FOOD CULTURE Italo-Americans At The Table

Over the last ten years, Hollywood movies have been full of Italo-American characters, and directors and screenwriters have often used food, cooking and eating habits to shape them and their environments. In some movies by second- or third-generation Italo-American directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the message is not only artistic and aesthetic, but also subjective and ideological. It seeks, in fact, to link food and ethnicity. In their ‘bird’s eye’ view of Italo-American society, they often dwell on the preparation and consumption of food, emphasizing just how much moments of conviviality are central to the life of the community. Movies such as Goodfellas and The Godfather are symbolic in their relevance, whereas, in Stanley Tucci’s Big Night, the relationship between food and ethnic identity is explicit. Here cooking is the guiding thread of the plot and a blatant symbol of the cultural baggage immigrants brought with them to America. Either they stayed faithful to what they ate and risked marginalization, or they gave it all up to become ‘Americans’ as quickly and completely as they could. Not only in cinema, but also in fiction, poetry and autobiography, food recurs in the works of Italo-American artists and writers as a is symbolic means of defining subjective and collective identities.

So why has food and cooking taken on such a special value for American Italians? And why have they continued to represent the distinctive traits of Italo-American ethnicity for generation upon generation?

Some of the causes of the phenomenon are without doubt social and economic. The Italo-American diet draws much of its symbolic significance from its a-historical value as a historic ‘tradition’ for the members of the group and its being perceived as a ‘tradition’ by non-members. In scientific-academic literature too, the fact that food has always been an important symbol of ethnic identification for Italo-Americans has been categorized as a ‘given cultural characteristic of the group’. Emphasis has been placed on food’s role in the public and private rituals of a group characterized by ‘familism’.

The history of food is a prism through which we can analyze and observe all the various aspects of the Italo-American urban experience between the two wars, in particular the process of ‘Americanization’ of immigrants and their families. The building of Italo-American ethnicity may be seen as a distinctive aspect of this Americanization. It is impossible to speak traditional Italo-American behavior, just as it is impossible to describe many of the eating habits of immigrant communities as traditional. The behavior and values which many observers at the time perceived as “traditional” or “Italian” were actually the fruit of a change in the urban-industrial environment, of adaptation to a monetary economy, of an “‘ethnic ghetto’ community, of the proximity of other ethnic groups, of the ethnic character of religious experience, of the creation of a local vernacular within a dynamic framework in perpetual motion. From a strictly economic point of view, the diet of immmigrants changed a great deal shortly after their arrival in America on account of the richer, broader market they found there. At the start of the twentieth century, the USA had become the world’s leading food producer and New York was the hub of a market of international scope. This unprecedented food enabled broad sections of the immigrant proletariat to develop styles of consumption and habits similar to those of the ruling classes’ in the ‘home country’. The model of the Italo-American community which asserted itself in the Twenties was the product of a multiplicity of crossovers and, in terms of diet, was by no means an ‘American’ transposition of a hypothetical ‘Italian traditional cuisine’.

In Italian Harlem, Italian food and rites provided the foundations for the construction of particular ideology of the family, the moral base upon which many Italo-Americans structured much of their ethnic experience. Between the two wars, in the Italo-American family ethnic traditions – diet in particular – were created by drawing selectively on old-fashioned values and characteristics and reformulating them to respond to new social tensions, contradictions, needs and pressures.

The relative persistence of eating habits down generations of Italo-Americans has been neither smooth nor uniform. On the contrary, it is the result of conflict and negotiation. The consumption of ‘ethnic’ food was no exception. In fact, like virtually every other aspect of ‘immigrant culture’, the children of Italo-Americans complained about it and even refused it. Influenced by the media and by their contemporaries in other ethnic groups, they associated immigrant eating habits with a condition of sociocultural inferiority. On the other hand, family eating habits offered immigrants a means of organizing their domestic life and periodically reinforcing vital family ties.

Ceremonies centered round food as a strong symbolic element of union and communion, the ‘Italian family’ was able to create, strengthen and share its ideology with its ‘American” children.

The Italo-Americans of East Harlem, for example, used their food culture to build an identity as ‘Italo-Americans’ to wield before more recent Puerto Rican and Afro-American immigrants. This idea of a community made up of people ‘that eat like a family’ allowed them to define themselves in terms of a morality and respectability which they denied their unwelcome dark-skinned neighbors.

The presence of Italo-Americans in commerce, production and food services, which dated to a period prior to the establishment in the city of crowded immigrant enclaves at the turn of the last century, was instrumental in bonding economic interests other than the promotion of ethnicity and the offering of food a symbol of ethnic identification.

By continuing to emphasize their ethnicity and role in the daily life of the community, Italo-American producers of Italian-style food developed a commercial strategy which combined technological progress with modernity to turn out products which mass culture designated as ‘traditional’. Italo-American food entrepreneurs, for example, were great users of radio, the mass medium that was all the rage at the time, to reach and form a new type of ethnic consumer.

Italian restaurants spread like wildfire in New York between the wars, and a stereotyped image of Italo-Americans was created, consumed and replicated inside them.

The invention of the ‘Italian restaurant’ was tantamount to a ‘narration of ethnicity’ that was the sum-total of a multiplicity of equally important ‘ingredients’: not just food but also entertainment, exotic imagery and a feeling of family warmth and simplicity.

Drawn on and fostered by American culture, the stereotype of Italians as a passionate race of gourmets, tied to their families, with a love of music and song. Then there was the mythological image of the classic Italian heritage (albeit dented by the influx of immigrant masses). Above all, there was the image of the Italian as a Mafioso and anarchist – hence a dangerous outsider – which has always generated prejudice and discrimination. The resulting stereotype was complete and multi-faceted, but nevertheless stable and effective, partly because its diverse components were not necessarily incompatible.

In the Twenties and Thirties, the sociocultural and economic context in which many New Yorkers of Italian origin lived favored the sedimentation of an ethnic proletarian urban subculture which elevated the importance of the home, the family, the community and the neighborhood, and took a skeptical view of collective class action, viewing with fear and hostility the demands of other deprived social and racial groups. No, its ideals of happiness were the rewards of labor in a capitalistic , liberal system. ‘Ethnic’ cuisine thus became a symbolic and material aspect of a developing material culture. Like American food itself, a lot of ‘ethnic’ food was produced in far-off places, using technologically advanced procedures about which consumers knew next to nothing. A lot of fruit and vegetables were available all year round, whereas the traditional agricultural economy depended on seasonal cycles. Yet ‘ethnic’ food possessed a plausible aura of tradition: it was historically inconsistent but it was familiar. It was marketed, sold, cooked, presented by and among members of the family and peers who shared similar experiences in the same places.

Among New Yorkers of Italian origin, diet and eating habits developed to respond to specific needs of life, visibility and socioeconomic identity. They were built on a re-elaboration of the memory of reality which immigrants had left behind. Within this context, in Italo-American communities, food ultimately served as a code to represent to articulate affection and power, inclusion and exclusion, respectability and prestige.

Simone Cinotto is a researcher in American History at the University of Genoa

(English adaptation by John Irving)

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