Monday, November 10, 2008

America's First Ethnic Food

Isn’t it interesting how the current economic crisis has fueled more than a little interest in the great Depression? A topic that one is most certain to discuss when pondering the hardships of that time is how and what people ate. In the early 1930’s the average American family, unless they were immigrants, usually subsisted on a diet of seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, legumes and dry good groceries, nearly all of it unprocessed because processed foods, especially canned vegetables, were too expensive for many. Today, in stark comparison, those who are struggling financially subsist on a diet composed primarily of processed foods as the cost of fresh produce has skyrocketed.

One foodstuff that became a staple during those tough times was America’s first mass consumed ethnic food, spaghetti. During prohibition many of the boarding houses in the Italian section of New York City, who had recently had their supply of boarders cut off by immigrant restrictions, morphed into informal restaurants in order to make ends meet. These Italian immigrants, mainly from the southern part of Italy, where pasta and tomatoes were the backbone of their diet, finding the prohibition laws ludicrous, and contrary to their culture, served homemade wine and beer and moonshine grappa to their fellow Italian clientele. It was not long before Americans, seeking drink, started frequenting these establishments. By the 1930’s there were over 600 Italian restaurants in New York City.

Many other ethnic eateries opened their doors and flourished before the spaghetti houses in Greenwich Village attracted their first American customers. In 1828 the Delmonico brothers opened up a European confectionary shop and, 2 years later, added hot food, prepared in the French manner to their menu. French cuisine was so normal to the American cook that it wasn’t even looked upon as foreign but instead viewed merely as high class. The Chinese that arrived in San Francisco during the gold rush opened eateries, and with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, moved East and set up restaurants in New York’s Chinatown before the turn of the 20th century. Jewish, German, Russian and Armenian immigrants all opened restaurants before or around the same time as the Italians.

Despite all the different cuisines made available to the public, Spaghetti was the county’s first true ethnic food because it was the first one that the average housewife accepted, cooked at home and fed to her family. The depression was made to order for the popularization of spaghetti. In the early1930’s The Macaroni Manufacturers Association spent over 1 million dollars on a campaign promoting the nutritional and economic benefits of pasta. The food editors from newspapers and women’s magazines touted spaghetti as the ideal food and, when combined with tomato sauce and grated cheese, the most nutritiously balanced meal for it’s cost.

Unfortunately, when reading recipes from the cookbooks of that time, one comes away with the feeling that most of them would be an affront to today’s palate. Al dente was not a term familiar to Americans for some time yet. It was advised that spaghetti be cooked until soft and tender. These cookbook versions bore no resemblance to the Italian version, except the tomatoes and, in some instances, even that was bastardized. A typical sauce recipe would be tomatoes cooked with salt and sugar, however, it was not unusual to see a recipe calling for canned tomato soup seasoned with Worcestershire or a recommendation in an army cookbook of that time to substitute ketchup for tomato pulp. Thomas Jefferson had the first pasta machine in America in 1789 but it took the Great Depression to turn what was once an ethnic oddity into what is one of today’s most popular dishes.


Rico said...

Very informative and interesting blog you have here, lovely to read.
Also thank you for Foodbuzz friendship request....hope my humble recipes keep you interested and inspired, most of them are after all based on classic recipes adapted by me.

justfoodnow said...

You have an amazing site - the first one in a very long time to which I will subscribe!
Thanks so much for making this sleepless night a really memorable one.

Love the article on the 1930 depression viz a vis the current one.

lisa said...

Very interesting. I enjoy learning about food history, and this was a great post!