A checkered tablecloth, a steaming plate of spaghetti surmounted by a revolver, and the title reading Urlaubsland Italien – Entführung, Erpressung, Straßenraub (Holiday in Italy – Abduction, Extortion, Robbery). This is how Italy was featured in the German news magazine Der Spiegel on a cover dated 1977. The iconography of pasta and mafia struck a blow at the heart of Italy’s sense of national pride, sparking widespread manifestations of public indignation and nearly precipitating a diplomatic crisis.
Fast forward to May 2015: the World Expo is hosted by Milan and the theme of the exposition is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. For the more than 20 million people that flock to visit the exposition, it is an opportunity to find out, and taste, the world’s best dishes, and to learn about the agri-food and gastronomic traditions of each of the 145 exhibitor countries. What happens in the jigsaw of pavilions at Expo Milan is literally a showcasing of national identities through the lens of cuisine.
Der Spiegel’s 1977 cover and Milan World Expo 2015 shed light on the ambivalent outcomes that derive from using food as a vehicle for soft power. In the classical definition coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, rather than coercion or payment – and Expo Milan was a perfect example of that. The world exposition was a win-win situation where countries were competing by means of national recipes to brand themselves and score brownie points in international popularity rankings. At the same time, Expo Milan proved that sharing a meal can help transcend boundaries in a way that a few other things can; and thus constitutes one of the most powerful and unassuming forms of cultural exchange.
On the other hand, as an important marker of identity food can easily become a pawn in the hands of other, less innocuous, kinds of agendas. This is when the real nature of power concealing itself behind the adjective 'soft' reveals its true nature. This is when the sense of pride for one’s own culinary traditions lapses into the dangerous terrains of gastro-chauvinism and gastro-imperialism. Finally, this is when food becomes a tool of division that contributes to perpetuating negative stereotypes and reaffirming the status quo.
Food is not only culture. It is a political force to be reckoned with. As such, it should always be considered with a grain of salt. With exposure and education, we should all learn to detect the contrivance and subterfuge of using food as propaganda or as a weapon in the arsenal of hard power.
Paola Antonelli joined MoMA in 1994 and is a Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture & Design, as well as MoMA’s founding Director of Research & Development. With a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Polytechnic of Milan, Antonelli has also earned Honorary Doctorate degrees from the Royal College of Art and Kingston University, London, the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, and Pratt Institute in New York. She has curated numerous shows, lectured world- wide, and has served on several international architecture and design juries. She is currently working on the next Triennale di Milano, entitled Broken Nature (March 2019); on the book States of Design; and on a new Theory of Everything for design. She can be found on Twitter as @ CuriousOctopus, and on Instagram as @paolantonelli.
Erica Petrillo is currently working in the Research & Development Department of MoMA, where she co-leads the R&D Salon initiative. She holds a Master in Arts, Politics and Society from Maastricht University (2016), and a Bachelor in Politics, Sociology and Psychology from Cambridge (2014). She can be found on Instagram as @eri.pet.