caricature.