Italian Culture Across Borders

by Hillary Lindsay

Italians have migrated around the world, carrying with them both cultural and culinary traditions. On April 23rd at the Bedford Cheese Shop, I explored this transnationalism of Italian food over a feast of spaghetti and meatballs, the Italian-American classic, in my class, "Food Anthropology: Italian Culture Across Borders".

This cooking demo and discussion delved into the narrative of the Italian transnational experience — from the mass migration after the Unification of Italy in 1861 to the present with the international Slow Food Movement. While preparing the spaghetti and meatballs, I described the dire straits and limited diet in Italy before migration for the poor contadini (peasant farmers), their view of the top of the social hierarchy from the bottom, through levels of domestic servitude, and the creation of their cucina dei sogni (food dreams) from this social contact.

Once the migration began, the next step was the realization of their food dreams in the New World, with the relatively higher wages and food availability, especially in the United States in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The luxury items the immigrants dreamed of, such as meat, cheese, wine, and white bread, became incorporated in their daily diet, not just during the holidays as in Italy. Meat was added to many dishes through a process called carnificazione. The most popular example of carnificazione is the addition of meatballs to spaghetti. Spaghetti and meatballs is a dish that is hard to come by in Italy; it is truly an American creation and it eventually became the expectation of Americans in Italian-American restaurants.

At this point in the discussion, it was spaghetti and meatball time! While recounting the journey of Italian food to America, I had made additional sauce, added the meatballs to warm them up and further saturate them, and made the spaghetti. The time had come to throw it all together with some freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. I had prepared the meatballs and most of the sauce ahead of time using ingredients fresh from the Blooming Hill Farm market. I mixed techniques from my Calabrian nonna, from a chef we had taken a class from in Florence, and some additional family flair. Hence, the recipe is a mix Southern Italian, Northern Italian, and Italian-American. This regional mixing is typical of Americanized Italian food. Here's the breakdown!

Spaghetti and Meatballs: The Italian-American Classic

Sauce:

  • Soffritto("fried slowly"): diced carrots, celery, onions
  • Garlic
  • Roasted tomatoes
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Basil
  • EVO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • S&P (salt and pepper)
  • Splash of red wine

To get things started, let the soffritto sweat in a pan with EVO and minced garlic. While that's happening, roast some Roma tomatoes in EVO and S&P in the oven at 350˚F. Separate the seeds and skin when it all starts to fall off and add to the pan. Purée the roasted red peppers and add them in too. Throw in a splash of red wine (because you should be drinking it while you cook anyway). Then add in some whole basil leaves and let the sauce slowly simmer.

Meatballs:

  • Meatball mix (veal, pork, beef)
  • Italian bread soaked in milk (1 cup per pound of meat)
  • Eggs (1 per pound of meat)
  • Parsley
  • Breadcrumbs (1 cup per pound of meat)
  • Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup per pound of meat)
  • EVO
  • Splash of red wine (we talked about this)

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Then get your hands in there and form some balls. Make sure there are enough breadcrumbs so they don't become pancakes. When ready, fry all sides in a pan with EVO. When they're nice and brown, dump them into the sauce to let them finish cooking and soaking up all that saucy goodness.

Add the meatballs and sauce to your spaghetti to show your American carnificazione. Add grated Parmesan and an extra basil leaf, if you want to get fancy. Pair with a red wine, like Chianti and Nebbiola, and enjoy!

*Proportions are to your liking. Italians like to keep it loose and experimental.


Once everyone was served, I sat at the table to continue the conversation over our Italian-American feast, which also included Chianti and Napoli bread made fresh in Brooklyn — the perfect way to wipe our plates clean. The conversation continued by talking about the path to acceptance for Italian-American food — beginning with the American assimilation missionaries, with their health misconceptions and resistance to Italian food. Attempting to change the ways of the Italian immigrants became a job for these stubborn Americans, who perceived the flavorful and vegetable rich diet of the Italians as devoid of nutrition and hazardous to the nervous system. However, the Italian immigrants were even more stubborn.  

A shift began in WWI, when eating Italian food became a sign of ally solidarity, and continued during Prohibition with the social exchange at Italian speakeasies where Italians made culinary compromises to appease the American palate while the American palate was simultaneously being shaped by the Italians.  For example, extra sugar was added to tomato sauce to break down the acidity and make it more like ketchup. In addition, there were compromises between the individual Italian regions as the Italian identity became more homogenized. Appreciation grew further during the Great Depression when Italian-Americans were praised for their frugality with money saving tricks, such as urban farming, food preservation, and meat-spreading techniques (like Bolognese sauce).

Italian transnationalism then became a circular path as the New World began to change the Old World through trade and repatriation. The new Italian-American cuisine of rich luxury food items caused an expansion of these food markets in Italy due to the increased demand from Italian communities in the Americas, especially olive oil, which became essential to the Italian identity. Nearly half of the Italian immigrants repatriated between the beginning of the mass migration to the early 1900’s. They went back to Italy with higher standards and expectations. Their new palates and wages earned from the Americas stimulated the Italian economy by demanding staple items they regularly consumed in the New World.  Additionally, many opened food establishments, which served their Americanized Italian cuisine, and factories producing macaroni, cheese, and olive oil to export to America; these businesses changed the construction of the Italian identity of food.

Today, the transnationalism of Italian values is thriving through the Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986. This initially Italian, now international movement, promotes sustainable, quality food produced ethically and distributed equally through a united food system. Slow Food is also about celebrating culinary traditions, regional identities, and taking your time to cook and enjoy food. These culinary values are at the cuore of Italian cooking and are now influencing both the United States and the world.      


For more details on the topic, check out this paper, which includes Argentina, where I did research at the Italian Consulate of Buenos Aires, as the third point in a transnational triangle: Transnationalist Food Connections  

Check out the classes at Bedford Cheese Shop: bedfordcheeseshop.com/pages/classes
My next class: The History of Spanish Cheese- regional pairings (May 7th)

Also, check out Blooming Hill Farm: bloominghillfarm.com

 

Hillary Lindsay is a NYC resident with an anthropology degree who explores culture through food by engaging in work on farms, in restaurants, and in shops, as well as through blogging and social media. Check out her blog at fttdeconstructed.wordpress.com.