Recipes as Resistance

The man who invented the “eggplant-parmesan rave” is out to save traditional Italian cooking.

Daniele de Michele, better known as DJ Donpasta, picked up his stage name from hungry nightclub staff whom he used to cook for after his live performances. De Michele, known for inserting cooking demos into his sets, was, they insisted, “the Don Corleone of pasta.” The author of La Parmigiana e la Rivoluzione, a diary-like treatise on the politics of cooking and music, de Michele is also editing the upcoming Artusi Remix. With the help of a staggering list of 3,000 Italian cooks, this new cookbook will attempt to revamp and resurrect a century-old tome of classic recipes. The original Artusi cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene was compiled by a businessman named Pellegrino Artusi in 1891; its recipes and amusing anecdotes gave a new coherence to the Italian national cuisine and occupy an important place in many homes to this day.

If that’s not enough of a mouthful, then consider de Michele’s devotion to his beloved eggplant parmesan. It’s his ur-dish—his grandmother’s parmigiana: “It’s an eggplant lasagna that we only make in August because you have to use fresh tomatoes and eggplant, and those are only available in Italy then. After you prepare the tomato sauce, you prepare the polpette, tiny meatballs. Then you fry the eggplant, first dipping it in flour and egg. Then after that you put mozzarella and parmigiano on each layer, along with boiled eggs and mortadella.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]To create community… you need to make a party, and for me, parmigiana is an instrument.[/quote]

The dish inspired de Michele to host a series of “eggplant-parmesan raves,” cheese-fueled dance parties complete with best-chef contests, in his native Puglia in southern Italy. De Michele sees food-oriented gatherings as central to building community and preserving cultural memory—they’re political acts, in his view. “It sounds crazy, but when I try to explain parmigiana you can see how society in the south of Italy works. You have the respect of the season; you have the respect of the work of the people that prepare the tomatoes… You have the respect of tradition. I think the parmigiana is a metaphor for the persistence of tradition and resistance to modern globalization and corporatization of food. You create a community by offering all you have. To create community—to create emotion, a sensation, a connection to memory—you need to make a party, and for me, parmigiana is an instrument.”

Many outside Italy see the country as one of the few bastions of “authentic” food traditions left in the Western world—where Italian grandmothers still slave away over pots of pasta and local markets brim with vine-ripened ruby tomatoes. But despite the country’s reputed dedication to its culinary roots, de Michele acutely feels the consequences of economic pressures and global trends shifting the way Italians eat and think about food. “When a supermarket (in Italy) asks me to buy tomatoes,” he says, “I say ‘fuck you.’ I don’t buy it. You have to buy your tomatoes from a farmer. You lose your identity if you buy your tomatoes at a supermarket.”

De Michele sees olive oil as another area where his country’s heritage is under threat. “Olive oil is an interesting problem, because we make fucking good olive oil in Italy,” he explains. “But the European laws now say you can write on the bottle ‘made in Italy’ even though the olives come from outside the country. This is an example of lobbying that has entered the food system.”

Now De Michele’s efforts have moved beyond supermarkets and parmigiana raves to collecting recipes from amateur cooks across Italy. Like a recipe for polenta with herbs donated by Loretta Del Tutto, a woman from the northern city of Urbino whose 104-year-old grandmother gave her the formulation. Or the salt cod dish from Cristina and Simona Cozzi of the Tuscan city of Prato and the fresh tagliatelle pasta with butter and cheese from Martino Pirella’s family of Emilia Romagna. “The most important resistance, for me, is for regular people to preserve thousand-year-old traditions,” he says.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Food is the language of the people. This is for me the revolution.[/quote]

By recording each dish’s origins and process, de Michele is using accessible, grassroots means to keep his heritage alive and combat corporatization. “Food is democratic; all people can speak about food,” he says. “Not all people may understand or be interested in the politics of food or agronomics, but when you talk about good food or bad food, everyone understands. Food is the language of the people. This is for me the revolution.”

This November, Artusi Remix will appear in bookstores across Italy. De Michele is careful to point out that the word “remix” does not refer to new recipes; it means the book will use distinctly 21st-century approaches to revisit Italian classics. Through social media and old-fashioned letter writing, de Michele has received over 3,000 recipes and stories for the new volume. Hopefully, a bit of the good kind of globalization can get this new cookbook translated and published around the world, and cooks everywhere can join de Michele’s delicious resistance.