Recalling Century of European Influx, and Its Foods
Byline: Amanda Watson Schnetzer
"Hungering for America," the latest book by Hasia R. Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, is about the century of European migration that took place between 1820 and 1920. In this period of tremendous political, economic, and social change, Europe's poor increasingly looked beyond their nations' borders for work and sustenance.
In time, millions heeded the call of Lady Liberty, that Mother of Exiles, whose warm invitation to freedom's shores rings as true today as when poet Emma Lazarus penned these words in 1883: "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-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Drawing extensively on primary sources, the author poses two specific questions for herself and her readers: How did the Italian, Irish, and east European Jewish poor experience hunger in the 19th century? And how did emigration to America and the discovery of abundant food there change them?
Mrs. Diner contends that "the memories of hunger and the realities of American plenty fused together to shape the ethnic identities of millions of women and men," and she sets out to tell us why. She writes that modernization and overpopulation in the latter half of the 19th century worsened the plight of Italy's rural poor. Average peasant families spent 75 to 85 percent of their income on food yet still ate a regular diet of polenta and acqua sale (hard bread served in boiling water with olive oil and salt). They found relief from this meager fare on holy days when the country's small land-owning elite offered them gifts of food and wine, but their plight ultimately sent them packing in search of a better life.
Italian immigrants to America wanted to emulate the lifestyle of their wealthier compatriots who had demonstrated such largesse. They brought with them sacred notions about meals shared with family at a common table and created a rich and varied cuisine that was at once Italian and American. For them, food embodied "what they had become and what they had achieved."
"East European Jews," Mrs. Diner writes, "derived tremendous pleasure from food, reveled in sensuality of taste, and did not consider interest in food to be a low order of concern." However, adverse economic conditions in the 19th century and the growing search for work and food, "propelled the exodus" to an America of skilled workers, artisans, "common laborers," and servants. According to the author, these immigrants were "the less observant of the east European Jews," and their eagerness to embrace American life, including American food, "upset the boundaries between sacred and ordinary."
Nonetheless, Mrs. Diner assures us that, "Jews, before and after migration, put food at the center of their sacred system and imbued the preparation and consumption of food with deep meaning." No matter how many American novelties whet their appetite, "certain foods [still] anchored them to the past and tradition."
Widespread famine in Ireland in the 19th century drove 4. …