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Hungering for America

Hungering for America

by Hasia R. DINER, Hasia R Diner

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Millions of immigrants were drawn to American shores, not by the mythic streets paved with gold, but rather by its tables heaped with food. How they experienced the realities of America's abundant food—its meat and white bread, its butter and cheese, fruits and vegetables, coffee and beer—reflected their earlier deprivations and shaped their ethnic


Millions of immigrants were drawn to American shores, not by the mythic streets paved with gold, but rather by its tables heaped with food. How they experienced the realities of America's abundant food—its meat and white bread, its butter and cheese, fruits and vegetables, coffee and beer—reflected their earlier deprivations and shaped their ethnic practices in the new land.

Hungering for America tells the stories of three distinctive groups and their unique culinary dramas. Italian immigrants transformed the food of their upper classes and of sacred days into a generic "Italian" food that inspired community pride and cohesion. Irish immigrants, in contrast, loath to mimic the foodways of the Protestant British elite, diminished food as a marker of ethnicity. And, East European Jews, who venerated food as the vital center around which family and religious practice gathered, found that dietary restrictions jarred with America's boundless choices.

These tales, of immigrants in their old worlds and in the new, demonstrate the role of hunger in driving migration and the significance of food in cementing ethnic identity and community. Hasia Diner confirms the well-worn adage, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this fascinating survey of the eating habits and influences of Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants, Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, charts with wit and graceful prose the similarities and differences between these three distinct groups as they encountered mainstream American culture. Italian immigrants, fleeing poverty and a rigid, class-based economic system, found in America the ability to take "possession of elite food associated with the well-off" and to forge a new collective ethnic identity; in doing so they introduced Italian cuisine to America and created lucrative culinary business opportunities. The Irish, fleeing famine, did not possess a complex "national food culture" because they came from a place "where hunger... defined identity." But many Irish women became cooks and servants (and incidentally, were always called "Biddy"), and thereby entered domestic American life and became familiar with its bourgeois foods and customs. Eastern European Jews "lived in a world where food was sacred for all," as well as tightly controlled by religious law. Like Italians, Jews made their food a public statement of identity, and the availability of nonkosher foods in the U.S. exacerbated conflicts between traditional and assimilationist factions. Diner deftly juggles a huge amount of detail and analysis drawing upon memoirs, cookbooks, newspaper accounts, films and studies of consumer culture and provides both political and social insights in a highly accessible social history. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
New York Times Book Review
Diner's research--into historical accounts, novels, plays, economic studies, personal narratives and vintage demographic surveys--has produced a book jampacked with fascinating bits of Italian, Irish and Jewish food lore...Diner's bighearted attitude toward immigrants and their struggles...along with the rich anecdotal material, may inspire a pang of regret when you're finished.
— Robert Sietsema
Italian Tribune
In Hungering for America...Hasia R. Diner provides a richly detailed, highly original study of the changing food habits of three groups of immigrants--Italians, Irish, and Jews--who migrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920.
Indiana Jewish Post & Opinion
For those with an appetite for an excellent book on cultural history, I recommend Hungering for America.
— Jack Fischel

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Harvard University Press
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At meetings and dinner parties, in libraries and at conferences, old friends, relatives, professional colleagues, and new acquaintances ask me: what are you working on? I hesitate momentarily, knowing full well what will follow. But I tell them anyhow: I am writing a book on immigrant foodways and ethnic cultures in America. I then brace for the predictable response.

    First, they smile, perhaps even laugh. Some just think it a strange subject for an historian. Treaties and wars, strikes and elections, rallies for equal rights, protests against discrimination and exploitation, these are the stuff of history. Food seems ephemeral, the subject for cookbooks. But the smile also reflects a love of food. Food is fun and gives pleasure. Since it is linked psychologically to sex, people may feel slightly excited or embarrassed. Mentioning it elicits a twinkling of the eye, a broad grin, a ribald chuckle.

    But after this response, conversations quickly shift to memory, going from smiles of surprise to rhapsodies of remembering. Talking about food is a way of talking about family, childhood, community. Remembered foods open the floodgates of the past, as friends and acquaintances describe who they are, where they came from, and the textures and tastes of the time gone by.

    In exquisite detail they describe a mother's lasagna, a beloved grandmother's kugel, the curries, chiles rellenos, lutefisks, goulashes, moussakas, pierogis, and other hearty and sensuous reminders of childhood, all seemingly brought intact to America and now the salient part of their ethnic repertoires. Theyrecreate for me the kitchen smells and tastes of their pasts. They recall iconic meals, certain that these cherished foods were the treasured recipes of someplace called "back home," wherever their families originally hailed from. Remembered food connects them to those places. It, more than language, clothing, home furnishings, even religious rituals, launches their journeys back in time and across borders to long-finished family meals. Through the talk of authentic ethnic foods they make their claim to being insiders of communities they may no longer live in. It would never occur to them to ponder the authenticity of these dishes or to think that such foods have histories. The food which came out of ancestral ovens represents to them powerful legacies of continuity, linking them to faraway places, most of which they have never visited.

    Like all memories, these tales of immigrant foodways reflect more about the rememberer than about the actualities of history. The dishes described require elaborate preparation and call upon high levels of skill. Those who cooked them—mothers and grandmothers—owned and used bowls and pans, spatulas and turning forks, measuring cups, rolling pins, and ladles. These succulent foods came out of ovens of gas or electric which gave off a uniform and predictable heat. These dishes, chock-full of expensive ingredients—meat, cheese, oils and other fats, eggs, fresh vegetables, noodles, rice, sugar, salt—represented the investment of much money and time.

    Most of the millions of women and men who chose to immigrate to America in the century of European migration, the hundred years stretching from the 1820s through the 1920s, came from precisely that class which could never afford to eat such fine foods. Had they eaten so well regularly in the "old country," they might not have needed to come to America. While religious persecution and political turmoil also pushed people out of their homes, by and large the ranks of the immigrants were drawn from among people who did not eat such wonderful dishes. They may have tasted them at feast days a few times a year, or taken some from an employer's pantry. Meat in particular lay beyond their reach. Nor did they have the time, the tools, or the space to regularly produce such wonders of culinary delight. Just the basic chores, like finding fuel for cooking and heating and drawing water, amounted to an unending burden.

    The women and men who came to America came hungry and in part because of hunger. America had achieved a deserved global reputation as a place where food could be had for relatively little money. Immigrants never believed that the streets of America were paved with gold. Instead, they expected that its tables were covered with food. Newcomers knew that they would have to work hard, but that was nothing new. The difference was that arduous labor before migration had gotten them little food, while in the United States equally hard work in factories, mines, mills, railroads, and firms would be rewarded with tables sagging with food unimaginable to them back home. Only in the imagination of later generations did the people who came to America eat such a varied diet and consume regularly dishes laden with meat and oil, sugar and eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, hearty soups and stews, crusty breads and soft rolls.

To all the people who over the last decade shared with me their wonderful stories about foods eaten, then lost, but now remembered, I offer this book. Without minimizing the images of their parents and grandparents as the custodians of tradition, or dispelling the warm glow of the mnemonics of childhood meals, I explore how those grandmothers and grandfathers negotiated between what they had eaten and, equally important, not eaten before migration, and what they found in America. How did they experience the search for bread (and meat, sugar, cheese, oil), and how did finding it transform them into new people, Americans from particular places? Their memories of hunger remained, playing a considerable role in the communities they created. Their memories originated in the mingling of recollections of being hungry in one place and finding once unattainable food in another place. This book explores how the memories of hunger and the realities of American plenty fused together to shape the ethnic identities of millions of women and men from Italy, Ireland, and Jewish eastern Europe.

Chapter One


"People," novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "do not love alike." "Neither do they starve alike," he observed in his commentary on Hunger, the grim novel first published in 1892 by another Nobel Laureate, the Norwegian Knut Hamsun. Although Hamsun, according to the Yiddish author, explored hunger as a "highly individualistic sensation," the comment suggests a relationship between food, scarcity, and the social history of immigration. How people experienced hunger in one place and then recalled its pangs in another had everything to do with who they were, where they came from, and where they went.

    In the hundred years following the 1820s, a massive transfer of population sent about 30 million Europeans to the United States. They came from the Continent's tens of thousands of villages, towns, and cities; from hundreds of regions and dozens of countries. A mass migration, it was yet the sum of decisions made by individuals coping with the specific difficulties of specific places. All of the individual and collective movements were, however, shaped by the powerful draw of America, a place where newly arrived immigrants could find work. To work as a laborer in a mill or as a hired hand on a farm, as a miner digging for coal or as a stevedore unloading cargo on some waterfront, as a peddler in the hinterlands or as a grocer in a small neighborhood shop, meant being able to feed oneself and one's family. There are millions of stories about how this happened and what it meant. None exemplifies the whole. Even on the level of the immigrant group, no single experience represents the totality of the many, in terms of when migrations took place, who migrated, how, and why.

    The bulk of the Italian migration occurred in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth. In those years 4 million individuals left the Italian peninsula, initially young men from villages in the regions south of Rome. About half of the men who came to America ultimately returned to their home communities, although an untold number re-emigrated. The emigration from Ireland began earlier, with the 1840s, the decade of the Famine, a crucial moment in the creation of a visible Irish presence in the United States. But the flight from "the Great Hunger" did not account for the largest number of Irish immigrants, nor did they cease to arrive after 1880. In the forty years from 1880 to 1920 over a million Irish people made their way to America. Theirs was a heavily female migration, with young women bound for domestic service constituting the majority. Irish immigrants evinced little interest in returning home, other than perhaps to visit parents. East European Jews began their immigration to the United States in the 1870s. In 1880 only one-sixth of America's Jews hailed from the regions east of the Elbe, but after that the relentless exodus from regions then ruled by Russia and Austria-Hungary—Russia itself, Poland, Rumania, and Galicia—transformed American Jewry into an east European outpost. The two-and-a-half million Jewish women and men migrated in equal numbers, and they came to America with no intention of returning. The immigrants, who counted many older people and children among them, arrived with a keen sense of themselves as Jews, bound to each other regardless of place of origin.

    Despite the differences between these three groups, they shared many aspects of a pre-migration reality. Those who emigrated had little prospect of sustaining themselves and their families if they stayed put. Economic changes were shaking up their home communities, and the potential migrants saw and felt that conditions were worsening. The best off in their communities—the well-fed—had little motive to leave. The worst off also did not join the flow, as the truly destitute and starving did not have the means to do so. Those who emigrated knew hunger and envisioned America as a place where they could alleviate its pangs.

    For all of human history people have contended with the stark reality that they must eat to live. Fulfilling this most fundamental need never was easy. For most people at most times, food choices depended upon what was available locally. Food shaped basic forms of social organization, and human societies were structured according to how they hunted, gathered, farmed, or fished. Human beings created and invoked deities, constructed religious systems, and coined money to trade beyond their limited resources. They killed each other over food, and left their homes and journeyed far when the food they expected ran out.

    Even in ordinary times, daily chores of gathering food and fuel, transforming raw ingredients into something edible, distributing finished products within a community, and storing foodstuffs for future use took up most human energy. Natural disasters, floods, earthquakes, droughts, and infestations diminished already precarious supplies. Wars impeded the process of getting, preparing, and consuming food. Human destruction of rivers, forests, fields, and herds also jeopardized food supplies. Conquests by outside invaders changed food systems, putting barriers between the occupied people and food. Class and gender distinctions within any community also decreed who ate what, where, when, and how.

    But amidst all these universals, consumption of food has always been culturally constructed. What was tasty to one group invoked disgust and loathing in another. Different communities variably defined some items as edible and others as utterly inedible. Many cultures built rigid systems of dietary taboos, carving up the world of food into the permitted and the forbidden. A people might decide to move on to a new home because of a lack of food, although their region teemed with plants and animals which they technically could eat. How people respond to scarcity and hunger and what food means to them offers both a window into and mirror of their culture.

    The history of food and its cultural underpinnings involves more than just the sad story of famines and flights from hunger, or restrictions and rules. Food has provided people with great pleasure. We enjoy food, its tastes, its smells, and the sense of satisfaction of consumption. We yearn to eat what we regard as good, and eating well represents the good life.

    In this, food very much resembles the other zone of sensuality to which it is usually compared: sex. In most societies the ways people think about food and sex are linked. Both make people feel good. Both are defined as either acceptable or taboo. Both involve practices which sometimes are sanctioned and sometimes are not. Varying by culture, some foods and some sexual practices are never allowed. Others are sanctified and enshrined in official practice and ritual. Societies often link periods of sexual abstinence with fasting, while the pleasures of the table and the pleasures of the marital bed offer regulated times for indulgence. Many cultures deprecate wanton overindulgence of both zones of sensuality, condemning gluttony and promiscuity. Likewise, both systems of food and sexuality strengthen bonds between group members and create barriers to interactions with outsiders. Put bluntly, the person with whom one cannot eat (and whose food cannot be consumed) is often the same person with whom sexual relations must be avoided.

    Food, like sex, intensifies group identity. The overly quoted statement of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, "tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are," rephrased in common American parlance as "you are what you eat," works. Sex is not the only kind of human interaction connected to and refracted in the world of food. In its literal definition, a "companion" means one with whom bread is shared. Preparing and consuming food together solidifies social bonds within families, between households, and among individuals who consider themselves friends. The notion of the common table connecting people exists in many cultures as an embodiment of communal trust. We might define a community as a group of people who eat with each other.

    While we can talk in general about the history of food habits in particular places, food differences existed within each individual society. People in most communities did not all eat the same foods in the same ways. The distribution and consumption of food has been historically determined by age, gender, and class, and its unequal allocations highlight internal group differences.

    Food differences reflected the complexities of parent-child relations and the meaning of growing up. Certain foods have been considered appropriate for children, others for adults. The transition to adulthood involved the right to partake of certain foods and to give up others. At ritual moments adults relived childhood by eating its foods. Children usually had a different role in the acquisition and preparation of food than parents and other adults. They may have helped in the process as they learned, but fathers and mothers hunted, farmed, fished, made fires, and cooked. Adults distributed food. Children received their age-appropriate share.

    Food is also modified by gender. Given the close connection between food and sex, it would seem obvious that gender, understood as any culture's knowledge of, and beliefs about, sexual difference, would come into play around food. Women and men usually had different roles to perform when it came to getting and making food. In some societies women did the most difficult, backbreaking labor to bring up a crop from the soil. In other places they worked in fields only in moments of crisis, ordinarily doing only farm work defined as ancillary to the family's main enterprise. Men might grow wheat, and women might cultivate kitchen gardens, collect eggs and make butter, can fruit and prepare preserves. In some cultures men never cooked, while elsewhere they prepared certain items at certain times. Societies with religiously prescribed dietary laws invested in men the authority to regulate and guard the gates of the food system. Where religion and food have been more loosely connected, women had a freer hand in food preparation, and men less interest in the workings of the kitchen.

    Food in most places has been squarely associated with sociability, and within families it provided a common expression of love and affection. Family celebrations and community feasts marked sacred time. Weddings, birthdays, coming-of-age ceremonies, good harvests, military victories, small personal triumphs, historic re-enactments, religious ceremonies, even funerals and rites of mourning had their iconic foods served in ritualistic ways. These moments expressed community and family cohesion. Women did most of the cooking and serving of the foods which made such moments possible. As such women and the foods they prepared articulated a society's deepest-held values.

    Changes in the food supply and in the tasks involved in food preparation affected women more heavily than men because of their primacy in matters involving cooking. When scarcity set in, they had to figure out how to feed the family. The crisis of the empty larder fell upon their shoulders first. When novelties showed up in the marketplaces, they decided what would, and would not fit into the family's food culture. These changes could enhance women's power or reduce it, depending on the context.

    Men and women often do not eat the same foods in the same amounts. In many places women serve men the food which they have cooked, but they eat only after the men have finished. Or women prepare an array of foods, but some items, usually meat, are denied to them. Some cultures impose food taboos upon women, which are defined as necessary and natural to menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation. Other food practices, which divide the table, metaphorically, into a female and male sphere, persist throughout a lifetime. So it is important to keep gender in mind when describing "Japanese food," "French food," "Chinese food," "Mexican food," or the food of any other system.

    The same applies to class. Class is the mechanism by which an elite allocates resources within a community, and food is a society's most precious good. Once in place, class structures exist to replicate themselves. Those who have the most and the best expect such bounty to continue. Those who have less are expected to accept the inevitability and naturalness of inequities. Class differences profoundly divide any society's foodways. These differences play themselves out in various ways: ingredients, modes of preparation, the very acts of consumption, and basic ideas about food. Distinctions in diet between rich, poor, and the various gradations in between have been observed in most places at most times. The better-off eat more varied food, of higher quality, more often, than do the members of the poorer classes, who eat less and have few choices.

    Historically, those who ate at the lower end may have learned about better food, its possibilities and its complexities, through encounters with the elite. Poor women worked as servants in the homes of the wealthy and saw, smelled, and even tasted the richer food of the richer people. The elite at particular moments shared food from the top down, giving the usually hungry people a sense of what it meant to eat well. Those experiences of eating across class lines had important implications for people who suffered deprivation but knew what it was to eat better and desired it for themselves.

    In the modern era, class-based differences in food manifested themselves in part through the emergence of national cuisines. In Europe, the development of distinctive foodways linked to the nation accompanied the rise of nation-states and the flowering of ideologies of nationalism. As France, Italy, Germany, England, Russia marked themselves off as distinct from each other and as greater than the regions within their newly drawn borders, their national cuisines took shape. National cuisines came to represent the nations themselves and were created and consumed by elites.

    The poorer people of the nation, particularly in rural areas, continued to eat in familiar ways, untouched by the emergence of national cuisines. Bouts of scarcity, disruptions of their food system caused by wars, and the daily struggle to put bread on their tables, rather than aristocratically inspired dishes concocted at courts and castles, shaped their food world. They adhered to local food practices, undisturbed by the talk of cuisine in capital cities where the privileged few experimented with elaborate blends and mixtures of the foods indigenous to certain regions, but with new ingredients and styles imported from abroad.

    But as masters and landlords—those who owned the lands which rural workers farmed and upon whom they depended for a livelihood—came to develop the national food culture, the poorer classes increasingly learned about new tastes, foods, and ideals of eating. They may have experienced moments during the year—holidays, religious festivals, events of national celebration—when they saw, or even better, tasted morsels of the foods of the well-off, given to them as gifts. Through these occasional tastings they encountered the idea of their own national food. With the growth of the nation-state, some members of the lower classes were allowed, or compelled, to participate in national institutions—notably the military—which fed them and exposed them to a national standard. National educational systems also provided ways to learn about cuisine.

    In addition, the rural poor, in search for work, came to the capitals and large regional urban centers. Here, they broadened their knowledge of and exposure to the idea of the nation and its foods. In the cities, the world of food expanded for rural newcomers turned urban dwellers. They came to link certain foods with national identity and came to prefer city food to the simple, rougher fare they were used to.

    The relationship between food, class, and identity was connected to specific historical developments that attended European expansion across the globe, and the great changes in food brought by exploration and colonization. The European conquest of the Americas revolutionized eating for all of Europe's people. The introduction, most importantly, of corn and potatoes transformed Europe, and those two New World foods played a key role in Europe's demographic leap forward at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The exponential growth in Europe's population did nothing less than make possible the industrial revolution and European dominance of much of the world. Indeed, the emigration to America would not have taken place without the socioeconomic revolution unleashed by potatoes and corn. Less powerful in shaping population, sugar, coffee, tea, and chocolate also altered what the rich, the poor, and the emerging middle classes ate, how they ate, and what food meant to them. The industrialization of food production and technological changes upset the previously simple paradigm that most people ate what they found nearby.

    In that transformation of historic food systems, new foods, new ways of eating, and new ideas about food entered peoples' homes, no matter how poor. The introduction of food novelties and changes in local foodways challenged traditional patterns. The dialectic between tradition and novelty informs the history of food.

    Human beings are brought up into particular worlds of taste. At very young ages they learn that certain tastes and forms of food are acceptable, ordinary, normal, and natural. Other tastes they learn to dislike, considering them abnormal and deviant. According to social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, "It is probably in tastes in food [emphasis in the original] that one would find the strongest and most indelible mark of infant learning, the lessons which longest withstand the distancing or collapse of the native world and most durably maintain nostalgia for it."

    Childhood tastes are strongly internalized. Over the course of a lifetime, individuals learn to eat new things and even like them. But the likings formed earliest endure longest. Because food is so tightly woven around childhood, family, and sensuality, it serves as a mnemonic, an agent of memory. The often cited literary example by novelist Marcel Proust in the opening section of the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past offers a handy case in point.


Excerpted from HUNGERING FOR AMERICA by Hasia R. Diner. Copyright © 2001 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Hasia R. Diner is Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at New York University.

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