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“Everybody Likes Italian Food”
A restaurant critic who’s a food historian and the fortunate recipient of an Italian grandmother’s cooking follows the course of America’s favorite ethnic fare in its rise from spaghetti and a red checked tablecloth to carpaccio and fine bone china
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
The key to understanding Italian food culture in the United States is knowing the Italians who brought it here: 80 percent were from south of Rome—the region known as the Mezzogiorno—and particularly from Sicily and Naples. Between 1890 and 1910 about 2,700,000 southern Italians entered the United States; between 1880 and 1920 one out of every six immigrants to this country was a Sicilian.
These were people whose gastronomy was far more influenced by Mediterranean cultures than by European, and, given the poverty of the region, they depended largely on vegetables, grains, and fruits, with very little meat at all in the diet. The tomato, which came to dominate Italian-American cookery, was brought to Italy from Central America only in the sixteenth century and was rarely consumed elsewhere in Europe because, as a member of the deadly nightshade family (Solanaceae), it was thought to be poisonous.
Also, these southern Italians were overwhelmingly agrarian— contadini—yet for the most part they disembarked and settled in the teeming cities of America’s eastern seaboard, with 97 percent of them disgorged through New York’s Ellis Island. By the 1920s there were more Italians living in New York than there were in Florence, Venice, and Genoa combined. Although about half of them eventually returned to Italy, millions stayed to begin a new life, which had very little to do with life back home, where they had tended farms, lived off the land, and, often, slept outside. Chefs and restaurateurs were few and far between among steerage-class travelers.
Having endured centuries of abject poverty (the average immigrant brought $12.67 with him to the United States), the Italians came to America looking not so much for “streets of gold” as for food, money, and a little land.
Those who went west to California—mostly northern Italians—realized their dreams in the Napa, Sonoma, and San Joaquin valleys, where they became major forces in that state’s agricultural eminence, while families with names like Gallo, Sebastiani, Mondavi, and Martini pioneered the California wine industry.
But the poor immigrants who arrived in the Eastern cities found wretched conditions, with cramped tenement quarters, disease, filth, and, always, prejudice. Tenement apartments had little room for food storage, forcing the women to shop the markets daily. Food was expensive in America, though much less so than in Sicily, where up to 85 percent of one’s income went to feed the family, compared with only 50 percent in the United States.
A greater disappointment was not being able to own enough land on which these former contadini might grow their own tomatoes, eggplants, and spices, making them dependent on unfamiliar varieties of store-bought American vegetables and fruits that looked, smelled, and tasted quite different from what they’d been used to. Some tried to keep chickens and goats for slaughter in their yards, which led to New York’s outlawing such activities in 1901.
Southern Italians’ “nostalgia for the food of their homeland paralleled their nostalgia for their patron saints,” says the gastronomic historian Massimo Alberini. “They sent to Italy for cases of macaroni, and they managed to provide reasonable substitutes for missing ingredients.” Mexican chili was used in place of Calabrese peperoncino, mozzarella cheese was made with cow’s milk instead of the traditional buffalo milk, and American grape varieties or zinfandel went into the strong red wines that non-Italians often called “dago red.”
With considerable justification the immigrants mistrusted whatever was not fresh. “The [Italian] believes that the commercial method [of canning] removes all the goodness from food,” noted a 1907 report, Wage Earners’ Budgets in New York, “and a minimum of processes should intervene between harvesting and consumption.”
Those who managed to raise their own produce did so with the idea of re-creating amid urban grimness one of the happier aspects of the life they had recently fled. “My grandfather had a little garden in the back yard of the building in which we all lived in Brooklyn,” recalls Richard Gambino in his 1974 book Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans . “In two senses, it was a distinctly Sicilian garden. First, it was the symbolic fulfillment of every contadino’s dreams to own his own land. Second, what was grown there was a far cry from the typical American garden. In our garden were plum tomatoes, squash, white grapes on an overhead vine, a prolific peach tree, and a fig tree! … Because of the inhospitable climate of New York, every autumn the [fig] tree had to be carefully wrapped in layers of newspaper. These in turn were covered with waterproof linoleum and tarpaulin. The tree was topped with an inverted, galvanized bucket for final protection. But the figs it produced were well worth the trouble. Picked and washed by my own hand, they were as delicious as anything I have eaten since.”