Alfred Eisenstaedt, View of Mt Vesuvius from the Town of Torre Annunciata with Men Tending to Drying Pasta
Food and Drink

Beyond the Lines

Spaghetti with olive oil and garlic is one of those minimalist signature dishes of cucina povera that demonstrate how a few humble ingredients can be transformed into something heavenly. It is also one of those rare foods that can become a comfort food even for those who come to the dish only later in life, as most of its aficionados do.

Precisely because of its simplicity, fans of spaghetti aio oio, as it is known in its native Rome, divide themselves into camps defined on the basis of ingredients, technique and garnish, much in the way that lovers of the dry martini do. Do you mince or slice the garlic? How long do you sauté it for? If you slice the garlic, do you leave it in the sauce or remove it before serving? Do you chop a fresh chili or shakes flakes of dried pepperoncini? Does parsley make its appearance as a garnish?

These branches in the decision tree of aio oio are already enough to generate a dozen or so variations. The permutations diverge at their extremities, as species and dialects do, and wind up as new, distinct entities.

But the great divide is cheese. Traditionalists, who, like my Roman grandmother (and me), associate the dish with the fasts of Lent and Christmas Eve and for whom this spaghetti was a comfort food by upbringing and not adoption, would not dream of adding cheese.

My friend Aris’ spaghetti aio oio is one of the heartier versions of the dish, with flecks of chili peppers and copious slivers of garlic that are browned in a generous bath of exceptionally good extra-virgin olive oil. He passes around a bowl of parmigiano reggiano when serving, which I add so as not to offend him. I tend to think of aio oio as a sexy and brash young peasant woman, a Sophia Loren in Too Bad She’s Bad perhaps. But in Aris’ dish, she’s wearing high-heels and a borrowed Missoni sweater. She’s still irresistible, but for my taste a bit of a fetish.

My version, which I learned from my grandmother, is different. A few crushed cloves of garlic and husks of chili pepper are lightly sautéed in olive oil and then the garlic is removed before it browns. A couple of anchovies are then thrown into the pan to dissolve into a silken, pleasantly salty and buttery sauce (I recognize the fish as a departure from the classic recipe, but it is not an uncommon one). The dish is garnished with a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley. No cheese. My aio oio is also a forthright village woman, but a younger one, and she’s barefooted and dressed in a sheer cotton summer dress. Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze maybe.

Another choice has recently emerged to multiply the variations of the dish. This one, however, has nothing to do with the sauce. It is the pasta itself. Barilla or not?

No one I know makes their own spaghetti. Not even my grandmother did. Lasagna noodles and papardelle, and pasta for ravioli, yes, but not spaghetti. My grandmother resorted instead to dried pasta, as Aris and I do and as a great many restaurants in Italy do as well. Until recently, this meant Barilla for me, which is arguably the best pasta that I could find in an ordinary supermarket here.That is, until the president of the multinational firm told us we weren’t part of his company’s core values.

In an interview with La Zanzara on Radio24, Guido Barilla stated that for him and his company, the idea of family was a “sacred”, fundamental value. Except that Barilla’s idea of family did not extend beyond the conventional one of a heterosexual couple with children in which the mother played a central role. Gay parents should not be allowed to adopt children, he maintained. “We’d never do a gay ad,” he said, “because our family is a traditional one.” He went on to say that if his gay customers didn’t like it, they could go eat another pasta. “Uno non piò piacere sempre a tutti,” he proclaimed.

Some of his customers, including me, did just that. I walked the extra blocks to an Italian grocery store to pick up De Cecco.

Barilla’s offensive comments set off a wave of negative commentary in the press and social media. A picture of the familiar blue and red Barilla pasta with a  window revealing tubes of “Bigotoni” circulated on Facebook, and #boicottabarilla started trending on Twitter. Competitors such as Buitoni, Bertolli and Farofalo reminded us of their commitment to inclusivity and circulated (in some cases, earlier) pro-equality ads; one from Bertolli depicts a pair of gay ziti dads and lesbian farfalle moms dancing with their kids down a wooden spoon into a bowl of tomato sauce.

In a statement of half-hearted apology Barilla issued soon after radio interview, the firm’s president said that the company places such emphasis on families because “they embrace everyone and have always been associated with our brand.” Indeed, over the years Barilla has consistently used the family—a universal “symbol of hospitality and affection”, in the president’s own words—as the core organizing concept of its promotion. Sadly, Guido Barilla’s idea of family remained one of intolerance and exclusion.

It didn’t include the countless families of same-sex parents or one-parent families or even the family that my grand-uncle Leonard made with his brother and his brother’s wife.

Barilla didn’t reveal whether the boycott and negative press had eaten at all into its 4-billion-euro annual turnover, but a month or so later, on November 4th, the company announced that it was undertaking an initiative to take an “active, global leadership position on diversity, inclusion and social responsibility.” The firm has appointed a Chief Diversity Officer and set up a Diversity and Inclusion Board, whose members include Paraolympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi and LGBT activist David Mixner. Barilla has also signaled its willingness to participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, a measure of large companies’ performance on policies and practices relevant to LGBT employees. Mixner claims that he is encouraged by signs of Barilla’s openness to change and “impressed with the willingness of the Chairman and company to listen and learn from LGBT community.”

Workplace equality would be a notable accomplishment, as would Barilla lending its corporate voice to the advancement of LGBT rights in Italy and beyond. But I’m waiting for the ads.

Images matter, especially the ones we see in movies and television. They help shape one’s perceptions and interpretation of the world, filling it with a cast of characters that serve as referents or indexical pointers to people one has never or only rarely seen, or if one has, made no great effort to understand.

Granted, the more numerous the cast and more finely drawn the characters, the richer our understanding, and advertising is too sketchy a visual language to expect much depth. But we can and should expect presence. LGBT families need to become a more visible part of this cast.

George Constantinous & Farid Ali with their children [from Freedom to Marry]

So simple: George Constantinous & Farid Ali with their children [from Freedom to Marry]

In the end, the very ordinariness of reality depicted in much “family-oriented” advertising may conceal its potential to be a powerful instrument of promoting inclusion. Depicting two gay dads or mothers sitting down with their kids for spaghetti Bolognese at the same kind of dining room table in the same kind of house we’ve seen hundreds of times on TV. Friday night’s spaghetti with a loving family. It’s a way of saying, hey, this is how it is. Ordinary, unremarkable, beautiful.

Like aio oio it just takes a few ingredients—one or two parents, a child or two, a kitchen table, and a simple meal—to serve up something memorable, and there is enough variety in these alone to give us a richer and more inclusive depiction of what family means. Dove c’è Barilla, c’è casa. It’s time the company made good on its slogan.


The title of the post is inspired by  a film called “The White Line” (“Cuori senza frontiere”), which also happens to be one of Gina Lollobrigida’s first film appearances. The film deals with the divisions—of family, homes and friends—that emerge after the Allies decide that a village in the Trieste region is part Yugoslavian, part Italian.

Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt, View of Mt Vesuvius from the Town of Torre Annunciata with Men Tending to Drying Pasta


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