One evening after work recently, I was half-starved and wanted something I could cook quickly. I saw some packaged gnocchi in the cupboard, made by De Cecco, which I thought would fit the bill, until I started reading the directions. Unfortunately, these were quite long, and they mentioned all kinds of ingredients not in the package, so I gave up. I didn’t want a detailed recipe. I just wanted to know how to cook the gnocchi. A few days later, while editing an English translation of a book about Italians and food in the modern era, I learned something that made me go back to the gnocchi.1
In the early post–World War II decades, when the Italian food industry was trying to get consumers—in this context mainly women—to buy its new, ready-made food products, it decided that offering detailed preparation suggestions for the integration of other foods into its packaged products would improve the image of the new products, that is, make them more legitimate and appealing. But consumers bought ready-made foods for their convenience, not for the opportunity to prepare something elaborate. If one wanted to make something more involved, one could do it the old-fashioned way, from scratch, even if one might use certain intermediate manufactured goods like
bullion bouillon cubes or dry pasta.2
With this nugget about Italy’s food history in hand, I went back to the gnocchi package whose directions had thwarted me earlier. I still found only one very detailed paragraph, nothing short about the gnocchi themselves, as pasta packages in this country have led me to expect. But this time I decided I had better skip ahead in the directions, and, sure enough, what I needed was there, buried near the end: “In the meantime, cook the gnocchi in plenty of boiling salted water, remove them as they rise to the surface …” So that was what the “ready in 2 min.” label on the front of the package was referring to. Apparently this step is such common knowledge in Italy that there is no reason to highlight it in readily accessible instructions, even if the manufacturer still feels the need to make its product more attractive to potential customers with a detailed recipe.
But the package in my hand was for the American market, so why attach the same, apparently decades-old assumptions about food and gender in Italy to it? It hardly makes sense, except if explained in terms of the product’s postwar Italian history. Language from that context seems to have been translated into English without giving much thought to this context. Or is this a way to market something very ordinary, little potato dumplings, as something special? In any case, I’m pretty sure that the packaged gnocchi my European spouse bought for the pantry still carry part of their history in the accompanying directions, which at least I can read now.
- Emanuela Scarpellini, A tavola! Gli italiani in 7 pranzi (Rome, 2012). The first part of the title is a summons to come eat, and the second part translates as “The Italians in Seven Meals.” The book begins approximately with Italian unification in 1861 and runs to the present. The English translation will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. ↩
- Scarpellini, chap. 5. ↩