When Racism Poisons Italy's Culinary Scene
This is the case of chef Mareme Cisse, a black woman, who was called a slur after a couple found out that she was the one who would be preparing their meal.
TURIN — Guess who's not coming to dinner. It seems like a scene from the American Deep South during the decades of segregation. But this happened in Italy, in this summer of 2023.
Two Italians, in their sixties, got up from the restaurant table and left (without saying goodbye, as the owner points out), when they declared that they didn't want to eat in a restaurant where the chef was what they called: an 'n-word.'
Racists, poor things. And ignorant, in the sense of not knowing basic facts. They don't realize that we are all made of mixtures, come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And that food, of course, are blends of different ingredients and recipes.
The restaurant is called Ginger People&Food, and these visitors from out of town probably didn't understand that either.
They don't know that ginger is an ancient spice, and that all cuisine is the result of crossings and blends, a combination that forms with culture. They didn't know that behind the stoves of the well-known establishment, managed by the social cooperative Al Karhub, chef Mareme Cisse, originally from Senegal, arrived in Sicily in 2012 to join her husband and decided to stay. They also don't know she has become a well-known figure, having won multiple culinary competitions, and renowned for her couscous dishes.
An open letter
We learn of this stunning incident from the Facebook page of the restaurant's owner, Carmelo Roccaro, who wrote a "Letter to a Stranger." It begins like this:
"You entered in a hurry, with your partner, salt-and-pepper hair, cut very short. You were greeted with a smile by our Karima, the dining room attendant, a young second-generation woman, a hard worker, who seated you where you wanted to sit."
Then the owner explains the sequence of events: "Karima looked at me with wide open eyes, saying: 'After looking at the menu, the lady asked me if the restaurant owner was by any chance (an n-word). Then she stood up, saying that she didn't want to dine here anymore...' I went outside and followed you as you got back into your car and drove away, avoiding looking at me, while forcing your partner into an improbable U-turn. I don't know who you are, your story, your problems, and I don't dare judge you. All I know is that I felt great sadness in my heart. Last night, I realized how deep and ingrained this feeling is, emerging from within people's dark side."
Senegalese tradition blends with Sicilian specialties.
Roccaro couldn't have chosen better words: Sadness in the heart. How dark must a person's perspective be to not want to eat food cooked by someone with a different skin color?
Does difference scare us? We are accustomed to being served by people of color, accepting them when they wash dishes, clean floors and streets, collect garbage and pick tomatoes – when they are essentially invisible. Only in that context (let's call it the "service mode") has our imagination metabolized them, and they cause no discomfort.
But racism is a creeping beast, often unconscious and unaware.
Mareme Cisse preparing food
Mareme Cisse herself
But this story, like all stories, has a bright side that counters the darkness and sadness of racism. It's in the photos of Mareme Cisse, beautiful, with magnetic eyes, smiling in front of her spices and vegetables. Her awards speak for themselves: in 2017 for the most original recipe at the Couscous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo. The following year, the Bezzo Prize, for environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable restaurant practices. In 2019, the World Couscous Championship in San Vito Lo Capo, a global competition where she represented Senegal with the Falilou Couscous, named after her son. In 2020, she also won Cuochi d'Italia on TV8, outperforming chefs from all around the world.
There is light in her dishes, where Senegalese tradition blends with Sicilian specialties, a mix of cultures and flavors. There is light when she talks about holding cooking classes and being involved with the Al Kharub cooperative to help find employment for women, young people, refugees, and individuals in vulnerable conditions.
Let's say it in Mareme Cisse's own words, which overcome any sadness in the heart: "The spirit that drives my work is the awareness of the need to build a multicultural, colorful, and open society for the future."
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