December 2, 2020 at 11:43 am

Bell and Moran Publish on Italian POW Foodways in Britain in World War II, Present on Italian Culinary Identity in World War I

David Bell and Theresa Moran, portraits

Drs. David Bell and Theresa Moran

The collaborative Food Studies research agenda of Dr. David Bell, Chair and Associate Professor of Linguistics and Dr. Theresa Moran, Adjunct Associate Professor of Instruction in Plant Biology, has more recently focused on the effect of war on culinary identity.

Their latest publication, “Captive Cuisine – The Cultural Transfer of Italian POW Foodways in Britain in WW2,” was published in Italian Foodways Worldwide: the Dispersal of Italian Cuisine(s), pp. 115-128, edited by Iannacito-Provenzano and Scardellato (2019). It explores the impact of the culinary traditions and foodways of Italian POWs on their British hosts.

Moran notes that the starting point for their research was a number of quotes about food in World War II Britain. The first was a withering assessment by R. J. Hammond, the official historian of Britain’s food campaign: “… gastronomically speaking, nothing could be more pathetic than the Victory Dishes which the Ministry of Food devised with potatoes, dried egg, salt cod and the like.” And with the rationing of sugar, children were even asked to substitute ice-cream with a frozen carrot on a stick. Hammond continued: “…a nation possessed of a more resourceful culinary tradition would have been able to do better.” A later food historian, Lizzie Collingham, suggested which that nation would be: “Italian prisoners of war seem to have been able to create tasty dishes with their rations.” And this is borne out by a quote from the diary of a Land Girl. Land Girls were members of the Women’s Land Army, a British national service organization to replace the agricultural labor of men called up for military service. Land Girl Doree Griffin, working alongside Italian POWs, commented enviously that a “gorgeous smell would waft from the hedgerow when the prisoners’ cook was preparing their meal.” By contrast, the Land Girls’ staple lunch was usually cold beetroot sandwiches.

Bell explains, “We wanted to find out just what impact in terms of cultural transfer Italian POWs and their foodways had on the culinary traditions and foodways of their British hosts. So we looked at diaries, memoirs, and oral histories of the time.” For the Italian perspective, Bell and Moran studied soldiers’ diaries and memoirs collected at the Archivio Diaristico Nazionale in Pieve Santo Stefano, in Tuscany, Italy. For the British perspective, they looked at diaries and oral histories of British civilians who had contact with Italian POWs, most notably Land Girls  and participants in the Mass Observation Diaries – a social research project started in the 1930s aimed at recording everyday life in Britain through untrained volunteer observers. By the end of the war, there were 158,000 Italian POWS in Britain, most of whom were given the status of “co-operators” after the Italian government surrendered to the Allies on Sept. 8, 1943. This status gave the Italians greater freedom of movement and so more contact with Britons. And many of those contacts were about food. One Italian POW recalled, “Our Italian food was so good that on festival days like Christmas, English officers in charge of the camp ate in our dining hall.”

For their presentation at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, held virtually in May 2020, Bell and Moran switched their focus to the first world war. Their presentation: “Italian Soldiers in WWI and the Emergence of a National Culinary Identity” examined further how the disruption of war triggers encounters between people of different culinary identities, which are potentially sites for cultural transfer. In this case, it was the vast mobilization of soldiers from different regions of what was a young Italian nation, which exposed soldiers of diverse culinary and linguistic traditions to food they had never eaten before. Bell and Moran argue that WWI helped forge a “national diet” contributing to what is now known as la cucina italiana.

“Much of our research focused on reading letters, diaries, and memoirs,” Moran said. The 41 months Italy fought the war produced almost 4 billion items of correspondence. “The letters are so compelling that you quickly get drawn into their personal lives as they write to their loved ones.” Bell and Moran were looking for mentions of culinary encounters like the soldiers who, desperate for fresh fruit, ventured into no man’s land between enemy lines risking their lives picking grapes from an abandoned vineyard.

Bell and Moran are quick to point out that the process of cultural transfer is slow and cumulative. What we now identify as Italian cuisine did not fully emerge until the 1950s. Its spread to countries like Britain was no doubt facilitated by the many food encounters with Italian POWS, which encouraged a predisposition among Britons to the taste of Italian food when Italian food products eventually arrived in Britain in the 1960s.

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