Last weekend, I spent most of Saturday at Eataly, the massive Italian food emporium on the near northside of Chicago. This year, as in years past, Eataly held a series of workshops and dinners focused on Italian cuisine. These annual events are organized by Identità goose, a magazine devoted to international cuisine with a decidedly Italianate orientation.
At a workshop on pizza making, I was fascinated that the Italian chef who was giving the presentation was extremely sensitive to the temperature of the dough he was using. This kind of careful attention to detail, the almost fanatical devotion to using high-quality ingredients prepared in a way that honors the integrity of each ingredient, has been a tradition in Italy for centuries. That’s perhaps why, when Catherine de Medici moved from Italy to France to become the wife of Henry II, the French reportedly embraced refined Italian cooking techniques. Some say that was the birth of French cuisine as we know it today.
There are a lot of reasons to be proud of Italian culture, which cultivated intellects such as Dante, Da Vinci and Fermi. Like most civilizations, however, the Italian civilization is not uniformly wonderful and blameless. There was Mussolini, for instance, and, of course, Columbus.
The reputation of Columbus has been taking a beating for decades. In Oak Park, the most notable example of this understandable push-back on the reputation of “the man who discovered America” is the replacement of Columbus Day by Indigenous People’s Day. This admittedly slight calendar readjustment was a perhaps lamentable but understandable move, reflecting a national reconsideration of the abhorrent treatment of native peoples by European invaders.
As an Italian American, I can’t help but feel a little sorrow that a man who represented the visionary boldness and adventurousness of the Italian Renaissance is being taken down a peg. Honestly, I probably would have preferred a separate holiday for Indigenous People’s Day. There is, however, poetic justice in taking away Columbus’ holiday and giving it to Indigenous People, just as Columbus started in motion a process that took away this land from those same people.
Although we in Oak Park no longer recognize Columbus Day with a holiday, we recognize Italian achievements every time we listen to an opera, admire the Mona Lisa…or have a slice of pizza, arguably America’s most popular “ethnic” food. There are over a dozen restaurants in Oak Park that offer pizza, an undeniably enduring contribution from “the boot,” and a recent Harris poll indicates that when Americans were asked what food they’d choose if they had only one food to eat for the rest of their lives, 1 in 5 said pizza. Thanks, Italy!