Those of us not named Chevy Chase but fortunate enough to enjoy a European vacation could do worse than book a visit to the city of Turin. Located in the heart of northern Italy’s Piedmont region, which nestles up against the Alps just south of Switzerland and east of France, the city of more than 2.2 million people has a rich cultural and political history, including serving as Italy’s first capital in the 1860s.

The Lonely Planet travel guide says Turin offers tourists “a whiff of Paris in its elegant, tree-lined boulevards, and echoes of Vienna with its stately art nouveau cafes.” The guide also credits the “innovative Torinese” (“Toh-ren-ay-zay”) with creating “the first saleable hard chocolate” — whatever that means — and with perpetuating one of the world’s enduring mysteries: the Shroud of Turin, supposedly the burial cloth of Jesus that miraculously captured an image of his face.

These days, Turin is the headquarters of global automaker Fiat and one of Italy’s most important business, commercial and industrial centers. Although located some miles from many of the actual venues, the city was official site of the now largely forgotten Games of the XX Winter Olympiad, aka, “Torino 2006.”

The Piedmont region is an incredibly scenic landscape of fertile farms, rolling hills and snow-capped peaks — to quote from more than one tourist guide — and a renowned winemaking region famous for its Castelmagno cheese, made from the milk of grassfed Piedmontese cows, and a special prosciutto (“Filetto Baciato”) made from cured pork fillets marinated in white wine, coated with a paste of locally cured salami and aged for up to six months in traditional, air-cooled stalls.

Those gourmet foods are germane to this story because Turin is now infamous for a much different culinary distinction: the new mayor’s plans to turn the town into the Italy’s “first vegetarian city.”

Although a report on the proposed initiative published by the UK newspaper The Guardian described in detail the experience of shopping the salami and prosciutto stalls in the Porta Palazzo, Turin’s open-air market, Mayor Chiara Appendino was quoted as saying, “The promotion of vegan and vegetarian diets is a fundamental act in safeguarding our environment, the health of our citizens and the welfare of our animals.”

She said it in Italian, but even in translation, the meaning’s pretty clear.

Creating Controversy
The details of Appendino’s five-year plan have yet to be fully explained, but some of the objectives include teaching schoolchildren about animal welfare and vegetarian nutrition, creating a “vegetarian map” of the city for tourists, and implementing a weekly meat-free day.

As one might imagine, the plans have generated serious controversy. Environmentalists and veggie activists have embraced the plans, but local citizens, tourist industry officials and culinary authorities have argued that Mayor Appendino, a member of the populist Five Star Movement, is denigrating the region’s culinary traditions.

According to The Guardian, the local butchers’ association responded “by telling the mayor’s office it is privileging one form of nutrition over another upon which they are economically dependent.”

In a clever quid pro quo, the association demanded that if Turin institutes a meat-free day, their members want a “meat-only day,” as well.

The story noted that Stefania Giannuzzi, deputy mayor and councillor for the environment, believes there has been a misunderstanding caused by the media (isn’t that what they all say?) about what the mayor is trying to achieve.

“It isn’t about forcing people to eat a certain way, and we don’t want to clash with the meat industry,” Giannuzzi told the newspaper. “Instead, it’s about raising awareness . . . the vegan choice is only part of the plan to make our city more sustainable and promote environmental issues.”

I guess I can accept that reasoning. It’s comparable to a mayor declaring that his or her city is going to become a “green energy city,” including subsidizing the installation of rooftop solar panels, urging the local utility to invest in hydropower and maybe funding construction of a wind farm on the outskirts of town.

All those projects would be worthwhile, but could hardly be positioned as replacements for conventional energy sources, such as electricity and natural gas.

Likewise, veganism isn’t replacing Italy’s traditional food choices. According to the research institute Euripses, only about 1% of the Italian population is currently considered to be vegan. Although Turin now has more than 30 vegetarian restaurants, according to the Italian news source Corriere Della Sera, that’s not exactly overkill for a metro area of more than two million people.

Giuseppe Lentile, 32, owner of Manzò, a local steakhouse, told The Guardian he’s convinced Turin will never go full veggie.

“Meat is especially important for the tradition of the area, and Piedmont is known for meat,” he said. “I am not worried about the popularity of the vegan diet; it’s just fashionable at the moment, and the mayor wants to win the vote.”

Although Appendino seems sincere in pursuing her initiative, it wouldn’t be the first time a politician took a stance that polled favorably.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.