Saturday, January 31, 2009

Culinary preservation--or gastronomic racism?

In April, I was invited to Italy for a primer on the food, wines and beers of Lucca, a Tuscan city striving to preserve the culinary traditions that have flourished within the medieval era walls encircling its core. The difficulty of the task was illustrated by the first restaurant our group saw within Lucca proper: A McDonald’s.

It was no surprise, then, to read this week that city officials have taken the controversial step of forbidding the opening of any restaurant within the walled-off area that does not feature Italian food. The leaders also want a recommendation that the menu of all new restaurants include local specialties like faro or savory pumpkin jam (usually served on cheese, not bread).

The move has been assailed by some as culinary chauvinism, by others as a hopeless effort to freeze time. That McDonald’s, after all, was noticeably busy, despite a fall-off in U.S. tourism because of the dollar’s weakness against the Euro. A considerable portion of traffic was presumably coming from locals.

Even the government of Tuscany, the city’s host province, reportedly condemned the move as “gastronomic or culinary racism.”

But you can’t fault the city’s leaders for trying to preserve foods and preparations that are as much a part of local heritage as the ancient walls for which Lucca is known worldwide. Few would dispute that a town or city has the right to govern architectural styles, building heights, commercial development or the destruction of historical facilities. New York has even legislated what some restaurants have to put on their menus (i.e., calorie information). Why not type of restaurant?

Maybe I’m just biased. It’s been more than nine months since I’ve some decent faro doused in true extra virgin olive oil from the Tuscan hills outside Lucca.

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