The Muslim Macelleria: Creating Resilience in the Heart of Slow Food Italy
To the naked eye, Viale Industria is a street like any other. Its namesake an ironic yet suitable descriptor of the drab, grey apartment buildings, forgotten fruit trees, and hulking laminate factory that line this narrow street, jutting northwest of the more colorful and well-traversed, Piazza Giolitti. Unless one lives nearby, most Italians opt for the historic cafes and cobblestoned character in the center of town. Except, for those who have a specific, ‘higher’ purpose: to keep halal. Viale Industria 37 has the trappings of every macelleria, the tell-tale red and white striped awning and a proud white bull decal announcing what is inside: vitello and carne di manzo. A closer look at the front window shows neatly arranged gleaming teapots and silver trays, along with Moroccan tea glasses, emerald and embossed with gold. Glazed tagine pots are neatly placed near woven baskets teeming with spice packets of cinnamon, paprika, curry powder, cloves, white pepper, anise and ras el hanout. The last hint is the Arabic block lettering gracing the front door: this macelleria is the only halal butcher shop in Bra.
Bra is a well-to-do, quaint alpine town in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, just 45 minutes south of Torino. The town of 30,000 is nestled in nebbiolo wine country; home to famed grape varietals of Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s most precious exports. Bra is also the birthplace of Carlo Petrini, the godfather of Slow Food.
Billed as a delicious and local alternative to “fast food”, Petrini launched a socialist campaign in 1986 in direct response to the deaths of 19 people sickened by red table wine spliced with methanol, and the angrily met opening of McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. The Slow Food resistance countered all that was mass-produced and monoculture, promoting traditional, local foodways that were environmentally and economically sustainable. Over the past 30 years, the organization now spans 150 countries and boasts 100,000 members, all under the banner of building a “good, clean, fair” food system. The organization is a powerhouse in its home country; there are 360 convivia (chapters) in Italy, composed in total of 35,000 members. Not only do these convivia providing a nostalgic connection to say a cured salami nostrano sourced from a heritage varietal of black pig raised on acorns, chapters also facilitate crucial export opportunities, plan dinners and workshops with local producers, protect regional designations of quality, and bring much-needed tourism dollars in light of anemic economy.
The rise of Slow Food in Italy and its success was predicated on the rejection of the invasion of foreign entities for the sheer survival of Italy’s food, its production, and ultimately, its people. This dichotomy was built at the expense and exclusion of the “other” – foreign food, foreign means of production, and foreign people.
As the Slow Food movement reached the mainstream, a new generation of gastronomes arose. Seeking to preserve his legacy and give academic credibility to the study of good food, Petrini co-founded L’Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche (UNISG). Every year, hundreds of students from around the world attend the University of Gastronomic Sciences to sow the seeds for a viable career in good food. These palate-driven pilgrims study everything from Italian food production to food writing, complete with stages to explore slow food branches in different countries, independent research projects, and internships with local and multinational food businesses.
As a graduate student at UNISG, I was drawn to Macelleria Alimentari Al-Ahbabe in search of an ingredient to soothe my pangs for California: cilantro. After three months of polenta, pizza, and pasta, this San Franciscan craved anything that resembled a taco. I heard from second-year students of a magical place on the outskirts of town that sold hard-to-find ingredients such as fresh lamb, couscous, orange blossom water, and the essential topping for the pseudo Mexican meal I so desperately missed and pathetically tried to pull together. So, I hopped on my bici to uncharted parts of town, noticing how block by block, the dark complexion of these Bradiese residents increasingly matched my own.
Macelleria Alimentari Al-Ahbabe is located 1.4 kilometers west from the centro of Bra. Given the relatively small size of Bra, this distance is significant; the shop lacks the pedestrian traffic and visibility of the other butcher shops in town. For instance, a Google Maps search of “macelleria” in “Bra, Italia” yields ten butcher shops clustered near Via Vittorio Emanuele, the main thoroughfare. Al-Ahbabe is missing from these results, but can be found upon closer inspection in “street view” map imaging of Viale Industriale, although unmarked. When asked about the location of his macelleria, Abdul, the shop owner, said that he “liked the location” and that it was “quiet, had good parking, and good clientèle” who frequented the shop.
Over the course of my many ingredient quests, these aspects of Al-Ahbabe were certainly clear: the shop attracted and served mostly Muslims, and individuals and families of Arab and African descent. Every customer who arrived at Al-Ahbabe received a warm greeting from Abdul or Karim. Many men who came into the shop in the early evening had returned home from work, some with paint-splattered denim shorts and legs, others with t-shirts marred by grass and dirt stains, work boots caked with dirt from nearby fields. The younger men, emulating their Italian peers, wore polo shirts with popped collars, gold-rimmed sunglasses and flip flops.
All customers often purchased more than 1 kilo of meat and more than one type of meat product, which indicated that they were making purchases for their households. Updates about family members, recent hospital visits or travels were usually exchanged over the growl of the meat saw or the methodic thud of a sharpened cleaver. According to Abdul, “the shop is for everyone,” and it is important to “build trust and relationships” with the community. Or as Karim put it, “I don’t make money when someone comes once. I make money when people come here multiple times.”
The hospitality exhibited to visitors could be felt through a number of interactions. A bag of piccante olives offered up for free to one elderly gentlemen and finally accepted on the third try; a small plastic cup of bright green mint- flavored cold water given to a senior Karim referred to as “uncle”, as a welcome reprieve from the afternoon heat; and two sweating glass bottles of pink tropical fruit juice cocktail given to myself and my friend. Indeed, through various observed exchanges, conversations, and body language between owners and customers, it was apparent that a deep sense of community had been carefully and purposefully cultivated at Al-Ahbabe.
“Butchering is in my blood,” says Abdul as he artfully slices a whole chicken into pieces for a middle-aged man who hails from Somali. “I’ve always been a butcher, and I come from a family of butchers... it’s our trade.” Abdul, who is Moroccan by birth, was taught this time-honored skill by his father and grandparents. “Even my grandmother was a butcher,” he added, matter-of-factly. About 20 years ago, Abdul set his sights on another country known for its appreciation of a good, traditional macellaio: Italy. He arrived in Sicily in 1992 and eventually made his way north to Bra in 1997, looking for additional opportunities to strengthen his Italian butchering skills. Although Moroccan butchering includes various types of cuts, there are specific, cultural differences in Italian butchery. Abdul needed these new skills in order to have a viable career in a new country. He received his chance under the tutelage of Luigi Carlo Vallino, the owner of Vall.Carni, a large meat producer and slaughtering facility located in the town of Marene, in the Cuneo province. After several years at Vall.Carni working under Luigi and stashing more skills away in his ‘butchery toolbox’, Abdul decided to, in his words, do the “natural thing”: open his own butcher shop in Bra. Working with an existing network of friends and family, Abdul finally received his chance, selecting Viale Industriale 37 to open one of the few halal shops in Bra. He worked on setting up Al-Ahbabe for one full year, before finally opening its doors for business in 2005. Since then, three other halal shops have closed (Abdul joked that once he arrived on the scene, the other business owners became scared). Macelleria Alimentari Al- Ahbabe has successfully been in business for 12 years.
Once the meat arrives at Al-Ahbabe, Abdul and Karim butcher and prepare the cuts to their customers’ liking, such as slicing and marinating beef chunks in herbs and deep orange-colored spices, hammering out thin fillets of chicken breast and veal, and halving bull testicles and bloody slabs of liver. Abdul also sells meats that would be recognizable by Italians and immigrants. Popular cuts sold included ground veal, breaded beef cutlets, salsiccia normale (beef sausage), lamb shoulder and leg, osso buco, and whole chickens. The available selection also included beef liver, heart, kidney, testicles, stomach, tongue, and ox tails. The importance of the having access to halal meat was underscored by a frequent customer, Mutawakil, a young Ghanaian who lived above Al-Ahbabe for three years: “The shop is for everyone, even Christians can come here. However, they serve mainly Muslims. I am Muslim and I cannot go to other butcher shops in Bra, I must come here. So everyone can go anywhere and here, but we can only come here to get halal meat.”
Muslim perception of halal meat at Al-Ahbabe also takes on more subtle yet significant attributes. When asked about his personal definition of halal, Abdul answered “buona, qualita e gusto,” gesturing emphatically on the “flavorful” descriptor. Although Abdul only sources his meat products from a producer whom he trusts and is personally connected, it is clear that the act of slaughtering for halal consumption purposes engenders a higher degree of quality and taste for its consumers. Through a process of cultural and literal production, the meat butchered and sold at Al-Ahbabe moves from “Italian”, “industrialized” and “decent” spheres to “halal”, “higher quality” and more reminiscent of “home” for its’ owner and clientele. The correlation to the Slow Food motto of “good, clean and fair” is especially notable in this instance; whereas the ideals of Al-Ahbabe and halal could be tied to the food movement’s own promotion of high quality meat, slaughtered without suffering (a key aspect for Muslims in the killing animals for consumption) and sold by local, community-oriented producers. For reasons partially explained above, Abdul and his macelleria is out of the ‘Slow Food sphere’ in Bra, geographically and culturally; this disconnect (and seemingly obvious parallel) was not addressed by the Slow Food movement.
According to Roland Barthe in his article “Towards Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,” food can be conceptualized through widened notions of production and consumption, seen through the lens of a system of communication. This system of communication can take on the characteristics of institutions, where food acts as a signifier of multiple meanings.
In the case of Al- Ahbabe, Abdul’s butchered cuts of chicken, beef and lamb in the name of Allah signify ‘acceptability’ and ‘cleanliness’, as set by a strict set of Islamic dietary laws. Not only do these food products infer Muslim ideas of ‘halal’, but in an Italian context, the concept of halal communicates to “other” statuses, such as “immigrant,” “non-Christian” and an implicit rejection of a number of traditional Italian foods and dishes. For instance, Macelleria Al-Ahbabe does not carry one item that can be found in almost every Braidese butcher shop: salsiccia di Bra. This traditional Piemontese raw sausage is made with a mix of lean meats, veal, special spices and pork fat, making this haraam (or unacceptable) for local Muslims.
As seen through the strong presence of Slow Food in Bra, Italian residents take enormous pride in their local food products. Thus, the absence of salsiccia di Bra also infers a likely sense of “otherness” toward Al-Ahbabe and “non Italian-ness,” and further, a lack of Italian pedestrian traffic through the shop doors. On the other hand, keeping halal for Braidese Muslims infers a sense of individual pride and discipline as well an institutionalized and significant connection to a local and larger community, e.g. ties to back “home.” In this way, the concept of “halal” moves beyond a certain way of slaughtering an animal, but a complex systems of meanings, affirming connection to one institution (Islam), rejecting ties to another institution (pork-based Italian food culture), all the while signifying multiple statuses, interpersonal connections, beliefs and norms.
I received a sharp taste of this “us vs. them” dichotomy upon my visits to Italian butcher shops in the center of Bra. Piedmont is a region renowned for its meat and dairy, thanks to a lush, grassy terrain that provided ideal conditions for cattle, most notably the prized white cows or razza bovina Piemontese. As a UNISG student, our introduction to meat-buying in Bra revolved around supporting the local celebrity butchers, with generations-old shops located in the center of town. Weekly visits often proved frustrating and expensive, with short-tempered owners peering down at me from their meaty perches, neither pleased at our language barrier or my limited graduate student budget. And as the oft sole person of color in these shops, raised eyebrows and skeptical questions usually arose upon around my ethnic origins:
“Where are you from?”
“San Francisco. Estate Uniti.” (forced smile)
“No, where are you really from? Your people?
“Ma donna….” (sighs heavily)
While my student peers found these shopping trips “endearing” or “authentic,” I went mostly vegetarian at home until I came across Abdul at Macelleria Al-Ahbabe.
Although it had the trappings of a familiar Italian community institution (the butcher shop) the halal macelleria and alimentari “Al-Ahbabe” had been re-imagined and tailored to fit a specific group of people, figuratively and literally on the periphery of Slow Food and its global headquarters.
In exploring the inner-workings of a non-Italian food environment in Bra, Italy; I saw the ways in which the material and more intangible aspects of food culture were being produced, shaped and sold to the local immigrant population, but also the provision of a safe, culturally appropriate, and welcoming food space. More specifically, the cultural manufacturing of a “taste of home” and the subsequent significance (and need) of carving out physical, psychological and social foodscapes for minority groups on the periphery of existing hegemonic spaces.
The interplay between implicit/explicit exclusion necessitating segregation for survival, is familiar story long felt through the struggles of African and Arab immigrants in small Italian towns, to the “ghettoization” of my great-grandparents in Harlem, New York. If one were to strike a more hopeful note, the need of such cultural food spaces and the challenges of “other” and “outsider” status, has become increasingly vital given the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe. A July 2016 poll released by the Pew Research Center showed that in several European nations, unfavorable views of Muslims surged last year; in Italy alone, that number rose to 69%.
This discontent has real-world implications for the lives of folks like Abdul and his shoppers, from the debate about immigration Europe, policies that shape the response to the migrant crisis, to the rise of far-right political parties. Whenever, I hear news from Italian friends, I think of Al-Ahbabe and its patrons.
I know that every cut, every sale is small step towards Muslim survival and ultimately, resilience.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 5
Illustration by Molly Reeder