Rosemary Clooney set my heart racing when she sang about all the food she would have ready for me if I came to her house. I had never had any of the stuff she offered, but if she had thrown in a bit of Italian pasta or Mexican enchiladas I would have hopped a freight to go right over.
I grew up on plain American cooking; nothing fancy or exotic. I ate what my New England forebears had eaten, and was glad to get it most of the time. My Grandmother leaned toward casseroles; today we would call her the Casserole Queen. My Dad was a meat and potato man, and the dinner plate always contained two vegetables as well. No salad as we describe it today. Perhaps a slab of iceberg lettuce with a splash of Thousand Island dressing on top. No garlic, olive oil or wine, and salt and pepper were sufficient.
In 1890, about 100,000 Italian immigrants lived in New York. Italians in America were fiercely loyal to the food of their country and its various regions. Unlike eastern European Jews, Poles, or other European immigrants, whose children and grandchildren adopted generic American food as a way of assimilation, Italians saw to it that succeeding generations continued to cook Italian food. Even being teased in school about what you brought for lunch, which is still today a powerful inducement to culinary conformity, failed to force Italian kids to reject their parents cooking.
Nevertheless, immigrant families made a number of adaptations, in many cases all to the good. Food was plentiful, and instead of eating meat on rare occasions, families were able to eat meat whenever they chose. When one woman went back home, her neighbors had difficulty believing that people could eat so much white bread and butter and that she ate meat every day.
Americans began eating what were marketed as ‘Italian’ sausages, while in Italy each region had a different way of making them, and people could rarely afford to eat them. Macaroni (pasta) eaten by the well-to-do in southern Italy, became the emblem of Italian cooking, and meatballs and spaghetti became almost humdrum. Rather like thinking that ‘chop suey’ or ‘tacos’ represented the whole of their particular ethnic cooking.
By 1890, Italian restaurants were the most popular foreign restaurants, and a substantial portion of their patrons were non-Italian. For Italian and other ethnic restaurants, moving out of the enclave of immigrant patronage and catering to the majority of the population was irresistible, both because there were millions of people of all nations in New York, and because the non-Italians were less critical about the food.
The huge variety of Italian food is mind-boggling, as is found in all sorts of ethnic cooking. How many times have you heard someone swear that what they were making was the ONLY way to cook that dish? Recipes even vary wildly between families.
My late son-in-law, of Italian extraction, was a great cook period, but I heard his mother complain that he never put enough water in the pasta water. “I taught him better”, she told me once. A story circulated through the family for years about the time a young man came courting her daughter. After consuming a large plateful of homemade gnocci, he asked for seconds, not realizing that it was a first course before presenting the meat dish. She did make marvelous gnocci, a dish I worked on for a few years and then gave up as a lost cause; I even went so far as to purchase a heavy potato ricer. I envision light fluffy balls of potato and flour, but mine sink to the bottom and stay there in the cooking water. The commercial ones are not much better so I take heart.