Sometime toward the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Giuseppe Mormino, a resident of Alia, a town in Sicily’s Palermo province, received a letter from his brother Rosolino. Rosolino composed his letter on the other side of the Atlantic in Napoleonville, Louisiana, where the young man labored on a sugar can plantation. “In America,” wrote Rosolino, “il pane è molle, ma la vita è dura” (bread is soft, but life is hard). Rather than read the letter as just an indictment of America’s harsh working conditions, Giuseppe focused on the tale of food. After all, he had never eaten any bread other than the contadini’s familiar hard, dark loaves, and Rosolino tasted soft bread only in America.
Rosolino’s letter was not the hyperbole of an immigrant trying to impress stay-at-home kin. His words exemplified the experience of four million other Italians who came to America between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1920s. A quarter of a century after this letter went from Louisiana to Sicily, Italian immigrants living in San Francisco told anthropologist Paul Radin similar stories of American hardships cushioned by plentiful food.
They measured their American lives against remembered Italian scarcity. A laborer who came to the United States from near Milan, said that back home his family had been “forced to raise their own vegetables and could afford very little meat… were too poor to buy wine.” In San Francisco, on a slim salary earned in a tile factory, he bought imported rice, “antipasto, wine,” and meat, which he ate in his “roomy, comfortable kitchen.” A “miner from Girgenti,” now a California packing house worker, brushed off the question of Italy versus America. “Forget it,” he told Radin, “there is no comparison.” There he had been fed “the regulation rations of the poor Italians.” In America, he “has all he wants to eat… America is a great country and no matter how bad things go, is still a great country.” The packing-house worker, once a miner, recounted what he had eaten in Italy in a passive voice. His fare had been rationed to him, grudgingly meted out to at his class position. But he extolled his American present with active verbs emphasizing personal choice and individual tastes.
In this grammatical turn, as in Rosolino Mormino’s understanding of the benefits of migration through soft bread, Italians in America erased the class barriers of the world they left, at least in terms of food. Their subversion of old-world hierarchies shaped their attitudes towards America, Italy, and themselves.
Italians’ behavior in America, their taking advantage of abundance, seemed to mimic that of the rich of their hometowns who had so thoroughly dominated their everyday lives. Their American rhetoric resonated with the cadences of American choice and plenty. An immigrant to Oneonta, New York, from San Donato in Cosenza in 1886, interpreted the meaning of the migration in a 1831 speech, “Americans and Americanism.” “To all of us” Italian immigrants, he explained, “the privilege to work at whatever job we prefer, eat and drink whatever we like, and say whatever we please” encapsulated America.
The immigrants spoke of food, abundance, and choice; they did not dwell on past hunger, scarcity, or limitation. They called their American food “Italian,” and spent their precious small earnings on “Italian” olive oil and “Italian” cheese, on meat and macaroni, foodstuffs that had once been doled out to them in minute quantities by haughty galantuomini through their intermediaries, the gabellotti. In America they bought what they wanted and decided on their own whether to buy domestic products or imports, and if imported, whether from Italy or the Italian diaspora in Argentina. Nowhere in descriptions of contadini life had they eaten these foods in this way. After migration, these foods became the everyday.
The act of taking possession of rich food associated with the well-off and the cities played a role in making immigrants from the scattered towns and villages of the Italian peninsula into Italians. It contributed mightily to the emergence of their new identity. By grafting onto their everyday life the foods of the holidays and holy time, these immigrants derived not only an ethnic identity but a sense of well-being. And as sacred food was turned into everyday food, it became more sacred. Connected as it was to the essence of being Italian, this food culture emerged as a pillar of identity and, as such, worth whatever it cost.
The encounter of Italian immigrants with food in America took place against a backdrop of real poverty. They had come to America poor and continued to suffer hardship. They lived in cramped quarters. Children went to work young. With their mothers, they fabricated artificial flowers, sewed, stitched, and hemmed garments around kitchen tables. Children suffered from rickets, a disorder associated with a lack of milk, a partner of poverty. Fathers faced constant bouts of unemployment, and when they worked, earned low salaries. They experienced only slow, painstaking economic mobility. Poverty in these initial years never lay far away and was often brought on by accidents, illnesses, and the vagaries of the American economy.
Yet the poverty of the vast majority of the immigrants was not a permanent condition. Immigrants experienced modest mobility from within the ranks of the working class, moving from unskilled to somewhat more skilled positions, and from one working class neighborhood to slightly better ones. Some of them became self-employed as they tried their hand at small-scale enterprises, with food businesses a particularly popular choice. Until about 1900, many immigrants from Italy worked for and through a labor boss, a padrone. These padrone themselves had come up from the masses of the poor, but by helping to recruit and organize new immigrants for the labor force, they moved into the strata of the communal elite. So did immigrant bankers, who operated in most “little Italies”; they too occupied a higher rank than most. Their banks often doubled as grocery stores, financed by the capital they amassed in America. By and large, until the early twentieth century, Italian enclaves in America supported a small elite which knew at first hand the vulnerability of life in the laboring class. The migration out of Italy had been a relatively single-class phenomenon, and most of the individuals who rose above the masses did so as a result of taking advantage of various American opportunities.
–Hasia R. Diner
[HUNGERING FOR AMERICA: ITALIAN, IRISH AND JEWISH FOODWAYS IN THE AGE OF MIGRATION by Hasia R. Diner, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College]