An American in Pollenzo

Food alien nation: A national cuisine shaped by international migration


Above: Mulberry St. in New York City circa 1900, the epicenter of the early wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Last week, I posted about my trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco and three spectacular “Italian” meals in three different “Italian” restaurants between the two culinary capitals on the west coast. All three of the restaurants are a celebration of Italian cookery and while the northern Californian venue was founded by a group of Americans, the Los Angeles spots were founded by Italian-Americans.

Today, Italian cuisine is king. As I wrote the other day here on the blog, Italian gastronomy has defined a generation of chefs and food lovers in the U.S. and the lexicon of Italian food has pervaded our kitchens, language, and collective consciousness.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Two generations ago, before Italian-Americans established themselves within the American bourgeoisie, Italian migrants (just like Eastern European migrants, who included my own great grandparents and grandparents) were considered a menace: A threat to American society, American culture, American prosperity, and yes, American cuisine.

I can remember so clearly in my mind: My father scolding me because I was holding my knife and fork at the dinner table like a “European,” as he put it.

My father was born in 1933, eleven years after Mussolini’s March on Rome and the same year that the Nazis began to consolidate their power in Germany. He was (and is) very much a product of his generation when it came to his attitudes about “foreigners.”

“Hold your fork the right way,” he admonished me. “Hold it like an American!”

At nearly 50 years old, I also remember clearly how Italian gastronomy was considered “ethnic,” a cuisine created by and for “rustics.” To this day, it irks me when I hear people call a classic Italian dish a “peasant” dish. There’s even a restaurant in New York City called “Peasant.”

This week, the newly installed President of the United States Donald Trump has signed an executive order to build a wall along our border with Mexico. And he has implied that he could levy a tax of 20 percent on Mexican imports to make the Mexican nation “pay” for the wall. In the light of the countless ethnic slurs he uttered during his campaign (in his announcement that he was running for president, he literally called Mexicans a people of “criminals and rapists”; and that was just the beginning!), it’s hard not to interpret his so-called “immigration reform” as an expression of xenophobia and racism. It’s eerily reminiscent of the way “Americans” saw Italian migrants two generations ago (the same way they viewed Jewish immigrants, like my family).

Today, Italians and their contributions to American society and culture are widely accepted as one of the strengths of our nation. And their cuisine is — hands down — the most popular in the U.S.

When it comes to our Mexican sisters and brothers living in the U.S., the arc of the Italian-American experience (and the Jewish-American experience) reveals that we can overcome the xenophobia of Trump America.

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