Final Essay: Food and Identity

Final Essay: Food and Identity

While many different intersections of food and culture were brought to my attention and fascinated me during my time abroad, what has struck me the most is the story of the Italian-Americans and their attempted preservation of Italian culture in Italian-American communities across America. Speaking from the perspective of an Italian-American who grew up in a heavily Italianized area of South Jersey/Philadelphia, as well as drawing upon readings from class, I will describe my perspective that Italian-Americans’ refusal to Americanize their food as extensively as did other immigrant groups is a reflection of the deep importance of food to the Italian people. I will also argue that this importance of food has led Italians and Italian-Americans to better expose their children to food and cooking, and better equip them with both mechanical and communicative gastronomic skills–in comparison to children who grow up in families and communities that do not emphasize food and food culture as a significant part of life.  To help explain and strengthen my views, I will incorporate the works of Levenstein (“The American Respone to Italian Food”), Steele (“Hungry City”), and Ochs (“Socializing Taste”).

Through Levenstein, the class learned of the plight of the Italian immigrants to America. These people resisted assimilating more than did other immigrant groups, and went to extensive lengths to preserve their food and food culture; Levenstein refers to the Italian immigrants as “the exception” to the rule of cuisine assimilation (2). What makes the Italian-Americans’ unique preservation of their homeland’s food culture even more impressive is that they did this with great sacrifice. Italian immigrants were often snubbed in the larger community for their foreign foodways, causing prejudice and alienation of their community. While it would have been easy to just relinquish to the American way of life, however, Italians persisted on and went to great lengths to acquire the ingredients they wanted. For instance, the Italians would grow fruits and vegetables “wherever possible,” whether on gardens, or rooftops, and raise livestock in their basements (3).

Although these habits further distinguished the Italians from other American populations, and “pressure to change their eating habits” was “tremendous,” the Italian immigrants found community among themselves (2). This formation of an Italian community in pockets of American cities is yet another testament to the persistence of these immigrants, because a homogenous Italian identity was yet to exist at this time. As Levenstein explains, “there was no such thing as ‘Italian food.’ Italy itself had only recently been unified politically, and the country was marked by profound regional and local differences” (2). So although the Italian immigrants were fragmented by “regional and class hostilities,” they were able to put differences aside and unify in the shared loved and interest in food; “‘Italian’ food was one of the few sources of pride that the entire community could share” (3). Levenstein indicates this phenomenon as a driving factor for the reason that Italians were able to keep their “ethnic consciousness alive” and maintain some semblance of Italian authenticity despite a new environment (2).

This hodge-podge of Italian-American immigrant families, all co-existing under a singular Italian-American identity, is where my particular story starts. My great grandmother and grandfather were among the first generation of my family to grow up in America, in a heavily Italian district of South Philadelphia. I was lucky enough to know my great grandmother (Mum-Mum) and her daughter (Mimi, my grandmother) growing up, and from an early age absorbed their stories about the immigrant community in Philly. My relationship with Mimi was especially significant to my upbringing and socialization to food because she was a chef and even operated her own Italian food truck in the city. She knew firsthand the power of good food in her community, and did her utmost to pass on a love of cooking (as well as a skill and taste for Italian food) to me. As much as I would love to think my story is unique, however, I know that this isn’t necessarily true—many of my Italian-American friends also share in the memory of relatives who taught them Italian words, Italian recipes, and Italian behaviors. For example, two other families, the Gallina’s and the Scotto’s, own Italian restaurants in my hometown and sent their children to my high school. My Italian-American story is very special to me, but I recognize that especially in the Italianized area in which I grew up, many other people have essentially the same story and the same close relationship with food and family.

This upbringing, surrounded by other Italian-Americans, has meant that I have not fallen into the trap of thinking that “spaghetti grows on trees,” which is one of the issues that Steele comments on in her work “Hungry City.” Steele describes a BBC episode that, in jest but delivered with “complete seriousness,” described the bountiful spaghetti harvest and “included footage of Swiss farm-workers in a mountain orchard picking spaghetti off trees” (166). Many viewers, having never made spaghetti themselves, actually believed this incredible prank! Steele mentions still others who seem to have had no exposure whatsoever to produce and cooking; schoolchildren, for example, who “stared in puzzlement at the leeks, onions and potatoes” shown to them “as if they were creatures from another planet” (166). Furthermore, the idea seems to be scarily pervasive that all cooking entails is “chopping up a few vegetables and throwing them in a pan, or putting a ready-made pizza in the microwave” (164).

I am not completely immune to this inadequacy in the kitchen—I cannot pretend that my cooking is supreme or that I could prepare meatballs blindfolded. However, I have noticed that my Italian-American identity has shielded me from the gastronomic ignorance that many Americans seem to be awash in. Simple tasks such as being able to feel the ripeness of a tomato, eyeball measurements for a recipe, create a meal out of what’s in the cabinets rather than using a recipe, etc, are all skills I have acquired simply by observing my family and living an Italian-American lifestyle surrounded by Italian-American cooking. Many of my peers, on the other hand, are at quite a loss when it comes to any kitchen-related intuition. My best friend is a great example of this—she had never cracked an egg until she was 18 years old (and she only did so because I placed an egg in her hand and told her it was about time to learn). Although this friend attends Harvard and is well on her way to success in the world, cooking was an absent part of her childhood and she remains, to this day, supremely clueless about it. So while many of the Duke students in our class could hardly believe Steele’s conclusion that young people would be so gullible as to believe that spaghetti grows on trees, I know firsthand that many of my peers are indeed this uninformed. I do not pass judgment on them at all—I know that cooking must be taught, and no one can be blamed for what their parents and mentors did not teach them. However, I do find it apt to point out that none of the Italian-American children I grew up with struggled with this same problem. Cooking was and is a central part of growing up for the Italian-Americans I know.

While this observation is certainly interesting, and can hint at the importance of cooking in Italian culture (and the preservation of cooking in Italian-American culture), I believe it is also useful to compare the communicative capabilities of American children without strong cultural backgrounds with those of Italian and Italian-American children. My hypothesis is that children who grow up with rich cultural backgrounds, especially those deeply rooted in the significance of food and cooking, are better able to discern and advocate for their tastes than children who did not have similar upbringings. Certainly if mechanical skills such as feeling a tomato, peeling a potato, and chopping garlic are more developed in Italian and Italian-American children, it is possible that communication skills surrounding food may also be more fine-tuned.

A helpful start to analyzing this hypothesis is the work of Elinor Ochs, “Socializing Taste,” which contains transcriptions of conversations of many dinners held by different Italian families and American families. Ochs’ transcriptions reveal that American children were often cajoled into eating food they didn’t enjoy, and were usually incentivized to eat this food by the promise of unhealthy dessert. Italian children, on the other hand, were more encouraged to describe their food preferences, even if they differed from the rest of the family’s. The Italian children’s tastes were then taken into consideration when their families prepared foods, which seemed to make dinner a more enjoyable experience for all—the Italian parents did not as frequently have to remind their children to eat, and the children did not as frequently complain about their food. Because the ritual of parents commanding their children to eat and children resisting these commands was largely absent from the Italian dinner tables, the conversation during dinner time was better able to center around other subjects. On the other hand, some American dinners became focused around the unenjoyable “plate inspection” and bargaining between parents and children over how many pieces of veggies had to be eaten, or if eating veggies could be exchanged for taking more vitamins. For one American family, all this tension between parents and children eventually came to a head in a father “explod[ing] in frustration” with the exclamation “these kids deserve dog food” (35). At many points, it was truly uncomfortable to read these American interactions, which often made dinner seem like a stressful event that only pitted the children against the adults in a battle of what and how much to eat.

The Italian interactions, on the other hand, seemed to be far more easy-going and the Italian parents seemed to better demonstrate good behavior and family-centered values for the children. The Italian children were also more likely and more able to communicate their likes and dislikes, as well as what they wanted to eat and how much. This stark contrast between the Italian and American dinners is not something that only I noticed, or something I was more likely to pick up on perhaps due to a bias—our entire class commented on how the Italians in the transcriptions seemed like they were socializing their children to food in a more constructive, patient, and even-tempered way. While certainly Ochs’ study cannot be taken as law for all Italian families or all American families, the transcriptions do still shed light on the differences in food-related behavior between the two cultures.

Although I speak only from my own experience and the experiences I have heard of from Italian-American friends, I believe that the Italian food socialization described in Ochs’ work is far more representative of Italian-American food socialization than is the American version. I can pinpoint a much greater number of similarities between my own family and the Italian families in Ochs’ text, in terms of the ways that children were exposed to food and its importance—being encouraged to develop my own food preferences, advocating for my tastes at the dinner table, not needing dessert as an incentive to finish food, and not knowing a separation between child and adult food, just to name a few. I strongly believe that because I was raised with parental strategies and attitudes that positively encouraged my socialization to food, I have amassed greater mechanical and communicative gastronomic skills than my average American peers who did not grow up in a household with a strong, positive culture surrounding food and cooking.

However, it is important to emphasize once again that this cannot necessarily be extended to apply to all Italian-American families. I mainly mean to express that my time in Italy, coupled with my background as an Italian-American who was raised in a very Italian area of the United States, has helped me to develop the idea that Italian and Italian-American food socialization is more productive and healthy for children than American food socialization. These ideas, while strengthened by the works of Levenstein, Steele, and Ochs, as well as by the reactions of our class to these readings and my personal anecdotes, still require more investigation. My main conclusion, given all of this information and my own insights, is simply that different cultures provide backdrops for families to socialize their children to food in different ways–ways which are not all created equal, and will have lasting impacts upon how children operate in the gastronomic world.

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