Food and Italian American Identity

What a luxury to sleep late and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before our morning lecture at 10 am. Our speaker was Dr. Simone Cinotto, a professor of history at the Università. The title of his talk was “The Diasporic Cuisine: Food and Italian American Identity.”  He began his talk by mentioning popular culture movies and television (naming some examples referring to them tongue-in-cheek as “master works”) that describe the Italian experience in the United States.  Referring to New York as the “capital” of Italy in the US, he told us that from 1890 through 1924 three million Italians emigrated to the US, passing through Ellis Island.  The number of immigrants sharply declined in 1924 when the US Congress passed a law intended to curtail emigration from Italy and other areas of southern Europe as well as Jews from Eastern Europe.

Our story begins at Ellis Island in 1906. Dr. Cinotto showed us a photo (shown below) taken by Lewis Hine that depicts an Italian family searching for their lost luggage. The anxiety on their faces as they cling to each other, strangers in a strange land, seems to sum up the “culture shock” experienced by the Italian immigrants.  Although dressed in the best clothing they own, their attire, particularly that of the wife, is of the “old world”. The older son carries his belongings in a sack rather than a suitcase. Other aspects of their dress identify the family as a rural family.  Their skin is dark, due to sun exposure from long hours of field work, highlighting their ethnicity and their “different-ness”. The father is absent from the picture, having arrived in the country ahead of his wife and children.  Italian men emigrated to the US with the idea that they would find work and send money back to their families in Italy; their emigration was therefore intended to be temporary. Italian men worked in the construction trades in New York in groups headed by patrones. They lived together in communities, in boarding houses, of all men. The women who ran the boarding house provided the men with food. The “ temporary” emigration of course became permanent as the immigrants took advantage of employment opportunities available to them (and to the women and children, who eventually emigrated to join their husbands). These economic opportunities allowed families to pool their monetary resources and enjoy a higher standard of living than they had experienced in their home country.

At the time of the mass migration, Italians ate very differently than we would imagine, and much of what we now know about the Italian diet at that time comes from an Italian government survey taken in the late 19th century.  The Italian diet was diverse, differing by region, economic circumstance, and the size of the city or town.  Each town had its own food identity; for example, Neapolitans were mangiomaccheroni (pasta eaters). The poor and middle class ate mostly cereals.  Vegetables, soup and bread were common with bread being a staple food.  There was a “social hierarchy of bread” in which the wealthy ate wheat bread while the peasants ate bread made from oats, corn, barley or chestnut flour, with cornmeal and chestnuts eaten more commonly in the north.  Meat was not commonly eaten; in fact the estimated consumption of meat was only 3 kilograms of meat per person per year and tended to be salami and other types of meats that could be easily preserved. Stockfish (dried cod, anchovies) and cheese are also easily preserved.  Everything that needed to be purchased (coffee, sugar, dried pasta, canned tomatoes) was hard to come by.

When Italians arrived in America, they found a much different food landscape than the one they left behind.  The development of canning, refrigeration and advances in the meat packing business resulted in food that could be purchased in the marketplace at  easily affordable prices. Even working class people could afford to purchase items like coffee and sugar, dried pasta and canned goods. The result is that the immigrants essentially invented a new cuisine, using the accessible ingredients in their new homeland, that never existed in Italy.  What we think of now as “Italian food” was the result of the creative immigrant cooks combining their own regional traditions with these new ingredients provided by the American food industry that this emerging middle class could not consume back in Italy because the ingredients were either not available or were too expensive.

 Food was so important to the Italian-American community. As peasants in Italy, they could not eat well. But in America, they were able to have a table with food to offer to family as well as guests. They were able to eat every day the way they had on only special occasions back home.  The immigrant cooks took advantage of this new bounty to substitute richer ingredients in traditional recipes. An example is the substitution of vegetables for meat (the conversion of eggplant parmesan to chicken parmesan comes to mind as an example).  Americans would likely not recognize the original Italian lasagna, nor would native Italians recognize the American spaghetti and meatball dish.

By 1930 more than 1 million immigrants from Italy lived in New York City (he also gave a nod to the large Italian immigrant population living in Rhode Island, much to my delight).  In New York alone, this meant that 1 in 6 residents were either 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. These numbers were not lost on the business community who capitalized on the huge market for Italian food.  Immigrants were creative inventors of their own lifestyle. In the 1920s, newly arrived immigrants created vibrant Italian neighborhoods out of unattractive city dwellings.  Their newly invented cuisine was the centerpiece of the places invented by immigrants that are now known as “Little Italy” in most cities (but not Providence; there you will look for Federal Hill). Italian festivals were held in which the Italians claimed the city streets for themselves.

In their new home, the immigrants invented a new cuisine and created an Italy that they kept alive through food.  The food was important in establishing relationships with others in New York, who dined in restaurants established by the immigrants. An added bonus was that these enclave businesses, vendors, restaurants, and winemakers had the effect of unifying the regional immigrants themselves under a single “Italian” identity.

Thanks to Dr. Cinotto for a stimulating talk and for leading the lively discussion that followed. And speaking of food, isn’t it time for lunch? 



One comment

  1. […] seminar on Italian food culture that she attended earlier this month in Italy—the URL is )  Our first night on the road was at The Mount Inn (the only restaurant in Stanton—our host […]

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