Sharing the Global Table: Food and Immigrant Life

When I first moved to the U.S. back in 1998, my grandmother's sister, who had moved from her village in Abruzzo, Italy, to America in the early 1930s, invited me to a dinner organized by her daughters and many of her descendants in Delaware. Meeting for the first time so many family members I had never met before made for an emotional and unforgettable event. The abundant and tasty food eliminated any distance between my numerous cousins and myself. I soon realized that some of the dishes served had the same names as those I was used to eat in Italy, but they looked and tasted different. Chicken parm, pasta and beans soup, baked ziti--all were somehow familiar, but not quite the same. I had never seen such huge meatballs on spaghetti. It's not like I had never had meatballs with pasta. I remember spending long afternoon hours making meatballs for sauces or to add to the sumptuous timballo for special occasions (similar to the timpano from the Big Night movie). But the meatballs were tiny, the size of a fingertip. I remember my mother rebuking us if my sisters and I tried to get away with making larger ones. The American meatballs were delicious, but at first I did not quite know how to tackle them. Was I supposed to eat them with the pasta? Together? After, maybe?

In fact, the way the meal was served was also new to me: most dishes came to the table at the same time, and there was no trace of the customary course sequence of appetizers (antipasti), primo, secondo, side dishes (contorni) and desserts that set the rhythm of festive meals in Italy. However, the interactions around the table, the body language, the sounds, all reminded me of many similar celebratory occasions back in Italy. Somehow, I was at home. After my first exposure to Italian-American cuisine, puzzlement was replaced by curiosity, leading, over time, to a deep appreciation for a culinary tradition that had its roots in Italy and its branches in America. Living in New York City, I soon realized that the Chinese food was not quite the same as I had gotten used to during the two years I spent in China as a student, and that Mexican fare was quite dissimilar from what I had tasted in Mexico City or Yucatan.

The sensory stimulation soon led 1to more systematic and theoretical questions about the multilayered and complex relationship between immigrants, their own food, and the foodways of the host community. How do culinary traditions in migrant communities develop the way they do? How do new traditions emerge, while others disappear? How come some objects, behaviors, norms, and values from the migrants' places of origin are maintained, while other are transformed or resurface after periods of invisibility? What role do cooking and other food-related practices play as migrant communities negotiate their presence in post-industrial societies where individuals define their identities around lifestyles and consumer goods? These are some of the questions we will address at The New School in a two-day conference on Food and Immigrant Life on April 18 and 19, 2013.

The discussion will not be limited to cultural issues. Speakers will also reflect on how food scarcity and insecurity, which are exacerbated by climate change and spikes in staple prices, force individuals and groups to move to a new country in the first place. Participants will also examine the involvement of the migrant in food production and distribution. The food industry offers migrants an entry point into the U.S. economic system and access to the American dream, while simultaneously confining them to low wages and poor, if not unsafe, work conditions. The keynote speaker Dolores Huerta, the co-founder with César Chávez of United Farm Workers of America, will discuss how agriculture, including the increasingly numerous farmers' markets, heavily depend on migrant labor: those who perform most of the hard physical work, usually out of view of the consumer.

As I have argued in previous posts on restaurant workers and on street vendors, a multicultural and socially diverse workforce provides crucial and plentiful services while remaining largely invisible to the public. The conference at The New School will emphasize important issues that need to take center stage in the public sphere, especially in light of the imminent debate on immigration reform.