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Focus October 2017

The Academy must be responsive to current issues

We must address the challenges facing cuisine today without indulging in excessive retrospective analysis.

Most Academies dating from the Renaissance onwards were founded in Italy, especially those dedicated to literature, philosophy and the arts, and later the sciences as well. They further developed from the second half of the eighteenth century in response to Enlightenment ideas, often in opposition to rigid and pompous university rules. Alongside prestigious and influential Academies, bizarre ones appeared as well, such as the Academies of the Abandoned, of the Indifferent, of the Cauldron and so on. Today most Academies have disappeared, with only a few survivors (Lincei, Crusca, Georgofili, the National Academy of Agriculture), partly because many were formed as little more than pranks, but especially because their goals were superseded by events, by discoveries, by science, by the diffusion of culture to the greater populace. To survive, an Institution must always adapt to the present, interpreting current needs and providing suitable answers. The Italian Academy of Cuisine, by now 64 years old, resulted from a felicitous intuition by Orio Vergani and its other founders in response to the problem of Italian cuisine’s decadence, but has proven to be a lively and crucial concept for transmitting the values of culinary culture down the generations. Today, unlike many other associations, our Academy covers a vital function in bolstering food culture both in Italy and abroad. In other words, it has succeeded in adapting itself to the new challenges which modern society generates daily. Indeed one must always act innovatively, avoiding the comforting refuge of hackneyed and frequently tedious analyses of the past. Historical studies may be interesting, but they often pave the way to habitual self-reference. One cannot walk with one’s gaze constantly fixed backwards. However essential and indispensable it is to know our past, we must realise that almost everything has already been said, and instances of concretely valuable discovery are exceedingly rare. We must not be simply custodians of knowledge, mere archivists. Given that it has the capacity to do so, the Academy must have the courage to respond to modern-day consumers’ anxieties. Cutting-edge issues are numerous and important: from forgery to manufactured legends, from cuisine as entertainment to the loss of identity, from changing food habits to the demands of the young, from the food industry’s technologies to the homogenisation of restaurant menus, from the perils of globalisation to the opportunities arising from newly available ingredients, not to mention health-related problems. The Academy must face up to the new.

Paolo Petroni