The Roman ruins and Renaissance cathedrals are getting some competition for tourist dollars this year from something decidedly contemporary: Milan’s Expo 2015, this year’s international exposition.
Having opened in May to great fanfare – as well as charges of incompetence and indictments for corruption in its construction – Expo 2015 features acre after acre of spectacular national pavilions that focus on this year’s theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”
Food production is an issue of growing importance worldwide, even in places where it was rarely considered in the past: Californians facing a water crisis are experiencing it firsthand.
The implications of how food is raised and how that impacts the environment – from the treatment of animals to the decline of honeybee colonies to the amount of water it takes to grow a single almond – are becoming clearer. Issues of sustainability, of pesticide use, and of how food affects every individual’s health, as well as the health of communities, are a subject of increasing concern.
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So the decision to focus on this theme at Expo 2015 is timely, and not just in food-conscious Italy. It also has revealed some glaring disconnects: as the Expo’s website promises, “Expo Milano 2015 will provide an opportunity to reflect upon, and seek solutions to, the contradictions of our world.” This costly exposition – estimates range as high as $15 billion while Italy experiences a significant economic downturn – strikes visitors with its inherent contradictions, some of the Expo’s own making.
Two evenings spent wandering the sprawling grounds north of Milan’s center city yielded striking views, awkward insights and even a few good plates of food. It was, at some points, as educational as it aspired to be.
Given that the event is being held in Milan, home of the “slow food” movement, the preponderance of fast food outlets at Expo 2015 – an enormous McDonald’s being the most controversial manifestation – the public outcry in Italy was as understandable as it was predictable.
“We don’t feel that this is a good event,” said Milan bar owner Matteo Buonaiuti, speaking for some of his Milan foodie friends. “The Italian food is not good, the American pavilion is ridiculous, and there is so much waste. It’s a farce.”
Buonaiuti’s comments may sound harsh, but subsequent visits tended to confirm his statement, though there were some highlights that worked well with the Expo’s theme.
The enormous national pavilions – many built out of natural materials – are the Expo’s main draw. Lining a wide, long promenade with advanced architecture and displays of national pride and culture – the band and dancers at the Angola pavilion were tearing it up one June evening – the pavilions were almost dauntingly grand. Daunting because it is impossible to visit all of them, and to really explore even the pavilions one does get to visit.
Nevertheless, several stand out: Israel’s pavilion includes a spectacular “vertical field,” 9,000 square feet planted with corn, rice and other key crops. The exhibit aims to illustrate the importance of one of Israel’s and California’s – and for that matter, Iran’s – most pressing concerns: water.
Iran’s elegant pavilion, with LED walkways and delicate herbs growing in beds, lend dimension to a country often seen in very simple terms, as other pavilions go for a high-tech sheen. The most impressive was in the South Korean pavilion, with its black-and-white, automated educational displays, one of which features two robotic video screens that move in tandem, exploring how food is processed and absorbed by the human body.
By contrast, foodies are finding Expo 2015 to be a mixed bag. There are small pizza ovens on tiny trucks, much bratwurst and more than you might want to know about the creative uses of Italy’s Nutella. But much of the food would be familiar to visitors to much more prosaic exhibitions: This is classic State Fair food, rich and greasy.
The U.S. pavilion provides the clearest example. Branded American Food 2.0 for no obvious reason, the pavilion showcases America’s agricultural abundance, and does so with considerable corporate presence – which is certainly representative of the American mainstream.
But that focus doesn’t carry through to the food service area out back. Under the rubric “Food Truck Nation,” the food court focuses on America’s latest food trend. But festooned in relentless red, white and blue, the food court reduces American cuisine to an almost cartoonish simplicity: it’s all hamburgers, ribs and sugary drinks and desserts, with some lobster rolls to spice things up. The Korean tacos, empanadas, hand-made ice cream and other unusual foods that have made this trend uniquely American were absent.
That said, those food trucks also had some of the longest lines at the Expo.
The pavilion of Thailand – a country with one of the world’s most beloved, freshest cuisines – allowed visitors to choose a packaged Thai meal, take the package to a counter and watch an Italian employee discard the packaging and place the plastic tray into a wall of microwaves. So much for freshness, not to mention environmental stewardship – or taste.
“That’s just really so contrary to the whole idea, isn’t it?” asked Vanessa Robertiello, a young German woman in Milan to study Italian.
But others made do with the limitations and went full-out to impress – with their nation’s best food. Tiny Uruguay’s exhibit is largely devoted to its elegant restaurant, which serves beef flown in from South America, along with the country’s wines.
Chef Rodrigo Fernandez, taking time out from managing his busy restaurant, explained his country’s role in beef production, and how it manages to be competitive in a hemisphere dominated by cattle-producing giants like Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Being thoughtful about food production has been forced on some countries much earlier than others.
“We are a very small country, and 85 percent of our land in Uruguay is devoted to raising cattle,” he explained. “So we have to do it right to be competitive. For instance, we outlawed the use of antibiotics in our cattle in 1967.”
But it is the Swiss who deliver an exhibit that is most in keeping with the Expo 2015 theme of food security and scarcity: A group of towers have been stocked with four staples – salt, water, coffee and some very Swiss dried apple rings – and visitors are allowed to take as much of each as they like.
But as in real world food distribution, there is a catch: Those who take more than they need will reduce the stocks, meaning that those who come after them will get nothing.
The windows of the towers, showing the dwindling quantities of each staple (with marks on the outside for all to see), is a clever, provocative visual representation of scarcity and social responsibility that reaches to the very core of the issues with which Expo 2015 purports to address.
That pavilion alone may illuminate the concept of scarcity in visitor’s minds in a way that even the most earnest exhortations – or juiciest hamburgers –could never match.
David Watts Barton is a freelance writer (davidwattsbarton.com).