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How Early Italian Immigrants to the United States Survived Culinary Assimilation

Italian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries resisted traditional American Thanksgiving and created their own traditions. 

Thanksgiving is not a recognized holiday in Italy, nor is it celebrated by Italians in the country. Nonetheless, the holiday plays an obscure yet important role in the history of Italian immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These early immigrants, despite pressures to discard the cooking of their home country, melded their culinary traditions with those of their host culture to forge something unique – Italian-American Thanksgiving.

Between 1880 and 1920, approximately 4.2 million Italians immigrated to the United States, settling primarily on the East Coast in areas such as New York and the general New England region, according to Global Boston, a digital project chronicling the history of immigration to Boston. The majority of Italians immigrated from Southern Italy and were seeking to escape exorbitant taxes, failed crops, diseases, deadly earthquakes, and high mortality rates. Immigrants tended to be illiterate and poor and upon arriving in the United States were crowded into unsanitary tenement slums rampant with tuberculosis and other diseases. 

Reformers in the late 19th century believed they could help slum-dwelling Italians by teaching them proper personal hygiene and household economics. They also blamed Italian food for Italian troubles, according to the New England Historical Society.

These first generations of Italian immigrants faced immense pressure to change their eating habits upon entering the United States. 

Harvey Levenstein, in his 1985 book The American Response to Italian Food, states that Americans rejected the idea of Italian food, otherwise known as “foreign cooking,” in part because of the stigma attached to early Italian immigrants. “By 1900, as the deluge of unskilled and poverty-stricken immigrants struck America's cities, Italy no longer merely connoted Renaissance palaces and happy gondoliers to the native-born mind,” writes Levenstein in his book. “More immediate were images of swarthy immigrants in teeming tenements: sewer diggers, railroad navvies, crime, violence and the dreaded cutthroats of the “Black hand.””

Italian cooking was considered to be dangerous, and unsubstantial, its “foreignness” to blame for immigrants’ poor health. According to an 1899 report issued by the Family Welfare Society of Boston, Italians easily fell “victim to tuberculosis, they crowd together in unhygienic tenements, and the food to which they are accustomed seems to lack nutrition sufficient to enable them to fight with the vigor the difficulties besetting them.” 

Furthermore, in 1904, Robert Woods, a social worker who founded the South End House, the first settlement in Boston, blamed an increase in death rates among Italian immigrants on crowded tenements and their “over-stimulating and innutritious diet.”

Despite pressures to adapt to America’s culinary traditions, such as Thanksgiving, Italian immigrants resisted assimilation and forged their own cuisine that retained old-country flavors while being conducive to the tastes of their adoptive country. Over time, Italian-American cuisine would become the most widely accepted “foreign” cuisine in the United States, according to Levenstein. This blend of the old world and the new world eventually seeped into Thanksgiving celebrations.

An Italian-American Thanksgiving would have the classic American turkey, but it would be stuffed with Italian sausage, according to the New England Historical Society. The meal typically began with a series of antipasti including prosciutto, salame, and mortadella. Soup would follow as would some kind of pasta, usually ravioli or lasagna. Then there would be the Italian turkey, cranberry sauce, and potatoes, all of which would be served with homemade wine. The feast would wrap up with dessert– pie, torrone, panna cotta, and roasted chestnuts were among the most popular. 

Although not vastly different from an American Thanksgiving, Italian-American Thanksgiving is a pièce de résistance on behalf of early Italian immigrants. The subtle, yet ever-present undercurrent of old-school Italian flavors has persisted and been celebrated, for generations, a fact that in itself is sure to have made those first Italian immigrants thankful for. 

Asia London Palomba

Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, currently pursuing her master's in journalism at New York University (NYU). In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, and The Christian Science Monitor. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.