Snapshots from the field



I am grinning at the camera but my body is awkward in my big winter coat. I look out of place and foreign. I am much taller than Luigi and Rosella. There is something generally uncomfortable about the photo. Despite its forced nature, I cherish this image. It is one of the few photos I have of myself in the field.

The photographer is a prominent Czech anthropologist who came to speak at my department at the Università degli Studi di Torino. Paolo, my dissertation advisor, suggested that I take Peter to Porta Palazzo, my field. This honor fell to me because I was one of the few doctoral students doing research in the city.

Taking an outsider into the field is always a bit of a sticky situation for an anthropologist. I had spent months building my rapport with the various vendors, clients, barmen, and illegal immigrants with whom I was working. I was trying to gain an insider’s view of the market. What would they think of me bringing a foreigner into our world? Would it break the trust I had worked so hard to develop?

Bundled up in winter coats and scarves, Peter and I walked down via Milano toward the Porta Palazzo market. We chatted about anthropology and the challenges of doing fieldwork. I was trying hard to relax but I felt nervous talking to such an important scholar. What would he think of my ideas, my research? I felt even tenser when I pondered what people at the market would think of my new role as tour guide.

When we reached the market square, Peter raised his camera (like a good anthropologist) and snapped a shot of the market. He continued to take photos all throughout our visit. I tried not to pay this photographic shooting spree any attention. I say this because I have always been very sensitive about taking photos of people I did not know well. Not all anthropologists feel this way: to them documentation is more important than anything else.

One of our first stops was at a candy stand where I had been working for several months. We stopped and I said hello to Luigi and Rosella, a son and mother team, and I introduced them to Peter. I explained that he was visiting from Germany, where he was a professor of anthropology. It had been hard to get to know Luigi and Rosella very well. They were very Piedmontese about their relationships. Some people say that the Piedmontese “Sono falsi e cortesi” (Are false and courteous). I saw this guarded attitude more as a cautious distance to newcomers—it just took time to get to know people. It had taken me hours of sweat and hard work at this stand to get to know these two people. I really hoped I was not undoing it all at this very moment.

Peter asked me if he could take a photo of me with Luigi and Rosella. They ushered me behind the stand, and we crowded together in the space between the table and their car. In this photo we are grinning like tourists for the camera.

Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of An Italian Market

My book on the Porta Palazzo market will be out in April. You can order it on the University of Pennsylvania Press site.

Porta Palazzo

The Anthropology of an Italian Market

Rachel E. Black. Foreword by Carlo Petrini

240 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 illus.
Cloth Apr 2012 | ISBN 978-0-8122-4406-9 | $49.95s | £32.50 | Add to cart
A volume in the Contemporary Ethnography series

Porta Palazzo, arguably Western Europe’s largest open-air market, is a central economic, social, and cultural hub for Italians and migrants in the city of Turin. Open-air markets like Porta Palazzo have existed for centuries in Europe; although their function has changed over time—traditional markets are no longer the primary place to buy food—they remain popular destinations. In an age of supermarkets and online commerce, markets offer unique social and cultural opportunities and bring together urban and rural worldviews. These factors are often overlooked in traditional economic studies of food distribution, but anthropologist Rachel E. Black contends that social relations are essential for building and maintaining valuable links between production and consumption.

From the history of Porta Palazzo to the current growing pains of the market, this book concentrates on points where trade meets cultural identities and cuisine. Its detailed and perceptive portraits of the market bring into relief the lives of the vendors, shoppers, and passersby. Black’s ethnography illuminates the daily work of market-going and the anxieties of shoppers as they navigate the market. It examines migration, the link between cuisine and cultural identity, culinary tourism, the connection between the farmers’ market and the production of local food, and the urban planning issues negotiated by the city of Turin and market users during a recent renovation. This vibrant study, featuring a foreword by Slow Food Movement founder Carlo Petrini, makes a strong case for why markets like Porta Palazzo are critical for fostering culinary culture and social life in cities.