East Harlem Tables: Food and Italian Immigrant Cultures

When friends visit NYC from out of town, we often end up taking a stroll through Manhattan's Little Italy. Although they have seen it in movies and in TV shows, they tend to have a limited sense of how and why immigrants moved between different neighborhoods over time.
03/05/2014 07:16pm ET | Updated May 5, 2014
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[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Welcome to Little Italy. View down Mulberry Street Lower Manhattan, NYC. Known as Little Italy. Manhattan, New York City. Today the neighborhood of Little Italy consists of Italian stores and restaurants. Tourists & locals seek out great food, wine & pastry as they walk beside the narrow streets beneath the fire escapes of the areas turn-of-the-century tenements.

When friends visit New York City from out of town, especially from Italy, we often end up taking a stroll through Manhattan's Little Italy, which looms large in the imagination of many Italians. Although they have seen it in movies and in TV shows, they tend to have a limited sense of how and why immigrants moved between different neighborhoods over time. Usually, they have no knowledge of the existence of the "other" Little Italies in the outer boroughs, let alone in places like Philadelphia or Providence. Above all, they are not familiar with the Italian-American culinary world, which they frequently perceive as merely a derivative interpretation of Italian food rather than a long and rich tradition.

As I have discussed in this blog, my exposure to Italian-American food was very limited when I first came to the U.S. Some things looked and tasted very different, but I have grown to appreciate and respect this culinary heritage as an important component in the process of globalization of Italian cuisines, as I argue in my upcoming book Al Dente: A History of Italian Food.

For those who are interested in these topics, The Italian American Table: Food, Family and Community in New York City provides great insight. Its author, Simone Cinotto -- a history professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy -- focuses on the foodways of Italian immigrants in East Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. Many New Yorkers are not aware of this area's Italian past, as its population is now mostly Hispanic. As Italians moved to the outer boroughs, African-Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants trickled in, creating the communities that still reside in those neighborhoods today. When the Italians migrated outward, they did so to leave the small and crowded apartments of the neighborhood, embracing the ideal of social mobility and one of its most beloved symbols: home ownership. They also did so to avoid getting confused with the newcomers, mostly people of color, as Italians had struggled for decades to assert their whiteness. This is particularly significant because Italian immigrants had themselves suffered from discrimination when they arrived in large numbers beginning in the late 1800s.

Cinotto explains how educators and other administrative authorities used food and nutrition to try and fold Italians into the American mainstream. At the time, the traditional foodways of those newly migrated from Italy clashed with the widely accepted scientific theories that considered an abundance of vegetables and scarce consumption of meat and dairy to not be conducive to an active and healthy life as a productive member of American society. However, Italian-Americans were not limited by an absolute respect of the customs form the old world. As Cinotto clarifies, "The symbolic and material 'stuff' from which ethnicity is created need not be rooted in an immemorial past to be authentic, but does need to be meaningful in the lived experiences of people in a group and useful in articulating the relations of power in which they are involved."

In the process of establishing an identity that could work in their new environment, food also played a role in building and enforcing borders and differences. Cinotto observed, "Ethnic traditions were created by family members drawing selectively on and recasting old values and cultural features as a result of new economic and social realities, including relations with neighboring ethnic groups and emerging ideas about race and morality."

Italians adopted the same behaviors that, in the past, had been used to discriminate them with the goal of underscoring the lack of civility and culture of fresh waves of newcomers, looking for a better future just like they did a few decades before.

Because of this, I really hope this book will be translated into Italian and become accessible to non-English speaking Italians. At this historical junction, Italy has become the destination for migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Despite the numbers are still quite limited, many Italians feel threatened in their cultural identity and economic privilege. As it often happens, food becomes the arena were these tensions are played out in everyday life. Grocery stores, stalls at the local markets, and ethnic restaurants opened and managed by immigrants are a source of suspicion. Their specialties and dishes may be fun for an occasional outing or for a party, but very little has been absorbed into the everyday diets of Italians.

Who knows, maybe a greater awareness of the discrimination Italians had to endure when they were immigrants would engender reflections about the current situation. And as the Italian economy struggles to recover from the Eurozone crisis, Italians are migrating again. We can only hope history won't repeat itself, this time around.