For Homophobia-Free Pasta, Buy American

With the Barilla scion having offended gays, try the domestic brands. 

You’ve seen Barilla pasta, in the big blue box. The company that makes it is the world’s largest pasta maker, one of the world’s largest food manufacturers, and in many ways forward-thinking: It’s been a leading corporate citizen of Parma, capital of Emilia-Romagna, the prosciutto- and Parmigiano-Reggiano-producing powerhouse of northern Italy. It started its own culinary academy, and helped at the founding of Slow Food’s internationally accredited University of Gastronomic Sciences (where, disclosure, I teach). Over the years I’ve met various members of the family. They struck me as typical cosmopolitan Italian industrial aristocrats: good-looking, multilingual, at ease in any situation. They certainly never struck me as the kind who would be eager to market a new shape called Bigotoni.

But that’s what they’re being accused of wanting to do in the wake of a very public, and very unfortunate, remark that the current scion in charge, Guido Barilla, made on an Italian radio program on Wednesday:

“Non faremo pubblicità con omosessuali, perché a noi piace la famiglia tradizionale. Se i gay non sono d’accordo, possono sempre mangiare la pasta di un’altra marca. Tutti sono liberi di fare ciò che vogliono purché non infastidiscano gli altri”.

This was reckless on several counts. Here’s my translation:

“We won’t do ads with homosexuals, because we like the traditional family. If gays don’t agree, they can always eat pasta from another brand. Everyone’s free to do what they want, as long as it doesn’t annoy anybody else.”

First, Barilla used the retrograde “homosexual,” right-wing speak for “deviant,” saving “gays” for his backhanded let-’em-spend-their-money-someplace-else dismissal. Second, the comment flies in the face of the mostly liberal majority of the educated north -- though, as the recent protests over France’s legalization of gay marriage showed, Northern Europe, at least the Catholic part, can’t be counted on to be uniformly liberal. And, of course, Italy still doesn’t have gay marriage; numerous attempts to introduce it have been quashed.

Barilla’s sentiments instead played into the strong secessionist right-wing party, the Northern League, that has been a longtime frenemy of Silvio Berlusconi and that wants to form its own country with the operetta-ish name of Padania.

The immediate uproar, with calls for boycotts (a leading hashtag on Italian Twitter was #BoicottaBarilla), caused Barilla to issue a series of non-apology apologies, in which he said he was sorry if people didn’t like his views, and people can live the way they want to live, but they shouldn’t impose their life-style on innocent children they might adopt (the “others” a gay lifestyle might irritate). None of these seemed likely to win back offended customers. (The Atlantic Wire had its own rescue plan: find a photogenic gay family to show on commercials, subito.) At the least, this was a sign of the hazards of letting the powerful, rich head of a family-owned company go unimpeded by stockholders and unmuzzled by minders. It seemed apt that the network on which Barilla made his remarks is called La Zanzara, or "The Mosquito."

So assuming you too want to Boicotta Barilla, what brand to buy? The obvious, and most widely available, alternative is De Cecco, in the big turquoise box. Its rival, Delverde, in a green box (natch, given the name), is marginally better; both use similar flours and the same water, secret of many pastas, from the same river in Fara San Martino, in the region of Abruzzo, on the Adriatic above Rome. These are the go-to industrial pastas that many, many chefs in both Italy and the U.S. use without apology. They’re reliable and nothing to apologize for, even if De Cecco is the world’s third largest pasta maker. The question, of course, is whether the families at the head of the companies are willing to take the gay-family litmus test.

Better choices are the artisan products, also in the hands of families: first, the impeccably liberal and extremely cultivated Cavalieri family of the far, far southeast of Italy, Puglia -- long the country’s bread-basket, and still home of the best hard wheat for pasta. The Cavalieris decades ago revived the company’s original bronze dies to assure a sauce-grabbing rough texture; recently they introduced an organic line, rare among Italian pasta-makers. Cavalieri and Martelli, from Tuscany and in a sunny yellow package with a label as if handwritten by a neat child, are my own go-to Italian brands, and I stock up on whichever shapes I find when I find them (they’re pretty widely available, including from Williams-Sonoma and Dean and Deluca).

Or you can join the trend toward the Neapolitan town of Gragnano, recently the site of an intense competition for who can make the more artisanal-looking traditional pasta. The most visible is Pasta di Gragnano, presumably because it’s owned by Oscar Farinetti, the marketing champion behind the Eataly emporiums, the one in New York City owned with Mario Batali and Bastianich mother and son, Lidia and Joe.

Still, when foreigners start insulting the values you hold dear, you can always pull up the drawbridge! Xenophobia and taking a stand against bigotry give you the perfect excuse to start exploring a recent crop of U.S.-made pastas using domestic wheat, much of it from older varieties. Heritage wheat is the amber wave of the future. It’s not only a surprising reminder of places that wheat flourished and made regions you’d never think self-sufficient, such as northern New England. Older, pre-hybridization varieties may be less challenging to the gluten intolerant -- as Sara Deseran wrote this summer in San Francisco Magazine and Bonnie Tsui wrote last year in Pacific Standard -- and we’ll learn much more about their promise in an upcoming book from the journalist and champion bread-baker Sam Fromartz.

The trend first took hold in -- where else -- the San Francisco Bay Area, where Bob Klein, co-owner of the exemplary restaurant Oliveto, started the Community Grains brand, not just to help a moribund sector of the agricultural economy but to make packaged pasta that could compete with imported. It’s tricky: hard to cook and keep al dente, but with a nutty, wheaty flavor and appealing shapes (through bronze dies, of course) and well worth trying. More recognizably Italian, but harder to come by, are Baia pastas, also based in Oakland and the creation of Renato Sardo, a literal child of Slow Food (his father, Piero, is an international expert on cheese and one of the movement’s founders). Baia holds al-dente cooking better, but is available in fewer shapes and with fewer kinds of flour.

And if non-wheat-growing Oakland can become a hotbed of dried pasta, Brooklyn can’t be far behind. So now there’s Sfoglini, with fourteen kinds of (organic, of course) pasta and very slick packaging (Scott Ketchum, the founder with Steve Gonzalez, a chef, is a product designer). Of the several I tried, I found the labels superior to the pasta, but I’d certainly buy it again. You too can take your protectionist stand -- with the benefit of discovering new pastas you should have been buying already.

(Corby Kummer, a senior editor at the Atlantic, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter @ckummer.)