How Italian Cuisine Became as American as Apple Pie


By Tracie McMillan

“The Plate,” National Geographic • May 4, 2016

If you’re wondering about how and why food gets appropriated—i.e. when Americans consider it their own—think about this: Eating Italian food was once considered “slumming.” So what does it take for a foreign cuisine to melt into America’s pot? We talked to Krishnendu Ray, the director of NYU’s Food Studies program and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, a book about how immigrants to the U.S. shape the food culture, who gave us a step-by-step breakdown of how a cuisine can go from unnoticed to avant-garde; from popular to prestigious.

Immigrate and introduce a new cuisine—ideally with a few notable dishes.

In the late 19th century, says Ray, most restaurant food of note in the U.S. was Germanic: spaetzle, sausages, and often served in beer halls. But as a wave of Italian migrants began to arrive, mostly from that country’s southern region, so did their meals, which were heavy on pasta. Early on, your restaurants will be ignored, unless something of note—such as crime—happens on their premises, says Ray.

One of the earliest Italian dishes to get noticed, by the way, was macaroni and cheese. Presented as macaroni au gratin, that dish, says Ray, was “sold as refined cuisine in American restaurants in most of the 19th century” and was understood to be Italian, even though most Italian food was still considered esoteric and foreign.

Make friends with bohemians and journalists.

By the late 1800s, “bohemians are referencing [Italian] food … [using] terminology like slumming,” says Ray. At the time, Italian food was commonly referred to as “foreign,” rather than today’s term, “ethnic.” Journalists, too, were serving as translators between the immigrant kitchens and more mainstream American society. “You go and partake in a part of the culture that’s seen as exciting rather than prestigious,” says Ray.

Put up with haters.

Meanwhile, in the 1920s, nutritionists and social workers wrote and spoke frequently of Italian food—but not in a good way. They were “mostly complaining about how the food is garlicky and spicy, and increases a craving for alcohol,” says Ray. (There’s no contemporary science backing that up.) And, in that era, alcohol was considered such a threat that Prohibition was passed. By linking garlicky food to drinking more booze, the “consensus at that point is that you have to go against Italian food,” says Ray.

Get more money and nonimmigrant friends.

“If you see a lot of poor people eating a food, you’re not willing to pay much money for it,” says Ray. “In-migration of poor people has to stop, and upward mobility begin” before a cuisine can become prestigious.

And, as upward mobility expands, so do social networks and access to capital, says Ray. An Italian who became a lawyer in the 1950s may have begun to have colleagues and friends who are from mainstream America—and who may be more open to a new food when introduced by someone they know. What’s more, as more Italians entered the middle and upper classes, there was more informal capital available to help launch or prop up restaurants.

Watch your cuisine go from popular to prestigious to American.

For most of the 20th century, the Italian food served in restaurants came from southern Italy: olive oil, pasta with red sauce and meatballs, pizza. By the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal created a project on restaurants in New York City, marking Italian restaurants as “interesting, sometimes cheap, exciting places to eat,” says Ray. As such, it was becoming a popular food.

But, cautions Ray, “things can get popular, but it’s very difficult to climb the class ladder.” For Italian food, that didn’t come until the 1980s and 1990s, when restaurateurs began to emphasize northern Italian cuisine rather than southern. Risottos and wine sauces from the north became fashionable, and provided a class marker between the pastas and pizza of the south. In the 1990s, says Ray, “if you want[ed] to charge a price that’s higher, you [had] to call yourself northern Italian.”

Today, out of 800,000 restaurants in the U.S., about 100,000 serve Italian food. But while the bulk are pizzerias and casual restaurants, there’s also a significant component of fine dining restaurants, says Ray, who based his numbers on National Restaurant Association statistics. Meanwhile, there are about 40,000 each of Chinese and Mexican restaurants, with far fewer fine dining options among them.

Eventually, Italian food gained its current place as an essentially American food. By the mid-aughts, “that association [of northern Italian cuisine] with prestige goes out of fashion, there’s about a 10 to 15 year window,” says Ray. Today, Italian food is so Americanized that it can be found in uber-populist forms, like box macaroni and cheese, that are stripped of their cultural roots.

Even if northern Italian specialties like risotto have yet to become quite as Americanized as that, the older southern variant has infiltrated all corners of our cuisine. After all, whether it’s a floppy $1 slice, an $18 meatball special, or a $1,000 caviar and lobster pie, pizza’s nearly as American as apple pie.

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