Archive for the ‘Immigrant Cuisine’ Tag

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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Luconi – ‘Becoming Italian in the US’   Leave a comment

Luconi, Stefano ‘Becoming Italian in the US: Through the Lens of Life Narratives’, Melus 29 (2004), 152-164. Useful overview of how it was that immigrants to the United States from a non-existent or barely existing country became Italo-Americans as opposed to, say, Lombard-Americans. Answers include ‘being called a wop’, ‘admiring Mussolini’ and, of course, food – ‘[even her mother] found her way back to her heritage… starting in her kitchen’. SY

Nash – ‘From Spaghetti to Sushi’   Leave a comment

Nash, Alan ‘‘From Spaghetti to Sushi’: An Investigation of the Growth of Ethnic Restaurants in Montreal, 1951-2001’ , Food, Culture and Society 12 (2009), 5-24. How do you measure the presence of ethnic restaurants in an important cosmopolitan centre? Why turn to the yellow pages, of course! The author, in any case, employs – after requisite methodological hand-wringing – the old telephone directories of Montreal to measure ethnic cuisine in 1951, 1971 and 2001. It is a fascinating exercise and one that nicely traces the rise of Italian cuisine in North America in the post-war period.   SY

Posted November 17, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: The Roseto Effect and Italian Food   Leave a comment

Today a minority opinion on health and diet in relation to some little known studies of an immigrant Italian community in the United States that may inform how we look at and understand immigrant food and the Mediterranean Diet.

The place: the borough of Roseto in Pennsylvania – named for Roseto Valforte in Apulia – with an overwhelmingly Italo-American population. The time: the 1960s through to the 1980s. A team of scholars under the direction of Stewart Wolf began to look at Roseto’s mortality rates. What they found was fascinating. From 1935-1965 Roseto had had strikingly lower number of myocardial infarctions, i.e. heart attacks, than the neighbouring towns of Bangor and Nazareth despite them sharing the same health infrastructure and the same water system. However, from 1965 onwards the numbers of heart attacks in Roseto climbed to meet the numbers of heart attacks found in the previously-mentioned neighbouring communities.

Roseto had an overwhelmingly Italian population, but Wolf and his colleagues did not, interestingly, explain the difference with reference to food. Roseto they claimed was unusual: ‘Unlike inhabitants of most American towns, Rosetans were found to be cohesive and mutually supportive, with strong family and community ties. The men in Roseto appeared to be the unchallenged heads of their households. The elderly were revered and, unlike most oldsters in America, they retained their influence on family affairs. Problems were customarily solved in family conclaves where each person took responsibility and often made some sacrifice. Less intimate, but nevertheless very close, were ties to neighbours and others in the local community. There was great civic pride. Roseto held an enviable record of always ‘going over the top’ in community drives and in providing prompt financial assistance to flood-torn or other disaster areas around the world, especially in Italy. The overall atmosphere of the town was one of mutual support and understanding, and unfailing sustenance in time of trouble.’ (Wolf et al, ‘Roseto Revisited’, 100-101)

And the change? The scholars studying Roseto believe that it was the collapse of this spirit in the early 1960s. ‘The earlier beliefs and behaviour that expressed themselves in Roseto’s family-centred social life, absence of ostentation even among the wealthy, nearly exclusive patronage of local business, and a predominance of intra-ethnic marriages gradually changed toward the more familiar behaviour pattern of neighbouring communities. Roseto was shifting from its initially highly homogenous social order – made up of three-generation households with strong commitments to religion and to traditional values and practices – to a less cohesive, materialistic, more ‘Americanized’ community in which three-generation households were uncommon and inter-ethnic marriages became the norm.’ (Egolf et al, ‘The Roseto Effect’, 1090-91) The result: a rise in heart attacks including among the young.

Of course, it would be possible to begin to attack this model: so many of these points are difficult to measure empirically, some have claimed (unreasonably) that the statistical base was too small. However, the Roseto Effect might be a useful corrective or warning, let’s say, for those who wish to explain life expectancy on the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. How long you live and how you die depends on so much more than just what you put in your mouth… SY

B. Egolf, J. Lasker, S. Wolf, and L. Potvin, ‘The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates’, American Journal of Public Health 82 (1992), 1089-1092 – read here in pdf

S. Wolf, K. L. Grace, J. Bruhn, and C. Stout ‘Roseto revisited: further data on the incidence of myocardial infarction in Roseto and neighboring Pennsylvania communities’, Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 85 (1974) 100-108 – read here in pdf

Gabaccia — We Are What We Eat   Leave a comment

We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Donna R. Gabaccia) – Eschewing the convenient “melting pot” metaphor, Gabaccia chronicles the evolution of American cuisine that despite culinary conservatism from both sides – the “natives”, themselves relatively recent arrivals, and the newest immigrants—was marked by a tendency towards innovation. American food is, as Gabbaccia carefully shows, not simply a sum of national (mostly European) cuisines, but rather a kaleidoscope of dishes that were half-American and half-European. The parts of the book that deal with Italian immigrants underlines this thesis: the reader understands spaghetti with meatballs as a construction of immigrants who only rarely ate pasta and almost never ate meat, the meatballs a symbol of having “made it” in the New World. ZN

Posted October 3, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Gvion ‘What’s Cooking in America’   Leave a comment

Gvion, Liora ‘What’s Cooking in America? Cookbooks Narrate Ethnicity’, Food, Culture and Society, 12 (2009), 53-76 : ‘This paper rests on an analysis of 1,309 cookbooks, published in the United States from 1850 though 1990.’ Exploration of American identity with – naturally given the importance of Italian immigration to the ‘Short America’ – high Italian content. SY

Posted September 9, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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