Pizza, pasta and red sauce: Italian or American?

Donna R. Gabaccia, University of Minnesota

Food travels. I once watched an Italian colleague cringe when a Korean friend suggested that children in his country wanted to eat American food such as pizza. As a historian of migration, food and society, I know that neither colleague was unjustified in his reactions. What the world today knows as pizza is the product of a long history of changing connections between Italy and the Americas and between both countries and the wider world. It is a history of travel, tourism, migration, agriculture, industry, commerce and creativity in the kitchen.

People crossing borders carry along the tastes and sometimes also the seeds, recipes and ingredients of their homes. Mobility requires, inspires and facilitates commerce in familiar and exotic goods. Similarly, travel inspires a cook to experiment, to borrow and to adapt. It is extraordinarily difficult to apply national labels to people and products in a mobile world. Nevertheless, in a world of national states and national loyalties, we persist in doing just that. Like the humans who created and carried them, spaghetti with red sauce, peppers, polenta, zucchini and pizza with peppers or tomatoes have rarely moved in one direction only.

‘Italianizing’ the foods of the Americas, 1500-1900

Scholars have called the joining of old and new worlds the ‘Columbian exchange’. The spread of American crops transformed foodways worldwide. It was probably hunger more than curiosity that motivated Asians and Europeans to experiment and to adopt these new foods.

Certainly in Italy, peasants had long been accustomed to healthy if frugal foodways, known as la cucina povera. In 1500 the Americas had not yet enriched the triumvirate of classical Mediterranean cuisine – wheat, wine and olive oil – with its own three sisters (corn, beans and squash) or with their close cousins, the tomato and the pepper. Of course the poor of Italy did not in any case eat much wheat or wine. Their breads and porridges were of lesser grains, including those such as faro, chestnut meal and buckwheat that have been discovered again recently by Italian ‘slow food’ advocates. Wild and cultivated greens, oil, onions, salt, cheese, sausage or fish flavoured such staples, with wine, wheat bread meats and sweets as occasional, festival treats.

It took many centuries before the consequences of the Columbian exchange became apparent in Italy. Many of the crops of the new world grew at first only as oddities in botanical gardens. They grew also on the little ‘handkerchiefs’ of land that peasants cultivated to sustain themselves. By the late eighteenth century, the cultivation of American crops in Italy was both sufficiently extensive and so uneven that American crops were beginning to accentuate in new ways the regional differences of agriculture and taste characteristic of all peasant societies.

Soon after the formation of Italy’s national state in 1861, an agrarian inquest surveyed and catalogued the crops and foodways of the nation’s peasants. It established that almost everywhere in Italy the poor ate corn, potatoes and beans but prepared them with regionally diverse techniques developed on more ancient grains and pulses. In the north, corn became polenta; in the south, it was an element in bread, including the flatbreads called pizze oru’bizz. Occasionally, as in Naples, corn was prepared in American ways – for example, roasted and sold by female street vendors. Just as Columbus thought he had landed in the Indies, eaters in Italy knew corn as granoturco, which may have referred to its reddish colour but more likely suggested that the grain had entered Italy from Asia (‘Turkey’). Because few American cooks had travelled to Italy, corn-eating peasants did not learn the nutritional secrets of American hominy and developed dietary deficiencies.

The regional adoption of other American foods such as tomatoes, peppers, cactus fruit and zucchini revealed the long-term consequences of Italy’s central place in the Spanish empire. Peasants living around Genoa and Elba, in the north west, and in Naples and Sicily, in the south, were most likely to grow and eat tomatoes. Sicily and much of Italy’s south was ruled by Aragon from the fifteenth until the early eighteenth century. During these centuries, the sailors and merchants of the independent city state of Genoa, including Christopher Columbus, were not only explorers in Spanish employ but the main organizers of its imperial commerce and trade.

Naples, the capital city of the formerly Spanish provinces of southern Italy, played an especially central role in the invention of two dishes that would soon travel the world. Formerly known for its impoverished vegetarian ‘leaf-eaters’ (mangiafoglie), Naples in the late eighteenth century gained a reputation, spread throughout Europe by curious tourists, as the home of macaroni eating. Street markets featured young men and boys who ritualistically and dramatically consumed long noodles dressed only with a grating of cheese. Similarly, vendors wandered the street with portable tables displaying small bread rounds topped with oil or onion. Almost simultaneously, in the 1830s, tourists and travellers began to report finding both traditional dishes regularly topped with tomatoes and with tomato sauce. Pizza and spaghetti with red sauce soon became symbols of the Neapolitan lively plebeian port culture.

Mass migration; mass production; mass consumption, 1870-1920

Between 1870 and 1970, over 26 million individuals departed from Italy as migrants, typically in search of work. The residents of Italy had long been poor, but only in the late nineteenth century did their poverty motivate them to travel such long distances.

Among the changes that set a new transatlantic world into motion were exports of crops and animals that originated in Europe but were raised on a massive scale in the Americas. As the growers of wheat on the North American prairies and Argentinean Pampas began to seek buyers worldwide, they threatened the livelihoods of peasant growers of wheat in Sicily. In 1870, the US was a major importer of lemons and citrus from Sicily and Naples and of nuts and fruits from Italy generally. The development of citrus, fruit and nut orchards in first California and then Florida forced peasants in Italy to consider new options. One of these options was migration.

When Italians sought work, they tended to travel along well-established commercial routes. Between 1870 and 1920, approximately one-third of Italy’s migrants went to North America; one-quarter to South America; and over 40 per cent to transalpine European destinations. Rates of return from all these destinations were significant, varying from as high as 80 per cent of those working in Europe to about 50 per cent of those in the Americas. The peasants and artisans of Genoa in the north and Sicily, Naples, Calabria and Basilicata in the south were far more likely to go to the Americas, and especially, after 1880, to depart for the United States. Fully three-quarters of the emigrants of Genoa opted for the US; in Sicily and Naples, the proportions of US-bound migrants were about the same.

But migration was not the only response. Agricultural innovation was another. Already in the mid 1880s, peasants and artisans on the northern coast of Sicily and around Naples (two areas that had long been heavily engaged in the cultivation and export of citrus) began to expand cultivation of tomatoes and to process them in new ways. Small factories produced dried cakes of tomato puree reduced to a thick, dark paste and tin cans of skinned, pulverized tomatoes lightly cooked into sauces. The scale of pasta production increased, with many factories in the immediate suburbs of Naples. Much of the wheat for these factories came from Sicily. The Italian government during this period also particularly promoted the expansion of olive production.

The cultivation, processing and export of tomatoes, the canning and export of olive oil and the transformation of Sicilian wheat into pasta for export skyrocketed as the Italians who had emigrated to Argentina, the US, Brazil and Canada created a mass market for them. Parma, in central Italy, soon emerged as an important centre of canning and pasta manufacture, especially for export to the UK and other countries, such as France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, where large numbers of Italian emigrants also worked. Migration and agricultural innovation developed an odd and changing symbiosis. Unable to compete successfully on world wheat markets, Sicily’s wheat-growers now sold to pasta manufacturers who produced a more expensive product for export. Unable to export tons of lemons and oranges to the US, peasants throughout Italy expanded production of tomatoes, again with an export market in view. But this time the ‘foreign’ market in both cases was formed by immigrant consumers who had better access to cash through wage-earning than did Italy’s peasants.

‘Americanising’ immigrant foods, 1920-45

By 1920, almost five million immigrants from Italy lived in the US alone. New York and Buenos Aires each claimed more Italian residents than any city on the Italian peninsula. In North and South America, Europe, Africa and Australia, Italian citizens living abroad formed a population about a quarter of the size of Italy’s residents. For most immigrants, daily life meant hard work and low wages but also, especially in the Americas, surprisingly bountiful dinner tables. The holiday foods of Italy – pasta, meat, cheese, sugar and coffee – became daily fare. To the classical Mediterranean trilogy of wine, wheaten bread and imported oil, immigrants added and made liberal use of imported canned tomato sauces and packages of pasta.

The Americanization of immigrant cuisine began in immigrant kitchens and restaurants. Short work and low pay required working-class immigrants to revert at times to Italy’s cucina povera but they and their children more often reported their pleasure and satisfaction with low food prices. New markets inspired culinary creativity. In the US, Chicago packing houses delivered tons of slaughtered, refrigerated and cheap beef to immigrant consumers. Whether to tempt consumers unaccustomed to aged beef or to disguise signs of the onset of decay, butchers ground much of this beef, which immigrant cooks then transformed into a dish of meatballs with tomato sauce on spaghetti. In Buenos Aires, immigrants pounded freshly slaughtered beef from the pampas to resemble the veal cutlets of Milan; smothering it with tomato sauce emerging from cans packed in Naples, they called the dish milanese alla napoletana.

The creativity of immigrant cooks also drew on the labour and homeland connections of immigrant food growers and retailers. Wherever they travelled, immigrants from Italy specialized in the raising, trading and import of foods. Among the importers, the Genoese had established precedence in the US already in the 1870s. They imported oil from their home region, pasta from Parma, and dried fruits and nuts, wines and liquors, and cheeses and dried meats. In many cities, including Baltimore and New Orleans, Sicilians’ initial dominance of the transatlantic citrus fruit trade gave them an early start toward developing a prominent place in the production and marketing of fruits from California, Florida and the Caribbean.

Most American cities housed significant populations of immigrant food producers. American-made pasta hung on racks in bakeries, groceries and kitchens throughout Little Italys. By the second decade of the twentieth century, immigrant entrepreneurs produced Italian-style pastas in American-style factories. Immigrant truck gardeners introduced crops familiar in Italy, carrying their produce to urban grocers and vendors. While eggplant and grapes rarely flourished in New York City, Toronto or even Buenos Aires, immigrants soon found their way to California with its Mediterranean climate. By 1900, transcontinental railroads hauled hundreds of gallons of the so-called California ‘dago red’ wine (which would later even be bottled in straw-wrapped Chianti-style bottles) to consumers in eastern cities. When the US prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages after 1919, the same railroads delivered tons of California grapes to immigrants who revived home-based production of wine in their basements and bathtubs.

The numbers of immigrant consumers and restaurants were large enough to attract interest from natives. English-speakers in search of quick, cheap or exotic meals ventured quickly into immigrant restaurants. What they found there was not completely strange to them. Tomatoes were scarcely new to Anglo-Americans, having been eaten since the eighteenth century. Recipe books for English-speaking cooks had included recipes for macaroni with cheese or with tomatoes, ‘in the Italian style’, since the early nineteenth century. The industrialized canning of tomatoes in New Jersey and the Middle West had become big business already in the 1860s and throughout the late nineteenth century such canners tried to find ways to increase consumption. But immigrant consumers were initially suspicious of American cans which contained whole tomatoes of an unfamiliar variety.

By 1915, an investigator employed by the US Department of Commerce travelled to Italy to investigate the threat that Italy’s exports posed for American industry. Meanwhile, reformers working to Americanize immigrant populations railed at their consumption choices, and tried to convince them that expensive sausages, wines, oils, pastas and canned goods of Italy were extravagances that workers could not afford. They too urged them to find American substitutes for Italian products.

The advent of fascism in Italy, after Mussolini’s famous march on Rome in 1922, proved a boon both to American businessmen hoping to lure immigrant consumers and to reformers hoping to wean working-class households off their imported tastes. Fascist nationalism emphasized the importance of economic self-sufficiency; Mussolini’s ‘battle for grain’ aimed to ensure that Italy’s fields delivered calories first to Italy’s residents. By 1930, many nations around the world were responding to the great depression by hoisting tariff barriers ever higher and raising the prices of imported goods for immigrant consumers.

Under these conditions, immigrants and natives alike had still greater incentives to produce in the Americas the products that immigrants desired. Pasta production soared in the United States and Argentina. Both countries were also soon producing cheeses that approximated, if they did not exactly replicate, the aged, hard cheeses of Parma. California growers and packers began to cultivate and can the plum-shaped tomatoes of Naples. Immigrants such as Hector Boiardi in the US went a step farther by canning tomatoes and pasta together – a product that, as the ‘Chef Boyardee’ brand, attracted first an American corporate purchaser and then a major buyer in the form of the US army. With 15 million soldiers to feed during World War II, the American military may have introduced more potential consumers – at home and abroad – to Italian foods than had all the immigrant restaurateurs of Little Italys in American cities.

Pizza and red sauce: Italian or American?

No peasant in Italy had eaten spaghetti with meatballs or milanese alla napoletana prior to migration. Such dishes used ingredients that had originated in the Americas but by 1920 those ingredients were typically imported from Italy before being combined by immigrant cooks in America with the meats that had originated in Europe but were mass produced in the new world.

Pizza Hut did not exist in 1945 and at that time surprisingly few English- or Spanish-speaking Americans outside New York, Chicago or Buenos Aires had learned to love the tomato-enhanced ‘Italian’ flat bread. Nevertheless, the mass migrations from Italy to the Americas and the trade wars of the years of economic depression and nationalist warfare had already created the agricultural, industrial and commercial foundations for the ‘American’ exports of ‘Italian’ foods and dishes. Pizza Hut first sold ‘Italian’ pizza in the 1950s in a town (Wichita, Kansas) with few immigrant consumers. By the 1960s, Americans travelling as tourists to Italy not only learned to love ‘Italian’ pizza but to expect to find it wherever they travelled in that country, not only in Naples. Italians, too, began eating this emblematic ‘Italian’ food in Turin and Venice. Soon enough, Korean children, too, craved the ‘American’ dish that Pizza Hut sells around the world.

Despite this history of movement and exchange, people around the world continue to insist on fixing national labels to dishes such as pizza and spaghetti with red sauce. On what grounds do they make such choices? Sometimes they feature the place of the food’s production. Sometimes culinary traditions or supposedly distinctive regional flavourings are determinative. Sometimes the origins of the cook decides the label. Sometimes it is the location of kitchens or factories or of the diners and consumers of the food. The history of the humble pizza and the simple dish of spaghetti with meatballs encourages readers to consider a very large question indeed: why in a globalizing world of rapidly travelling people, goods and tastes do so many still insist on the fixity of the relation between the culinary and the national?

This article was first published in History in Focus.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Jose Morilla Critz, Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, ‘”Horn of Plenty”: the globalization of Mediterranean horticulture and the economic development of southern Europe, 1880-1930′, Journal of Economic History, 59 (1999), 316-52.
  • Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (30th anniversary edn., Westport, Conn., 2003).
  • Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).
  • Donna R. Gabaccia, We are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge, Mass., 1998).
  • Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (Oxford and New York, 2004).
  • Jeffrey Pilcher, Food in World History (New York, 2005).
  • Silvano Serventi and Francoise Sabban, Pasta: the Story of a Universal Food (New York, 2003).
  • Andrew F. Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Columbia, SC, 1994).