Labelling authenticity, or, how I almost got arrested in an Italian supermarket
This paper analyzes the labeling and signage of heritage food in northern Italy, which prioritizes signs of authenticity and tradition as semiotic but also political economic processes. For the small- and medium-sized producers with whom I do linguistic anthropological and ethnographic research, signaling the small-scale, hands-on, artisanal, and traditional nature of their production is as essential to giving their goods value as high quality foods as are any of the material qualities of the foods themselves. Simultaneously, the circulatory possibilities of late capitalism and representational regimes such as intellectual property shape the economic value of authenticity. This renders signs of manuality, time (i.e., tradition), and place (i.e., locality) available as well to larger-scale producers whose food-making strategies may be highly mechanized and industrial in nature, but who can afford to disseminate, profit from, and protect these signs in their own packaging and labeling. In considering signage and labels in this light, this paper attempts to illuminate a paradox: that those who produce ‘authentic’ heritage food may be the least-well positioned to profit from them within late capitalist food systems.