The Perils of Assimilation: How what we eat makes us American, for better or worse.

I’ve got a new post up on Notes from the TenementThe Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s blog, that gives more context to the Eating Like an Italian Immigrant Family experiment I did a few weeks ago. The piece takes a close look at the attitudes of American social workers and nutritionists at the turn-of-the-century regarding the diets of new Italian immigrants, and finds some striking parallels in the present day.

To greet this enormous wave of immigration, there were a growing number of American-born social workers occupying settlement houses, early social aid organizations that tackled the “settling” of new immigrants. The social workers offered a helping hand in Americanization. “The settlement ideal has included the preservation of the dignity and self-esteem of the immigrant,” Breckenridge wrote in her 1921 book, New Homes for Old, “while attempting to modify his habits when necessary… .” For Italian immigrants, it was their cooking habits that needed to be modified.

Although some of the nutritionist’s apprehension about Italian food may have come for prejudice or xenophobia, some of their fears may have been grounded in truth. Anecdotally, Wood saw higher rates of heart disease and diabetes amongst assimilated Italians. And we see a parallel in America today with modern immigrants. In 2013, the New York Times published an article called The Health Toll of Immigration:

“A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. … For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers being amazed at the size of hamburgers — as big as dinner plates — when she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago. “‘I thought, this is really a country of opportunity,’ she said. ‘Look at the size of the food!’”

Read my entire article here.

0 Responses to “The Perils of Assimilation: How what we eat makes us American, for better or worse.”


  • No Comments

Leave a Reply