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Garvin Talks Italian Fascism and Women’s Food Work

Italian chocolates were one of the products of fascist rule in the interwar period and beyond, according to Diana Garvin, an assistant professor of Italian at the University of Oregon.

“Chocolate was one of the only luxury foods that was allowed by the regime,” Garvin said, “It was actually included in the fascist army rations because it was deemed critical for morale.”

Garvin shared themes from her book, Feeding Fascism: The Politics of Women’s Food Work, during an event hosted by Boston College’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures on Oct. 19. Her book explores the Italian fascist regime’s attempts to alter the nation’s diet and how Italian women resisted these changes.

“Women and the fascist state vied for control over the national diet across many manifestations—across cooking, across feeding, across eating—all to assert and negotiate their authority,” she said. “In taking this distinctive approach, Feeding Fascism attests to the power of food.”

Garvin continued her lecture highlighting two goals the Italian fascist regime tried to achieve by controlling food: autarky—economic self-sufficiency—and pronatalism—the promotion of childbearing.

“Farming more food in Italy promised economic self-sufficiency,” Garvin said. “This was all part of the regime’s broader push for autarky.”

Garvin also added that fascists encouraged Italians to have more children by espousing the importance of cooking at home—citizens could produce more food to support larger families when they did not rely on food sources from outside countries, she said.

“Birthing more infants today meant more fascists to support state ambitions tomorrow,” Garvin said. “Under fascism, you could say that Italian babies were the ultimate national product.”

According to Garvin, fascists sought to influence food in Italy by changing the dialogue that surrounded it.

“Under fascism, what Italians ate didn’t change that much,” she said. “The main difference was the talk surrounding food. … Suddenly, you were helping the country by eating rice and beans. Fascism simply recast poverty as patriotism.”

Garvin also discussed how kitchen design in public housing projects under former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s regime attempted to change the culture surrounding cooking.

“Under fascism, kitchen design became politicized,” she said. “The regime built much smaller kitchens throughout the public housing projects. … This move not only adds extra gendering to the kitchen and cooking, but it also turns it into a specialized work space.”

According to Garvin, these kitchens were built solely for efficiency. Efficiency was crucial for fascist rule because of food and supply rationing during World War II, she said.

“The kitchen becomes this small sanitary laboratory with one purpose: to produce as much food as possible with speed and with hygiene,” she said. “The kitchen became a factory.”

Garvin analyzed one woman—Luisa Spagnoli—who ran a kitchen-turned-chocolate factory. She said this chocolate factory modeled the fascist idea of limiting privacy by promoting blurred lines between employees’ personal and work life. The factory, for example, provided in-house daycare and employees were forced to work all day, according to Garvin.

“It was actually employers like Luisa who created these first total companies that fused women’s private and public lives and brought up the most intimate questions of how to feed a family under industry management,” she said.

Garvin explained how the Italian army used Spagnoli’s chocolates in the war to feed its soldiers, highlighting the relationship between Mussolini and Spagnoli.

“After Mussolini visited the chocolate factory, it benefited from rationing in the army,” she said. “It was actually included in the facist army rations because it was deemed critical for morale.”

Garvin concluded her talk by asserting that Italian foods and products created and used during the facist period left an impression on Italian culture, even if Italian citizens did not necessarily want this legacy.

“Whether due to product names, recipes, or previous government ties, [Italian foods] can tell a certain story about Italian history and national identity,” Garvin said.

October 23, 2022