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The Perils of Assimilation: How what we eat makes us American, for better or worse.


Sarah Lohman is an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a culinary historian, and author of the forthcoming book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, out December 6 from Simon & Schuster. She also writes the blog, and this week, she is recreating the diet of an Italian family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan from 1919. Follow along here.

In 1919, a social worker named Sophinisba Breckenridge walked the streets of one America’s Little Italies, probably in Chicago where she was doing research on immigrant groups. She described what she saw: “Tomato paste, for example, is used in great quantities by Italian families and is made at home by drying the tomatoes in the open air. When an attempt is made to do this in almost any large city, the tomatoes get not only the sunshine but the soot and dirt of the city. The more particular Italians here will not make tomato paste outdoors, but large numbers of Italian families continue to make it as can be seen by a walk through any Italian district in late August or early September.”

Breckenridge, like many of her colleagues, were concerned about the health and diets of new immigrants, particularly the four million Italian immigrants who came to America between 1880 and 1920. In Italy, political and economic upheaval as well as volcanic eruptions, blight, and cholera caused, according to one turn-of-the-century study, “… a terrible, permanent lack of food.”  So many Italians immigrated to America that by 1920, they represented 10% of America’s population.

To greet this enormous wave of immigration, there were a growing number of American-born social workers occupying settlement houses, early social aid organizations that tackled the “settling” of new immigrants. The social workers offered a helping hand in Americanization. “The settlement ideal has included the preservation of the dignity and self-esteem of the immigrant,” Breckenridge wrote in her 1921 book, New Homes for Old, “while attempting to modify his habits when necessary… .” For Italian immigrants, it was their cooking habits that needed to be modified.

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy.

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy.

A few social workers credited the Italians for improving the diet of Americans. The Italian in America, a report written in 1905 by a handful of government officials, states: “The introduction of a variety of wholesome greens, celeries, dandelions, spinach, fennels, has been very greatly advanced throughout the country by Italian-American example and influence. The increased consumption of fruits in answer to the demand and by the multiplication of fruit venders has been one of the most noteworthy accompaniments of Italian immigration.” Other authors praised the diet of Italians in Italy, especially after World War I, and they thought Italian immigrants in America were getting it all wrong. In The Italian Cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, published in 1919, author Maria Gentile writes that food of the “Italian race” was “palatable, nourishing and economical.” Nutritionist Bertha Wood wrote in her 1922 book Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health: “Naturally they are painstaking, good cooks.” Wood goes on to comment: “The raw food materials of the Italian diet, many of which were easily procured from their own farms, when combined in their home-country ways, furnished a cheap, well-balanced diet.”

Although food in Italy was praised, the Italian immigrants who came here were criticized for their dietary indiscretions. “Often it has been said ‘They should learn to eat American foods if they are to live here,’” writes Wood. But she points out that the American diet is corrupting the immigrant: “The Italian laborer here is paid larger wages; he handles more money than in Italy, but with the joy of this comes the realization that it costs more to live. At home he had a garden and never had to count the cost of vegetables and fruit; here he has no garden and is amazed at market prices.” Italian families decided to spend their wages on more calorically dense carbs and meat. Buying fine pastas, olives oils, cheese and cured meats was also seen as a sign of success by these immigrants. Meat, especially, was a sign of a financially accomplished American: “Here I eat meat three times a day, not three times a year,” boasts a letter home from Italian immigrant Antonio Ranciglio. But this carb and meat-heavy diet, Wood believed, was affecting the health of Italian-Americans.

Although some of the nutritionist’s apprehension about Italian food may have come for prejudice or xenophobia, some of their fears may have been grounded in truth. Anecdotally, Wood saw higher rates of heart disease and diabetes amongst assimilated Italians. And we see a parallel in America today with modern immigrants. In 2013, the New York Times published an article called “The Health Toll of Immigration.”

“A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. … For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers being amazed at the size of hamburgers — as big as dinner plates — when she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago. “‘I thought, this is really a country of opportunity,’ she said. ‘Look at the size of the food!’”

A recent study from Columbia University reported that the longer an immigrant resides in America, both their sugar intake and BMI increase. This shift is blamed on an adapting to the American way of life; the immigrants abandon the more balanced diets of their home countries, in favor of high fat and sugar “American” foods. What meat was to the Italians is what fast food is to a new wave of immigrants: a status symbol, inaccessible in one’s home country, but because of higher wages in America, a symbol of financial success. As the Times said, “The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.”