Sagra is the name given to an Italian community’s celebration of a culinary specialty or agricultural product. A variant of sacra (sacred), sagra can also refer to the festivities surrounding a church consecration, a patron saint feast, or a commemorative event of national or cultural importance. The definition of sagrato–the space in front of a church entry–would suggest that the sagra tradition has long been linked with religious festivals and pageants, events that with time have grown more popular and less religious in nature. Indeed, sagras seem to have shed any of their former cultural or religious associations to become purely gastronomy-focused. A sagra is about eating, pure and simple.
Eating well at a sagra used to be a given. Menus featured authentic dishes based on the sagra’s star ingredient, like porcini mushrooms, truffles, or chestnuts; or promoted a particular dish such as tortelli or polenta. Most importantly, the authenticity of sagra fare was taken for granted. The kitchens of sagra events are typically manned by local volunteers, and presumably the food is as close to the real cucina italiana as you can get outside Sunday lunch at nonna’s. A great meal, home-made and uncommonly cheap.
Too good to be true? Maybe not, taking into consideration one aspect of the sagra that renders it truly unique–the atmosphere. Forget about the elegant distractions of silverware and a well-groomed waiter. At a sagra you pay little–a wait a lot–for a plastic plate that wilts under heaps of hand-stuffed pasta. Sagras by necessity take place in large public spaces, such as recreation centers, school auditoriums, or temporary tent-halls. Factor in the pervasive chaos, the matronly server who somehow manages to make you feel responsible for the erratic service, and the provided ‘entertainment’ (think muzak on accordion), and you get a good idea of just how no-frills this particular eating experience is. But once your order number is finally, unceremoniously shouted up and down the rows of picnic tables and your paper placemat-covered cafeteria tray arrives, none of this matters. The food is all. And the cost-to-customer satisfaction ratio perfectly balanced.
Something is changing, however, in the world of the sagra. In the eight years I’ve been regularly frequenting them, it’s become more difficult–or less of a given, if you will–to walk away from a sagra wholly pleased with the experience. The atmosphere has changed little, would appear in fact to still account for much of the appeal of a sagra (where else can one let both dog and child run wild among the tables?). But in the after-dinner parking lot chats with friends, I hear fewer and fewer exclamations of ‘now that was amazing meal!’ or ‘the best tortelli I’ve had in ages!’ and more comments like ‘the tortelli were good, but the ragu…’ and ‘I loved the fried porcini, but the portion…and for eight euro!?’ You get the picture.
Italians are noticing the change. An article last September in La Repubblica Firenze pointed to the commercialization of this once homespun tradition, noting a marked increase in sagra profits. That sagras are more popular now than ever, popping up like weeds in summer throughout Tuscany, no doubt speaks to domestic belt-tightening in the wake of the economic crisis. A meal at a sagra is still dining out, after all, at a fraction of restaurant prices. But the popularization of the sagra is bringing about ‘fast food’ standards–increasingly generic menus, for instance–with quality and authenticity losing out to evermore banal and conformist tastes, to the mere act of eating. (Calabrese, Giuseppe, ‘Sagre, non c’è solo il business: Si punti anche sulla qualità.’ 2 September, 2010.)
Profits in the restaurant sector are simultaneously on the decline. It’s not surprising then that the success of the sagra has provoked criticism from that camp, including accusations of fiscal transgressions and lack of hygienic standards. Doubts as to the provenance and cultivation methods of certain products have been raised as well (the precious truffle, for instance). While it’s true that sagras are exempt from regulations to which restaurant owners are subject, it’s also true that they were never about making money, which might explain why until recently such infractions were overlooked. Imagine the tax man showing up at your community center’s annual pancake breakfast. That’s just plain mean, you’d think. But as the years pass you notice the pancakes are getting tougher, the coffee muddier, while prices keep going up (say a dollar a year per dish)…until one year you notice the cashier’s box literally overflowing! And once again you were not given a receipt upon payment. It’s a recipe for controversy, or in the least a hearty dose of resentment.
The higher cost/lower quality trend will surprise no one who’s lived in Florence a while, certainly not native Florentines. Time was though sagras represented a bucolic alternative to such inevitable city evils as greed and profit, beloved for their colorful, chaotic ambiance, their complete stripping away of non-essentials to privilege food and only food. What set them apart from restaurants was the key to their appeal and preservation, an at-once traditional and quirky quality, without which the sagra risks dissolving into the stale mainstream.