Diner — Hungering For America   Leave a comment

Nature abhors a vacuum, and pop culture loves a good story. As an explanation for the pasta&pizza-dominated Italian-American cuisine, pop food historians have hypothesized a link between it and the waves of southern Italians who left Italy after unification. The thesis is that these peasants brought with them their culinary traditions—pizza, spaghetti, and dishes made from game (Chicken Cacciatore)—which then became the basis, albeit today somewhat corrupted, of Italian-American food.

Hasia Diner, in her book Hungering For America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, dedicates two chapters to the foodways of Italians both before and after they left for America. These chapters demolish the hypothesis that Italian-American food was simply typical dishes of these peasants, carried across the Atlantic like so much baggage. As Diner shows, Italian peasants had a miserable diet based on dark bread made from inferior grains, vegetables, and a diet extremely poor in meat and fats. The “Inchiesta Jacini,” a parlamentary inquest of the late 1880s, found that in the province of Umbria the average peasant ate 30g (about a tablespoon) of fat a day, and meat twice a year.

The second of the two chapters that deals with Italian immigrants in the United States details the processes that contributed to this creation of this new cuisine. The cuisine that the Italians created in the United States was a combination of what they had seen nobles eat (indeed, what they had labored to produce for the middle and upper class) and the relative food abundance in the United States. Spaghetti with meatballs, that most Italian-American of all dishes, is the pasta of middle class Italians combined with the meat that former peasants could finally afford. (Harvard University Press, 2003)  ZN

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Posted December 17, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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