Why Do Italians Cook with Garlic, Oregano, and Tomatoes? Simply stated, because they grow there. It’s the same with any culture, nationality or group. If you eat, the chances are you are accustomed to eating what is grown locally. Italians, along with a lot of other cultures cook with garlic, oregano, and tomatoes just like people in Alaska eat fish. Every family everywhere in the world has particular tastes, budgets, and style of cooking.
From Near – Famine to Feast
What we as Americans believe to be Italian food, is really the food that has morphed from what it was in the old country, to what it is today. People from Italy (mainly Southern) came in droves to the Land of Opportunity after WWII. These immigrants brought with them the recipes from which daily meals were made.
It’s estimated that between the early 1861 and 1920, the first of two diasporas, more than 4 million southern Italian people emigrated to the United States. The Library of Congress1 denotes the following:
“Most of this generation of Italian immigrants took their first steps on U.S. soil in a place that has now become a legend—Ellis Island. In the 1880s, they numbered 300,000; in the 1890s, 600,000; in the decade after that, more than two million. By 1920, when immigration began to taper off, more than 4 million Italians had come to the United States and represented more than 10 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population.
Many of the new arrivals came with little more than the clothes on their backs and dreams in their hearts. Meals back home consisted of what was available at the time, often served sparingly, as these people had little money and limited opportunities.
I’m not presuming that every Italian immigrant coming ashore in the 1940’s was broke, skinny and hungry, what I am saying is that all immigrants from Europe escaping the upheaval from two world wars within a 40-year period, as well as those who came before, were typically poor. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, at least in the 19th century that may have been true. Today, most of Americans are native-born citizens. Most “immigrants are more than likely in the country without authorization.
Some of the first words welcoming our soon – to- be – citizens back in the days of mass immigration were:
“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Ellis Island, the first stop on a hopeful future ushered them in with open arms.2
The American Embellishment
If you consider that immigrant Italians clung to their traditional cooking is no surprise, but what was meager repasts had begun to evolve into what we know today. Sumptuous, hearty dishes like pasta and red sauce (many Italians call it gravy) and meatballs, along with big steaming pans of lasagna, things of that nature. It wasn’t always that way.
Grandmas and moms embellished the traditional dishes by using much more cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella than they could ever have possibly afforded “back home.” These delicious creations were typically used as a garnish rather than one of the main ingredients. Meatballs may have been consumed back home, but not the way we see food piled on plates in this day and age.
Abbundanza, the Maltese word for abundance, is a term that we Americans tag Italian food because there wasn’t too much abundance in the war-torn hills, valleys, farms and fields of what these people called the mother country. But people who now have the chance to live better lives, share the new – found abundance in the new – found country with family brought pride and satisfaction across the land. Italian grandmothers and their daughters spent the day creating hearty dishes to be shared around a table of household members to thank their Creator and apportion in the feast.
Pizzerias opened everywhere Italian food and food lovers clustered, and new versions of the classic enticed many an adventurous foodie. Back home in Italy, a simple dough with perhaps some tomato slices and oregano, maybe some basil leaves and a fried egg topped pizza. Now creativity took hold, and we find Italian sausage, pepperoni, piles of mozzarella cheese, giardiniera, you name it.
Like everything in this great country, new things are always being introduced into our American Culture, and Italian food is no different. In the early 1970’s, Northern Italian cuisine was introduced. This lighter, “fresher” ingredients like pasta made with egg, cream sauces and fresh vegetables overtook the tastes of Americans. Red sauce and lots of cheese took a back seat to this newly adopted cuisine. Dishes like linguine and clam sauce, risotto with mushrooms, fonduta (cheeses and milk, egg, melted for fondue dipping), fettuccini Alfredo, among many others. People of the North relied less on tomatoes, olive oil and herbs, and more on cheeses, butter, cream and lard.
There may be regional differences in opinion as to which ethnic cuisine is at the top of the popularity list, but nationally, Italian cuisine is the third most popular, behind Chinese and Mexican respectfully3
The story of Italian emigration and Italian food is a long one, much too long for an article such as this. As time permits, I’ll try to build on this theme, as well as share some family recipes that will be a great addition to any Sunday meal.
Let us know what you think about the idea of a blog, and I might be able to lean on family members or even some customers to help build something notable.
See you when I see you, and I hope it’s soon.