Gnocchi on the Picket Line
Strikes, occupations, and labor revolts swept across northern Italy in the 1960s and 70s. In 1969, workers and student collaborators marched toward the Fiat factory in Turin—which they later occupied—shouting, “What do we want? Everything!” Six million people were on strike simultaneously in 1973 and, six years later, the Italian state persecuted dozens of Workers’ Power affiliates, many of whom fled the country. And, at some point in the 1970s, on a picket line outside a Cremona brick factory, Selvina Bertuzzi and her compagnas ladled out gnocchi topped with a tomato-meat ragú.
“I’ll try to tell you what happened,” Bertuzzi says as she slices dough into dumplings with workworn hands, “We cooked big pots of gnocchi. We made so many. It was the year of the big strike at the brick factory and we were all there, cooking potatoes and making the sauce with meat.” The 82-year-old is demonstrating her gnocchi con salsicce recipe in a 2015 video for Pasta Grannies, a Youtube series that features elderly Italian cooks. As she speaks, Bertuzzi lifts her hands from the pasta board and gesticulates, a demure smile breaking on her bespectacled face. (I love her shy enthusiasm because I, too, am shy and enthusiastic.) “It was all handmade for the workers,” Bertuzzi adds with a note of pride.
“Self-conscious or not,” Janet Theophano writes in Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote, “Recording every day acts of cookery is an act of autobiographical writing and self-representation.” As how-to series helmed by home cooks, often older women, become increasingly popular—from Pasta Grannies to De mi Rancho a Tu Cocina to Grandma’s Recipes—they too become sites of autobiographical inscription, stories slipping out between recipe steps.
Pasta Grannies videos often double as documents of mid-20th century life: Luiga Pavese recalls growing up as the eldest of six, at a time when pasta was always made at home, as she prepares hand-stretched manata; and 100-year-old Letizia notes that she made the tagliarini she’s demonstrating on camera for her children during World War II “to stop them going hungry.” And yet, when I first came across Bertuzzi’s video this past March, while making her recipe from the Pasta Grannies cookbook (which includes dishes originally featured in the Youtube series) it took me by surprise: hers is the only Pasta Grannies video I’ve seen that mentions labor history or any kind of dissent. Bertuzzi could have described how delicious the dish is (it’s really delicious!) or unpacked the ways it’s typical to Lombardy, her region and the contested homeland of gnocchi. Instead, the potato dumplings and fragrant sauce she ladles over them become a mnemonic device, conjuring a time when her cooking skills offered sustenance to striking workers.
Of course, her story isn’t simple or utopic, and the Bertuzzis’ solidarity came with consequences.
“The priest denied a certificate for my daughter’s confirmation ceremony because my husband was a political adversary,” Bertuzzi continues, the camera cutting to a closeup of her fingers rolling the gnocchi in flour. Her husband worked in the stables, not at the factory, but picketed in his free time. While many Catholics were part of strikes and unionizing efforts—there were explicitly Catholic labor organizations and the first student protests of the 1960s erupted at Catholic universities—the Church hierarchy tended to be conservative and reactionary.
I was raised Catholic and know that being denied a confirmation certificate is a big deal; I imagine the stakes were even higher in 1970s Italy. Still, I’m less interested in Bertuzzi’s daughter’s confirmation than how she defines her husband, but not herself, as a strike supporter. “Weren’t you, too, a political adversary?” I want to ask, although I’m also not surprised that she minimizes her role in the struggle. Women’s auxiliaries and other organizations that provided (and still provide) material support to striking workers have been sidelined again and again throughout history, their work left out of books, out of songs and stories.
During that same era Italian feminists, including founders of the Wages for Housework campaign, protested the way even Leftists devalued and ignored domestic labor. “We’ve never seen a general strike,” Marxist-feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa said in a 1974 speech for International Women’s Day, “We’ve only seen men, generally men from the big factories, come out on the streets, while their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, went on cooking in the kitchens.” Or, although she doesn’t mention it in this particular speech, cooking on the picket lines.
While drafting this piece, I look up Bertuzzi’s recipe in the Pasta Grannies cookbook. I’m surprised to find that the headnote doesn’t mention the story she told in the video. Instead, it recounts producer Vicky Bennison’s first trip to Cremona and how Bertuzzi seemed “shy and hesitant about making the dish, despite having cooked it for decades.” While I love how Pasta Grannies honors elderly Italian women and their culinary expertise, I wonder if Bertuzzi’s strike story was too political. It didn’t offer, like so many of the videos and recipes do, an easy escape into the paesana-style good life.
“[Bertuzzi] passed away in April 2019,” Bennison notes at the bottom of the first paragraph, “I am most sorry she didn’t get to see her story in this book.” Me too, although the story I long for doesn’t show up in the cookbook at all. I wonder what Bertuzzi would have wanted: the headnote as it appears or one that incorporated the labor strike memories she spoke about with such pride and nostalgia.
I’ll never know. All I can do is say grazie, Selvina Bertuzzi. Rest in power.
Wren Awry is a writer, cook, editor, and card-carrying union member. Their essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry, Entropy, Essay Daily, and Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. Awry is editing an anthology on anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian foodways for PM Press and spends much of their free time learning to make homemade pasta.