Italian Immigrants Forever Changed the American Palate

Of the 16 million who left Italy a century ago, 4 million came to the United States bringing with them recipes and traditions that would forever change the American palate.

By: ISDA Contributor Dina Di Maio

When my grandfather first came to America, he lived in a house with his brother and his brother’s wife’s sisters and their families who had already come from Italy years before. Grandpa would later marry into that family, and I would be related by blood to everyone in that house. There were three apartments in the building, and for every holiday, there was a multi-floor smorgasbord. The family would walk from apartment to apartment to try the specialties of each aunt, uncle and cousin.

The food served was traditional from the areas of Campania closest to Benevento. On Christmas Eve, my grandfather would fry smelts. There would be baccalá, eel, calamari, octopus, stocco (stockfish). At Easter, he always wanted capuzzelle, the lamb’s head, his favorite part being the eyes. There was the wheat pie, pastiera, as well as the Benevento version with rice. Of course the savory Easter pie and bread, pizza chienaand casatiello, respectively. The same foods I grew up eating for those same holidays.

Grandpa ate apples the way he had grown up eating them, the way my father eats them and the way his first cousin in Italy eats them today, cutting slices off one by one with a paring knife.

My family is not unique in this faithful passing of traditional foodways from one generation to the next. Many of you reading this will have memories of your own of those special meals that took hours to make and often involved the entire family. Of the 16 million who are estimated to have left Italy approximately 100 years ago, 4 million came to the United States bringing with them recipes and traditions that were already hundreds of years old.

And yet, despite this demonstrably proven tradition, a tradition still within living memory, there is a trend today to speak of those first Italian immigrants as too “ignorant” and “impoverished” to be able to continue cooking as they had in Italy. There are chefs and historians—some lamentably of Italian heritage themselves—who perpetuate these inaccuracies.

One example is that there was an abundance of ground beef in America so Italian immigrants made large meatballs and replaced other meats in their traditional dishes with it. They would have you believe that tomato sauce (or gravy) was invented in the United States. Both assertions are untrue and yet the trend gathers pace, with some of our most famous Italian-American chefs and personalities endorsing it. I became so frustrated with not only the rewriting of our culinary history, but with the great disservice being done to our ancestors’ struggle to gain a foothold in this country while maintaining their unique Italian heritage that I decided to do something about it myself.

My book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, explores the history of the food of Italian Americans, which is, of course, “authentic” Italian. In fact, it’s based primarily on the cuisine of Southern Italy because the majority of immigrants to the United States 100 years ago were from Naples and Sicily. Italian-American food is intrinsically linked to the history of Southern Italy and the events that led up to the migration of millions from that region, and yet many people, including Italian Americans, are either unaware of that history or have misconceptions about it.

Let’s start with dispelling one of those myths: the immigrant generation was far from ignorant. Many were savvy and successful. They were self-sufficient people, opening businesses and working for their daily bread. My great-grandfather, for example, was a smart and resourceful man like many of his peers. He owned a restaurant in Italy and opened a butcher shop in America. He imported olive oil from Italy. He knew good quality olive oil, and he knew there was a problem with counterfeit olive oil 100 years ago just like there is one today.

The immigrant generation was the generation that preceded the Greatest Generation. Their values are part of what made the Greatest Generation great. As Italian Americans, we are the descendants of both. We are the custodians of traditions that have been kept alive and passed down through the years, through recipes, music, religious festivals and even the way we choose to live our lives from day to day. It is critical that we control our own story, that we safeguard it for the generations that follow us. If we don’t control our story, the only opinion that will be remembered in thirty, forty, fifty years is the misinformation of the food media, whether done innocently or not. The opinion of the generation that came here first will be forgotten. That’s why, I’m hoping, by writing this book, that I am setting the record straight, for my grandparents, and all the other Italian-American grandparents out there, who deserve better.

Excerpt from Authentic Italian:

“They quickly brought over their own products. Morreale and Carola mention that as early as 1885, these immigrants were growing Italian varieties of vegetables like peppers, zucchini, eggplant, fennel, and broccoli. Peppers and zucchini are native to the Americas, but Italians had varieties of them like the cucuzza, a squash originating in Italy.

Ziegelman says they imported seeds from Italy. According to the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Italians brought broccoli seeds to the United States and grew broccoli in their own gardens ‘long before the vegetable was known throughout the country as a whole.’ It wasn’t until 1920 that broccoli was grown commercially. Gabaccia says Santo Ortolano, an Italian farmer from California, claimed that he introduced broccoli in the United States in 1902. She notes that he also grew cucuzza, the long Italian squash.

Now a popular vegetable in high-priced gourmet salads because of its candy cane-striped interior, the Chioggia beet, named after the fishing village near Venice where it was first created, was brought to the United States in the nineteenth century by Italian immigrants, according to David Kamp and Marion Rosenfeld in The Food Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Gastronomical Knowledge. Immigrants from Northern and Southern Italy settled near Walla Walla, Washington, and went into the produce business.

According to Jens Lund’s article, ‘Walla Walla Sweets: Onions and Ethnic Identity in a Pacific Northwest Italian Community,’ in Columbia Magazine, in 1900, Pete Pieri, from Corsica, first grew the ‘French onion,’ and by the 1920s, Italian immigrants John Arbini and Tony Locati were growing what would later be known as the ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ onion.

Susan Taylor Block mentions that in the early nineteen hundreds, Calabrian immigrant James Pecora from the St. Helena colony in North Carolina brought a variety of broccoli and introduced other vegetables to the state.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Italian immigrants from Genoa established the Colombo Market selling produce from their farms around San Francisco in 1874. (Unfortunately, the article states that they were known to be an insular community, not even employing Italians from other regions of Italy.) Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo, founders of the famous produce company Andy Boy, were the first to ship broccoli on a refrigerated railway car across country in 1926, according to Andy Boy’s website. Bellman writes ‘ . . . it was the Italians who introduced vegetables, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and the like to the American palate.’

Writer and television host Burt Wolf, in the ‘Coming to America’ episode of his Travels & Traditionsshow, credits the Italian immigrants with making fruits and vegetables staples of the American diet. Moses mentions that, in his 1906 memoir, New York City Police Commissioner William McAdoo noted the vegetables he saw in Little Italy near his office. McAdoo writes, ‘It is one of the singular sights of Little Italy to see an array of most excellent-looking vegetables generally a week or two earlier than they appear in other parts of the city . . . . I could never ascertain where these vegetables came from, but they looked very inviting.’

According to an article in L’Italo Americano, Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Desimone came to the United States from Naples in 1897 with 50 cents, worked on pig farms, and eventually went to Seattle, where he became a successful farmer. He bought Pike Place Market in 1941 and owned it until he died in 1946. His son ran it until 1974 when he sold it to the city.

Modern food writers and chefs, among others, fail to mention this history—that these early immigrants brought foods from Italy to the United States—that they carried on Italian traditions here in the United States—that they introduced Americans to Italian food. These people were the kind that would be classified as ‘peasant,’ yet they were exhibiting the same nuances of palate as the wealthier class of nobles back in Northern Italy.”

Dina M. Di Maio is a New York- and Tennessee-licensed lawyer with an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She has written and/or edited for Glamour, Family Circle, Time Out New York, the American Bar Association, and more.



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