FRONT PAGE / POSTS
Linguistic localization of cross cultural foods
by Matthew Campanella| Udine, Italy
Sunday, 2 November 2014
tags: categories, consumer culture, culture, europe, global vectors, making sense, semiotics
In an October 10th BBC article about the artist Alex Chinneck, the writer refers to an art piece as being located in a “London Piazza”. The sentence gave me some pause, largely because I agree with the sentiment of the American author Alfred Bester when he said “for me, there are no synonyms”. What was it about the place mentioned in the BBC article that makes it a piazza, and not a square? In turn, how would one differentiate a square from a plaza? That word was so long ago reappropriated into the English language that it appears all but divorced from its original Spanish roots..
But this isn’t mere nit-picking of writers and their euphemistic language. Over the past decade or so the United States has inserted two other words into its collective lexicon; Paninis and Gelato. Here there is room for even larger reflection; for these two words do have rough equivalents (or perhaps we can simply say synonyms) in the English language. Namely, Gelato had for many years prior been called Ice Cream, while Panini had for likely as long been called sandwiches. But ask anyone on the street and they will passionately proselytize that the one thing is not like the other. Gelato, people will claim, is as separate a product from Ice Cream as Paninis are from sandwiches, and thus a distinction is necessary. The inverse does not always occur. Italian tourists visiting the US, speaking among themselves in Italian, would feel no need to code-switch into English if they stopped off for some ice cream. For them, the product they purchased in the US is merely a regional variant of what they know from back in Italy, and no real distinction needs to be made. And this begs the questions of where such distinctions, if necessary at all, come from.
One of these things is not like the others: tramezzini (top), porchetta panini (middle), American Panini (bottom).
The biggest problem with this seems to be from confusing a very generic term for a very specific one. In Italian the noun gelato takes its name from the adjective for frozen, from the past participle of the verb gelare, and refers to any variety or the snack anglophones would call ice cream. To say, as certain proselytizers in other parts of the world might, that to be considered gelato the product must stand to the rigor of being organic, or made with whole milk, or churned at a certain speed or at certain temperatures, is in a respect denying the monumental variation of the product you find in Italy itself.
Most products do not going under the incredible rigor of control that pharmaceuticals suffer from, where if something is to be called Aspirin it must have certain properties in certain quantities, or you will not be allowed to market it as such. Instead, as with any other product going under any other generic label, you find a massive variety from seller to seller. Were one to go from place to place in Italy, stopping for gelato at every occasion (recalling that the term not only refers to the gelato of the gelaterie, but as well the prepackaged ones sold in bars and super-markets ), one could create a periodic table of sorts from the varieties encountered; some places would sell creamier products while others might sell a more watery product (which works better for certain fruit flavors). Some would strive for the use of fresh ingredients while other would use chemical flavorings (the often taught trick is to look at the color of banana ice cream – bright yellow if made artificially and dull grey if made fresh), and some would experiment with flavors and combinations while others would rest with the tried and true.
On completion of this trail of type two diabetes, one would come to see just how far this umbrella term can stretch. But a last point to consider with the ice cream/gelato distinction is that this said same distinction exists in other places as well. A walk down the frozen aisle of a US supermarket will yield a cornucopia of products, no two exactly alike. A look to the packaging alone will illustrate many of the same distinctions mentioned previously; here one makes mention of being creamier than the cousin it shares a shelf with, there another makes mention of how this one is slow-churned, elsewhere the product made from fair trade and organic cocoa beans stands proudly along with its exorbitant price tag.
Gelato then, is something of a paradox. While the name seems not to refer to anything that needs to be differentiated from ice cream, applying the label is not in any way false, it is simply replacing one vague signifier for another. Certainly, the makers and marketers of gelato all over the US do much to add certain signifiers of Italianness, and many of the already ingrained preconceived notions of what ‘gelato is’, to the product – but as far as claims of legitimacy are concerned they could just as well not.
The term Panini[i] is the plural of the Italian word panino, being itself the diminutive form of the word pane, meaning bread. Even in Italy the terms panino and panini have come to mean refer to sandwich and sandwiches, though both the Italian words have retained their residual meaning of ‘small bread’. And just as we found with Ice Cream/Gelato, both sandwich and panino are rather vast umbrella terms. The hiccup comes when considering the new word Panini, which does not function as an umbrella term in the English language but refers specifically to a determined variety of sandwich heated with a sandwich press, and filled with certain meat (usually salami, ham and mortadella) as well as cheese and vegetables. This distinction is of course non-existent with the Italian counterpart; panini may be heated or not, pressed or not, and can in fact be plain pieces of small bread.
There is then a distinction between the ice cream/gelato case and the sandwich/panino/Panini case; and that is that the Panini is more rigidly defined. The confusion here can be immense, though with the right mindset playful; a Rueben, a Cuban, a burger and a BLT are all sandwiches by American classification, panini by Italian classifications, but not ever Panini (and no one has any idea where a hotdog would fit into any of this). Not everything that would be called a panino in Italy would be called a Panini in the United States, though everything called a Panini in the United States would be called a panino in Italy.
Gelato, as sold in the US, as well as Panini, exists mostly as marketing terms. An ambitious and industrious individual, nostalgically fuelled by positive experience overseas, attempted to recreate what he considered to be the superior products he experienced there. But to survive in an already competitive market of sandwiches and ice cream, a powerful distinction had to be made. If one considers just how many places now sell gelato and Panini, it becomes clear just how successful this campaign has been.
[i] The appropriation of the term Panino into the English language has unfortunately created a lexical confusion that makes it difficult to discuss without a certain uncluttering of terms first. The Italian terms are panino (singular diminutive of bread) and panini (plural diminutive of bread), while the English terms are Panini (singular) and paninis (plural). For the purposes of distinguishing the plural Italian term from the singular English, in the above paragraph the English term is always capitalized.
© Matthew Campanella 2014