Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy. This photo was taken very close to where I live, which is part of my motivation for wanting to learn more about the lives and daily meals of Italian immigrants a century ago.


Over the next week, I plan to eat like a family living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1919. While researching the garlic chapter in my forthcoming book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (out December 6th! pre-sale here!), I delved deep into period resources discussing the dining habits of America’s first prodigious garlic eaters, Italian immigrants. I stumbled open the wonderful book New Homes for Old by Sophinisba Breckenridge, a turn of the century social worker, progressive, and reformer with a fantastic name. Sophinisba’s book was written to help Settlement House workers: American-born, college educated men and women that choose to live in new immigrant neighborhoods to help recent arrivals get “settled.” The Settlement Houses provided education and entertainment for new immigrants, and the workers spent a lot their days debating what aspects of new arrivals could be kept in their adapted country, and which must be thrown away in order to become Americans. That’s what Sophnisba was researching while writing her book.

One of the appendixes Sophinisba offers is a weekly menu of the diets of many immigrant groups, including Italians. Of her menu for an Italian family, Sophinisba has this to say:

ITALIAN (Sicilian)

The following menus represent the diet of a Sicilian family from Palermo. They have been in America over twenty years, but their diet has changed little. There are ten persons in the family–the mother and two unmarried daughters, a married daughter, her husband and four children…Food for the children is prepared separately. For breakfast they have cereal, milk, bread and stewed fruit; for lunch rice or potato, bread, milk and the green vegetables cooked for the family if not cooked with tomato sauce. For supper, the children have bread and milk. It is not common in Italian families to make so much difference in the diet for children; they are usually fed on the highly seasoned dishes the family eat, but in this family the mother prepared special food for her children, and her daughter is doing the same and planning their diet even more carefully.

Notice the subtle prejudice in this paragraph–particularity in the way Sophinisba describes Italian food as “highly seasoned,” which is clearly considered a deficit. Nutritional science had just been invented/discovered, and domestic scientists put nutrition above all else. However, in the early years of this science, there was a lot of baloney. The way the children are being fed in this Italian family is the way the Settlement House workers, nutritionists, and public schools encouraged them to eat. It was thought to be nutritious, scientific, and AMERICAN. But when I looked at this menu–like everything their eating is white and mush.  I’m shocked these kids weren’t malnourished (maybe they were). And to think of them, while their parents are enjoying soup with beans and handmade pastas drowned in tomato sauce. It’s tragic!

But the diet of these children would have been seen as a great success to Sophinisba. In fact, the daily menu even reveals that even the parents were cooking under American influence. More on that as we cook through the daily menus.

What follows Sophinisba’s introductory paragraph are two menus, for seven days each, one dated August 1919 from the week Sophinisba spent observing this family; the other, a more general menu for the winter. You can view both menus in the original document here. I’ll be pulling from both to create my meals over the next week. The tricky part of this menu is that it’s Italian food documented through the lens of an American social worker. It’s sometimes hard to determine exactly what they’re eating; Sophinisba pretty much just refers to everything as “macaroni.”

So here’s my plan: I’ve dug up two other primary sources to help me interpret this menu: The Italian Cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, published in 1919 by author Maria Gentile; and nutritionist Bertha Wood’s 1922 book Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health. The former genuinely praised Italian cuisine as been tasty, healthy, and cheap; while the latter took more of a “know your enemy approach.” Wood outlines Italian recipes and encouraged Settlement house workers to use ingredients familiar to Italians to encourage them to cook “healthier” food. Both of these books are written by American women; so these recipes are their interpretations of this foreign cuisine. But that’s partly what I’m curious about–how Italian-American food was understood by Americans at the time. Additionally, I’m going to see if I can decipher dishes Sohpinisba mentioned, like “Macaroni with Peas,” to see if I can find authentic, Southern-Italian equivalents.

Wish me luck and follow along as I attack Italian-American food from 1919 all this week!

Update: If you would like more context about what the Settlement House Workers thought of the Italian diet, check out this post I wrote for the Tenement Museum’s blog.


3 Responses to “Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919”

  • I’m excited that you are back to these kinds of projects.

  • Information from my mother’s(the Irish side) generation: Stewed fruit was cheap dried fruit, placed in a bowl or a jar, and covered with boiling water several hours or the night before if it was to be served at breakfast(when I was a child in the 60’s stores still had these boxes of mixed dried fruits mostly prunes, apricots, raisins, and pears that my mother used to make it). Where I live now there are some 80+year olds who remembered it from their childhoods when fresh fruit wasn’t in season, and it kept children ‘regular’.
    Information from my father’s(the Italian side) generation. There were shops that made many different kinds of dried and fresh pasta. Spaghetti, linguini, and lasagna were not in the neat pasta box lengths we think of today. They were dried in long lengths or coils. When you purchased them the shop keeper would take the pasta and break off what ever kind and weight you wanted from the larger mass, and wrap it in paper. When the shop keepers would break the pastas, they’d do it over a barrel that caught the broken little bits. These random little bits of pasta were sold for pennies a pound and the poorest of the poor used them to make soups, pasta e fagioli – the macaroni and bean soups you were making.

    • The Stewed Fruit: that makes SO much sense, especially for hte winter! I didn’t even think of it, but of course that’s what it was. Thanks so much for sharing–and love the factoid about the pasta bits. Such awesome history!

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