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. 

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