Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Americans Learn to Love Spaghetti…


Between 1870 and 1910, when nearly five million Italians came to America, spaghetti was considered a particularly alien dish. Here, in an 1899 cartoon, artist Hy Mayer pokes fun at Italians for their food and physicality. Mayer implies that Italians could not eat and talk at the same sitting. "Spaghetti and Gesticulations A Tale of an Italian Dinner Table," from A History of American Graphic Humor, 1747-1938.

Some cultures pay more attention to food than do others. Of course, people the world over like to eat, but some cultures have remarkably varied cuisines, put tremendous time and effort into cooking, use all sorts of spices, and prepare special foods to mark seasonal changes, holy days, and rites of passage. For others, food is a necessity, often a pleasant one, but hardly worth a lot of fuss. They may depend on a few staples and a functional, no-frills diet. 

In Europe, Italy is a food culture, England is not. If England’s cuisine has improved over the past several decades, then it is because of residents from Commonwealth countries like India and Hong Kong. By contrast, Italian food has been renowned since Roman times. Today, Italy is widely recognized as home to world-class cuisines. Among its great exports, pizza and spaghetti are loved the world over. This was not always the case, at least not in the United States. 

Until the late 1800s, Italians were a rare presence in the United States. The 1850 Census, the first to identify the nationality of immigrants, showed fewer than 4,000 in the entire country. That number grew steadily throughout the ensuing decades and then exploded. Between 1870 and 1920, nearly five million Italians arrived. 

Americans thought the food the immigrants ate was downright disgusting. To understand their disdain, it helps to know that early Italian immigrants were overwhelmingly men who came here as “target laborers” seeking to make enough money to return home where they could then live in comfort. That meant they often lived communally, worked twelve-hour days at low-paying jobs, and pinched every penny. They may have taken turns cooking, and the food they ate was simple fare. They ate little meat and more vegetables and fruits than urban Americans thought proper. Even before they came in large numbers, a journalist joked that Italians could extoll “the beauty of bananas and the importance of pennies.” 

American disgust derived from closed-minded prejudice. Call it ethnocentrism. Italians were viewed as truly alien, not only in language but also in behavior. Americans might see these men—“dagos,” they called them—at the train station, where the foreigners greeted each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek. American men were appalled at such public displays of emotion, particularly among males. They also found Italians entirely too verbally expressive, speaking their jibber-jabber loudly, gesticulating wildly, and conveying their emotions far too freely. Americans considered these habits undignified. 

At the time, mainstream Americans were mostly of northern European ancestry, their diets depending on meat and potatoes. Most did not have a clue what pasta was. They were unfamiliar with tomato sauce and gagged at the smell of garlic. The contemporary “foodie” may find this hard to believe. Italian food has become such an integral part of our national cuisine. Yet, American acceptance was anything but an overnight affair. 

World War I softened American attitudes towards Italian food because the Italians were among our allies against Germany. That didn’t discourage Buster Keaton and friends from using spaghetti as a comic prop. In the classic silent film, “The Cook” (1918)


Silent film star Buster Keaton tries spaghetti for the first time in the 1918 film, "The Cook."

Keaton wielded scissors to eat spaghetti. This scene opened with a caption describing spaghetti as “the Italian national food…or tapeworm a la carte.” Audiences laughed as Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle subjected pasta to multiple food gags, snipping the strands, knitting with them, and otherwise making a mess. Spaghetti was still an alien dish, and Italians were thought crazy to eat it. 

Several years after "The Cook", Hollywood was still using spaghetti for laughs. In this scene from Charlie Chaplin's, "The Kid," (1921) child actor Jackie Coogan does no better than Keaton in figuring out how to eat pasta. America had yet to learn. Pasta and pizza would not become popular for decades to come.
Courtesy of Movie Stills.com.


To be fair, few Americans had any exposure to Italian cuisine. Nearly eighty percent of the Italian immigrant population lived North of Ohio and East of Mississippi. Their immigration was also concentrated in cities, and America was still a small-town country. Even cities where the immigrants resided had few Italian restaurants. In Hungering for America, Hasia Diner points out that early 20th-century Italian demographics, notably the preponderance of single men, created a niche for small, inexpensive eateries, usually attached to boarding houses and serving homestyle cooking from the South of Italy. The owners made no effort to draw outsiders. 

Although most Italian men worked as day laborers, some became peddlers. By the 1900s, Italians dominated the sale of fruit and vegetables, first as “Pushcart Johnnies,” who hawked their wares in Italian neighborhoods. Eventually, a few became greengrocers opening shops in upscale neighborhoods. One commentator declared that “the Italians have made Americans a fruit-eating people.” Meanwhile, America was having a positive impact on the immigrant Italian diet. In the countryside of southern Italy, meat and olive oil were luxuries reserved for special occasions. Here they were affordable.

Italy’s status as an ally during the first World War may have helped earn Italian cuisine occasional praise in American women’s magazines, and by the 1920s, Italian food was winning converts among the urban smart set. Affluent young Americans occasionally went "slumming" into ethnic neighborhoods. These forays allowed visitors to sample immigrant culture. In The Restaurants of New York (1925), George S. Chappell urged his readers to put aside their old culinary habits and to explore Italian eateries where they would find such novel dishes as “brocoli (sic), that delicate blend of asparagus and artichoke." 

The 1920s was the decade of "One Hundred Percent Americanization" and the 1930s saw few Italian arrivals as anti-immigrant legislation went into effect. Second-generation Italian-Americans were under great pressure to conform to mainstream American behavior. Many did, but they refused to give up the old foodways. 

It would not be long before American servicemen were sampling Italian food in Rome and Naples, returning from World War II having tasted the real thing. Meanwhile, the American government commissioned the immigrant Boiardi Brothers to provide meals for GIs abroad. “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” became the chief purveyor of rations to U.S. troops. The company’s canned spaghetti was a favorite, but no self-respecting Italian-American housewife would allow this confection into her kitchen. This didn’t stop Chef Boy-Ar-Dee from familiarizing the average American with a mass-production form of “spaghetti.” 

After the war, the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants had embraced American culture, while holding onto many of the old foodways. It became almost obligatory for newspapers and magazines to depict Italian-American celebrities eating spaghetti. Joe Dimaggio, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin all did their turn. Yet when popular entertainers like Issur Danielovitch, Mary Anne Kappelhoff, and Joseph Levitch, were caught wolfing down heaping plates of pasta, one could say that spaghetti had made it in America. 

Immigrants and Population Growth, Now and Then

Last year the federal government began to release preliminary findings from the 2020 Census, and news outlets reported on America’s declining birth rate. Of course, given the pandemic, it’s easy to understand how young couples have been in no hurry to have children.  Yet, Census 2020 tells us that the drop in births is part of a longer trend. During the past decade, America’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest level on record.  Does this have anything to do with immigration?

Demographers point out that immigrants have more children than do native-born Americans. In fact, if not for immigrant fecundity, the American birth rate would years ago have fallen below 2.1 children, what is called the "replacement level," that is, the number of children per woman needed to maintain the size of the current population without in-migration. Yet, notwithstanding a sizeable foreign-born population, we are now at 1.6 children per woman. Even immigrants are having fewer kids. The boost that their large families gave to the population between 1990 and 2000 has become a nudge. Immigrant women still have more children than native-born women, but not enough for growth. Of course, this disturbs policymakers who want to maintain the demographic fuel for an ever-expanding economy. 

This 1909 cartoon from Puck depicts Uncle Sam luring to America the riff-raff of Europe who unworthy successors to the colonists who pioneered the country and created its institutions. In the background, various leaders of emigrant source countries are jubilant at the departures.  S.D. Ehrhart, "The Fool Pied Piper," Puck, June 2, 1909, Library of Congress

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Census has prompted concerns about immigrants and births. An early instance of immigration-related census shock came more than a century ago when returns from the 1880 Census indicated that native-born Americans were having fewer children. That alone wasn’t surprising news. Other industrialized nations, notably European powers like England, Germany, and France, also experienced fertility declines. The shock came with how the decline was interpreted by the experts. Chief among the American experts was Francis Amasa Walker, the country’s foremost economist.

New Englanders like Francis Walker feared that the new immigrants were replacing the descendants of America's founding population and wanted to prevent their coming. Cartoonist Udo Keppler points to the irony of their concerns. Puck, March 30,1898 

Walker was superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 censuses.  Early in his tenure, he approved of immigration from Europe, particularly immigration to areas where agriculture and industry needed labor—the South and Midwest. However, Walker changed his mind in the 1880s, turning against immigration as the flow of arrivals shifted from northern and western Europe to southern and central Europe. He believed the change in source countries accounted for a serious decline in immigrant quality. Walker argued that America’s founders had been a select population who had overcome almost insurmountable hardships in pioneering the country and founding its institutions.  By contrast, he saw the new immigrants as “beaten men from beaten races” who were politically unprepared for Democracy and fit only for the meanest of jobs.

Walker believed that mass immigration literally inhibited the growth of the native-born population. So alien were the “hordes” of newcomers that native Americans of child-bearing age were, he asserted, unwilling to bring sons and daughters into the world. Rather than see their progeny forced to compete economically and to mix socially with the interlopers, younger Americans were deciding not to have children! Thus, although America’s population continued to grow, it grew more slowly than before, and that growth was fueled by foreigners. The newcomers would replace the descendants of “colonial stock,” changing the character of the entire country. 

Of course, we now know how the story turned out. Population growth may indeed have slowed, as it did throughout the industrializing world, but the “new immigrants” blended into the mainstream, eventually intermarrying with old stock Americans, as well as with immigrants from other countries. At the time, though, Walker’s prominence lent legitimacy to the idea that real Americans were being “replaced” by interlopers of an inferior grade.  By the time of Walker’s death in 1897, annual arrival numbers were higher than ever before, and the ethnic mix was even more varied than in prior decades. 

Prescott Hall, co-founder of the influential Immigration Restriction League (IRL), would take this idea of replacement to an extreme. Hall was an intelligent guy, a Harvard man. Yet when it came to immigration, his feelings clouded his judgment, as when he argued that "native children are being murdered by never being allowed to come into existence, as surely as if put to death in some older invasion of the Huns and Vandals.” (Selection of Immigration, 1904)  It wasn’t much of a logical leap to the conviction that America was destroying itself by admitting large numbers of immigrants. Walker’s notion of replacement had evolved into the claim that White Anglo-Saxon Americans, as a group, were committing “race suicide,” a term that would take hold among enemies of immigration. They would soon use it to great effect in pushing the National Origins Quotas legislation that would shut America's doors from the 1920s into the 1960s.

America has had generous admissions quotas since the 1970s. Anti-immigration activists continue to sound the alarm about our national suicide and the demographic death of the West. Pat Buchanan has claimed for decades that "Third World Immigrants" will overwhelm the native-born population of America in much the same way as restrictionists predicted that the Jews, Italians, Poles, and other "new immigrants" would do a hundred years ago. Francis Walker was wrong then. Unless America somehow ceases to provide today's immigrants with freedom and opportunity, Buchanan's predictions will prove wrong tomorrow.