Benito Mussolini is not known as a food-lover. Chronic stomach ulcers made it hard for him to eat much more than fruit and warm milk, and the idyllic Italian fighting man he held himself up to be wasted in fact no more than a few minutes eating each day. But if Mussolini did not want food to be a big deal, perhaps he should have picked a different country of which to be a dictator than pasta-loving Italy.
Mussolini’s Fascist regime quickly decided that, in their ideal future society, Italians would have to change the way they ate, and pasta was to become Public Enemy Number One under this food ideology. On this point Mussolini had support from the artists of Italian Futurism, who claimed that pasta made people weak and lazy – not exactly good soldiers for the war they constantly championed. Mussolini’s grudge against pasta, however, was less ideological and more political: Italy desperately needed to stop relying on foreign countries for wheat.
Wheat was a major crop in interwar Italy, but the sheer amount of bread and pasta being scoffed down meant that the country was also importing huge amounts in order to feed their own appetites. Bread consumption was troublesome but not as big a problem as pasta, as wheat suitable for making bread could be widely produced in Italy. The vast majority of pasta, on the other hand, was made of semolina flour from hard durum wheat, which did not grow well outside of a few regions of southern Italy. For a long time, in fact, Italy had out-eaten its durum wheat production, relying on wheat from abroad to fill their pasta bowls.
This reliance on foreign produce was a sharp thorn in Mussolini’s side. He wanted Italy to be strong, independent and self-sustaining, free of foreign interference. Not to mention that his increasingly abrasive foreign policy left Italy with fewer and fewer friendly trade partners.
There were several solutions to Mussolini’s dilemma:
1) Stop eating wheat, or eat less.
2) Produce more wheat.
3) Eat less of everything.
Unfortunately for most Italians, the third way turned out to be the most practical
Mussolini tried the first way, encouraging the population to eat less wheat by promoting other homegrown foods – especially rice and vegetables – with free samples, agricultural fairs and other propaganda. He also instituted high import tariffs on wheat, hoping to make it more expensive and therefore force Italians to look for cheaper options or focus on increasing production.
He tried the second way, too, attempting to stimulate wheat production. He forced farmland used for other things to be converted to wheatfields, as well as offering incentives for high crop yields and gifting modern technologies to crop-growers.
The results? Wheat stopped coming into Italy, and national production improved only moderately. Wheat prices skyrocketed.
But people still ate pasta. People sought ways to eek out expensive and sparse wheat, such as mixing durum with other flours when making pasta. Perhaps this was because other foods – especially meat – also became expensive, largely because the land that had previously been used to produce them had been given over to wheat. As prices rose but real wages did not, the nutritional intake of Italian urban workers slumped, and much of southern Italy’s rural poor survived on subsistence-level diets.
Therefore, the average Italian did begin to eat much less pasta than before. But not as a deliberate choice to bring about a fascist utopia. It was simply that all food was a lot harder to come by. Mussolini’s policy failed.
In the decades since Mussolini’s death in 1945, pasta has cemented its place as Italy’s national food. Maybe this was a conscious reaction, a habit inherited from Italians living after Fascism indulging in the thing that their former autocrat had tried to take from them. Maybe it is because of Italy’s post-war industrial boom, which made possible large-scale production and distribution of pasta, making it available in supermarkets all over the country. Or maybe it is just because it tastes so good.
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: it will take more than the combination of a devastating war, an unrelenting dictator, widespread poverty, and the near total absence of ingredients used in making pasta to stop Italians eating pasta.
Food pictures: Trattoria Don Ciccio