On a hot summer day in 1887, an inquisitive by mrg10873


									On a hot summer day in 1887, an inquisitive Daily News reporter left “the warm but clean streets of the city to
walk through the irregular piles of hovels of South Clark Street and see the squalor and misery of the unfortunate
poor.” Escorted by a city health inspector, he headed for the "Quarters of the Wretched Poor," the Italian
community centered just south of downtown, near the Polk Street Depot. The men toured a 6' x 10' shed that
housed a family of eight and a four-story frame building in which a different family inhabited each room, living
amidst piles of rags scavenged from the alleys of Chicago. The reporter described a scene in which “squalid,
dirty, ragged children and weak, emaciated mothers lay around in the stifling atmosphere, amid a stench that
would discount that of a thousand scavenger wagons and piles of filth of all kinds.” In case his readers had
missed the depths to which these slum dwellers had sunk, he concluded with this description: “Sitting on the floor
was an aged hag, with a screen in her hand, busily engaged in sorting over a lot of oats taken from some horse-
box. She was apparently selecting the material for her evening meal.”[1]

Italians and their foodways generated intense interest among reporters, reformers, and public officials. Stories of
appalling slum conditions in immigrant neighborhoods were inevitably accompanied by vivid descriptions of the
peculiar and loathsome eating habits of Italian immigrants, whom reporters accused of literally eating garbage. In
“Where Filth is King,” one reporter described “dago” children “in every conceivable stage of unclean
dishabille...hungry and clamorous for spoil,” who descended upon heaps of rubbish to “ferret in its unsavory
depths for food. Melon rinds, egg-shells, stale crusts--all manner of refuse...are captured by the young vultures
with noisy triumph.” The reporter quoted a passing Irish workman who exclaimed, “Begorra... them dagos'll ate
annything!” “In the Italian Quarter” described Italians squatting on the floor to ladle out a “villainous-looking
mixture” for their noonday meal. Most appalling, however, was the revelation that Italians seemed to thrive in
these conditions. A disgusted inspector for the Department of Health commented, “They are as healthy as
Norway rats, live on pretty much the same kind of food, and are as hard to kill off." [2]

Reports such as these began to establish food as a basic aspect of Italian identity. The food choices Italians made
were rarely viewed as socially conditioned or a product of environmental circumstance--they were seen as
elemental and instinctual impulses, even hereditarily predetermined. Italians revealed themselves by what they
ate. Throughout the period of intense immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, food would
become a focus for the “problem” of Italian immigration.
Dietary reformers, settlement house workers, social workers, and public health officials, armed with new ideas
about the efficacy of education and improved environment on behavior, confronted the problem of Italians and
their food. Drawing on theories promoted by the new professions of home economics and nutrition, they claimed
that changes in the immigrant diet could lead to improved health, a more nurturing home life, and better
citizenship. For American reformers, food functioned to promote the health of the human body, strengthening
and invigorating the individual mind to produce energetic workers and intelligent participants in the democratic
process. The initiative and independence of character vital to democracy could only come through a rejection of
old and tired ways. The studies and educational efforts they conducted sought to convince Italians not only to
live like Americans, but to eat like them. Their ideas reinforced a static portrait of a common group identity in
which irrational, unenlightened peasant conservatism kept Italianschained to the unhealthy replication of their old
world Italian diet.

As Italians struggled to carve out new lives, commitment to traditional foods provided a satisfying link with both
the physical aspects of their former homes and the cultural values they were determined to retain. Food was an
integral support for the Italian family and any outside challenge to the family diet was viewed as both insulting
and threatening to the family itself. An Italian minister described the feelings of Italian immigrants toward such

In reading the report of a group of social workers I found a remark like this: "Not yet Americanized; still eating
Italian food." I have heard Italian families complain about the aggressive, blunt way in which some social
workers burst into their homes and upset the usual routine of their lives, opening windows, undressing children,
giving orders not to eat this and that...Social workers are well-intentioned but they forget that they are dealing
with human beings and not with cattle.
Yet while reformers valiantly toiled to “Americanize” the Italian diet, they were often blind to the changes which
were occurring. Italians were not interested in replicating the poverty they had left behind. Change and
adaptation coexisted side by side with tradition and familiarity. The very process of re-creating familiar
foodways in a new urban environment brought changes to Italians' lives and diets. Change came but often in the
service of tradition. [3]

As Italians settled and began to prosper, curiosity and interest in their foodways continued. No longer reviled as
garbage pickers, Italian families were recognized as powerful institutions in which food played a primal role. In
the eyes of many Americans, Italians and food were inseparable.

Sociologists speculate that behavior learned early in life is the most deeply embedded and therefore the most
resistant to change. Food preferences are one such behavior, reinforced by years of repetition. Yet early
preferences are also shaped by what is available, culturally acceptable, and functional. Cultural anthropologist
Roger Abrahams points out that ties between food and ethnic identity are largely unconscious “until alternatives
are introduced, at which point a choice is involved.” This is the story of the complex choices Italians made and
the meaning both they and others attached to their foodways. Like many immigrant stories, it is one of people
adjusting to their new lives selectively and on their own terms. [4]

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