History and the Packaged Gnocchi

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. Scarpellini, chap. 5. 

Book Review: GDR and Consumption

I recently reviewed an interesting anthropological study by
Milena Veenis entitled Material Fantasies: Expectations of the Western Consumer World among East Germans (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press in cooperation
with the Foundation for the History of Technology, 2012) for the Dutch Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis (Journal of Social and Economic History). The two-page review is in English and is openly available on the web at http://www.tseg.nl/2012-4/recensies.pdf. (Scroll to p. 93).

Consumption History Again

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

Yesterday I asked how I could integrate the consumption history I’m learning into my teaching, and I pointed to a couple examples where it’s already there. But I missed a glaringly obvious one: the Great War.

Consumption is a vital part of the story in Gerald Feldman’s classic Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914—1918 (1966), insofar as the purchasing power of labor was inextricably linked to Germany’s social and political stability and, therefore, the country’s ability to produce sufficient armaments to continue fighting. The point is more accessible in Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914—1918 (1998 and 2004), which I have used in a course on the Great War and will use again next fall in one on modern Germany. There is also Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000), which I will be using in a graduate course on war and society this summer.

I also usually bring up a much earlier aspect of consumption history when I address the Enlightenment and the public sphere: coffee houses. To make this point, there is a delightful reading from before the Enlightenment on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook: “The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670—1675.”

Of course, none of this is informed by a specific historiography of consumption history, but it does point out how this topic is already in my teaching. But there’s a difference between including a topic and addressing it systematically. To think about war and society in Europe, I can at least draw on the periodizing nomenclature of cabinet war, people’s war, and total war to help describe the level of societal involvement in interstate conflicts over the past few centuries (Stig Förster et al.). If such language and periodization exists for understanding consumption history, I have not yet learned it.

Perhaps the main point is to recognize modern consumer societies as having a history in the first place, instead of taking them as a direct reflection of human nature and, hence, rendering them ahistorical, as too often happens in simplistic political rhetoric that opposes capitalism and communism—rhetoric that invariably finds its way into student spoken and written comments. I sometimes try to do this with economic thought in the early modern period, but historicizing capitalism should be a central historiographical problem for the modern era, too.

Editing and Consumption History

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

Since I began my editing job a little over a year ago, I have begun learning a little about a lot of history that I had previously never experienced. While my editing has included a variety of smaller projects as diverse as the interests of the institute’s fellows and recent alumni, my main area of responsibility is editing a new series on consumption history. Two volumes are under contract, and a third will be very soon, but I’ve been forcing myself to sit on my hands and not go into details here until things are actually published.

Meanwhile, I have begun to wonder how I might integrate what I’m learning about modern consumer societies into my teaching. Connections sometimes come up spontaneously in class, but maybe I could do something more meaningful. Well, in the past I have used Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (aka The Ladies’ Paradise), which I first encountered as a teaching assistant for Sandra Horvath-Peterson. And next fall I will use Uta Poiger’s Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany in a survey of modern Germany. But how could I approach the issue more systematically (when I am able to make some time for reflection)