Tag Archives: Italian

Do Emigrants Create National (or Regional) Cuisines?

I think in some cases emigrants do create national or regional cuisines. They create them in their new countries. And then they introduce them to their home countries.

Not always, of course.  But this pattern of back migration is one I’ve been thinking about recently because national cuisines are such a tricky issue.

Nations and their cuisines remind me of the story of the croquet match in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Alice has to play, croquet, supposedly a very proper game with strict rules, with the Queen of Hearts.  Since the mallets are flamingos, the balls are hedgehogs, and even the hoops are made of living playing cards, the rules are constantly subverted.

John Teniel’s illustration of Alice with a flamingo mallet and a hedgehog ball.

And nations and their cuisines are a bit like that. In the ideal story, nations are surrounded by nice clear borders, inhabited by a common people who share a history, a language, not to mention flags, stamps, airlines, football teams, and cuisines.

In fact, it’s hard to find a nation with boundaries fixed for all time, without a civil war in its history, without minorities who speak lots of different languages, and without a population that has an unfortunate habit, like Alice’s flamingos, of moving in and out of the field of play by moving back and forth across borders.

So where does the national (or regional) cuisine come from?  Consider the Cornish pasty, which I’ve been thinking and writing about on and off for the past couple of years.

Cornwall’s not a nation but a very distinct area of the British Isles, one of the Celtic areas, the southwestern peninsula that juts out into the north Atlantic.

Until a couple of hundred years ago, the people there spoke their own Celtic language, just like the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and the Bretons. Cut off from the rest of the British Isles as much by distance as by the River Tamar, It has its own distinct identity.  “By Tre, Pol and Pen, Ye Shall Know the Cornish Men,” I was taught growing up, referring to the Trethowans, Trelawneys, Tremaynes, Trevithicks, Polkinghornes, Polwheles, Penhaligons, Pentreaths,  Penruddocks and other Cornish last names and place names.

And the Cornish have their own signature dish, the Cornish pasty.  The Cornish pasty that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her Cornish relatives, looks like this.

Beef and potato pasty

A Cornish pasty

Beef is cut in tiny cubes, potato and turnip are whittled to small shards, onion chopped fine, and then mixed together with plenty of salt and pepper and a little water.

Cornish regional dish, the pasty

Vegetables ready for a Cornish pasty

They placed on circles of short crust pastry, enclosed by the folded and crimped dough, brushed with beaten egg, and baked in the oven.

Cornish regional dish, the pasty

Cornish pasty ready to fill

Corn Pasty crimped


And now it’s official. On the 20th July 2011 after a nine-year campaign by the fifty-member-strong trade organization, the Cornish Pasty Association based in Cornwall, the European Commission awarded the pasty Protected Geographical Indication. If the directive was followed, henceforth only pasties prepared in Cornwall could be called Cornish, and, although they did not have to be baked there, it was to be assumed that there were “strong links between pasty production and local suppliers of the ingredients.”

So what about all the other Cornish pasties around Britain and the world?   “Pastes,” the Spanish pronunciation, are made in Real del Monte about fifty miles north of Mexico City and Zacatecas three hundred miles further north.  They are sold in the hangar-sized Central del Norte bus station in Mexico City. They are the signature dish of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, subsequently adopted by other immigrants from Finland in particular, and now sold to homesick retirees in Florida. They are found in Butte, Montana, are the pride of Moonta and surrounding towns in South Australia, and appear in mining towns in South Africa, and possibly in Peru, Bolivia and Chile where they overlap with empanadas.

Since all these pasties have the same half-moon shape, since they are all filled with beef, potatoes, and other root vegetables, the simple story is that they were taken overseas by migrants.

And Cornish migrants there certainly were too. In the early years of the nineteenth century, they went to Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru and Spain itself. In the 1840s, Canada and the United States were the favored destinations, particularly the upper peninsula of Michigan.  In the 1860s, it was south Australia.  And in the 1880s and 1890s, South Africa became the primary destination. 

The reason they went was that the tin mines of Cornwall, worked since Roman times, were now so deep they were flooded.  In spite of investment in steam-driven pumps and other cutting edge technology, the mines could no longer compete with the new ones opening up around the world.  So the miners and engineers who were some of the best in the world took their skills with them and left. “A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with a Cornishman at the bottom,” the saying went. All in all, a quarter of a million emigrated in the last forty years of the nineteenth century.  It was not until after World War II that the population of Cornwall itself climbed again to the 350,000 it had been in the mid-nineteenth century.

With the miners and engineers went ministers, teachers, bakers and other tradespeople, and in some cases, wives. They sought a better life with time off to play football on the weekends, to march with their brass bands, and to eat the food they aspired to. They earned better wages than their relatives back in depressed Cornwall. Those in South Africa sent over a million pounds in remittances to impoverished Cornwall in the late nineteenth century. 

The problem is that the migration slowed at the end of the nineteenth century. with this simple story is that, in spite of determined research by proud Cornish and assertions by the Cornish pasty industry, there is no positive evidence that “the” Cornish pasty defined above existed prior to the 1920s and 30s. The first Cornish cookbook, which appeared in 1929, had multiple pasties all right: apple, broccoli, chicken, dates, bacon and eggs, jam, mackerel, mutton and parsley, pork, rabbit, rice and turnips, but only one with some unspecified meat and potatoes that bears any resemblance to ‘the’ Cornish pasty.

So, I ask, in an article that’s just been published in Petits Propos Culinaires, could it be that it was the wealthier overseas Cornish who created the fairly luxurious beef Cornish pasty?

And was it then popularized with their movements from one mining area to another and, frequently, back to Cornwall itself?

After all, Cornwall was not traditionally an area that ate wheat flour products. Its chilly wet climate was better suited to barley.  Nor was it a beef producing area but better suited to sheep.

Consider the Italian case. Here’s the distinguished food historian, Massimo Montanari, talking about the creation of Italian cuisine.

“It was in America that many southern peasants became “macaroni-eaters”.  . . thanks to the integration that occurred between domestic customs and the business of groceries and restaurants. It was in those communities . . . that an Italian style of eating arose, which in many cases preceded similar experiences in the home country.” (And I would add that this was true of Argentina and perhaps Brazil as well).

There are lots of examples, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where emigrants moved to countries where they were able to enjoy a higher standard of living than in their home country.

That in turn meant that they were able to enjoy the kind of dishes formerly limited to the rich and wealthy and, as such, identified more with class than with the nation.

These emigrants were often mobile, traveling from one overseas destination to another, and back and forth to the home country.  We know very well that emigrants returning to their home countries like to show how they have made good.  And what better way than eating like the rich?  And then this becomes the expectation among their stay-at-home relatives as well.

Here are few more examples.

Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii counted on white rice and meat long before their families in Japan could afford such luxuries.

Japanese migrants in Brazil were responsible for introducing and marketing coffee to the Japanese in Japan in the early twentieth century. It’s now the national drink (not tea).

And what about Indians and Chinese in the nineteenth century?  Vietnamese and Filipinos today?

In short, what I want to argue is that we should beware of assuming that cuisines are created within national boundaries and then disseminated overseas.

And furthermore, I’d like to ask why only those who stay within national boundaries are allowed to call their food “Cornish” or “Italian?”

After all there are now 6 million Cornish descendants overseas, vastly more than are found in Cornwall itself.  Do they need to look to the decision of European bureaucrats promoted by business interests in Cornwall?


For more details and documentation, see my “From a Pasty in Cornwall to the Cornish Pasty,” Petits Propos Culinaires, 100 (2104), 140-148.

On the EU designation of the pasty. Wikipedia contributors, ‘Pasty’, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2012) <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pasty&oldid=509852937> [accessed 14 September 2012].

On pasties in Michigan. Y. Lockwood & W. G. Lockwood, “Pasties in Michigan: Foodways, Interethnic Relations and Cultural Dynamics,”Creative Ethnicity, eds. Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala. Logan: Utah State University Press. pp. 3-20.

‘The Cornish Pasty Presents: The First Printed CORNISH RECIPE BOOK’ [accessed 21 September 2012].

On the cuisine of Italians at home and abroad in the nineteenth century. Carol F. Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy, 1st edn (Berg Publishers, 2006); Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, 2003), chap. 2 and 3; Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914 (Cornell University Press, 2004), chap. 1–4.

On the creation of Italian food. Massimo Montanari, Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation. Trans Beth Archer Brombert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 45.

On the Japanese and white rice. Rachel Laudan, The Food of Paradise Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), p. 127.

On the Japanese and coffee. Merry White, Coffee LIfe in Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 45-47.




Canelons for St Stephen’s Day, December 26th, in Catalonia

Well, if the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia can tweet my 2012 piece on this “traditional” dish (albeit with the caveat that retweets are not endorsements),  I reckon I can re-post it.

Let me say this is not just a shaggy dog story about a particular region of Spain.  So many elements of the story—

  • the spread of French high cuisine by non-French cooks,
  • the tangled relationship between feminism and women in the kitchen,
  • the extent to which the Italians can lay claim to various pasta dishes
  • the industrialization of pasta,
  • the recent invention of national dishes,
  • the difference that just one person can make


—crop up time and again in food history.

December 26th is St. Stephen’s Day, the day that Catalans celebrate by eating canelones (cannelloni).  When I was living there for a few months, I delved into the origin of this custom.

St Stephen's Day dish in Catalonia: canelons

Catalan canelons

Stage One.  Amazement at the ubiquity of canelones year round in Catalonia, and skepticism about the standard story that they were brought by Italian Swiss immigrants in the late eighteenth century.

Stage Two. Meeting Jeff Koehler, a fine writer, traveler, photographer and cook, who knows a lot about Catalan food and kicking around with him the broader implications of canelons in Catalonia.

Stage Three.  Constructing a more plausible story about the early twentieth century appearance of canelons in Catalonia, part of an increase in wheat pasta that occurred in many parts of the world.

A hundred years ago, Barcelona was booming, textiles factories were spinning, the well-to-do had a social round of balls, country excursions, racing. Women shopped for new furniture, fancy clothes, fine china.  Everyone socialized in restaurants and cafés that served French dinners and té anglaise. Many were owned by migrants from the north of the Italian peninsula–the Italian-speaking Swiss Ticino, the part that had for a time belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia that traded with Genoa and Catalonia.

For a really fancy meal, they went to the Maison Dorée in Plaza de Cataluña owned by the brothers Pompidor.  And for the absolutely latest dish, too time-consuming and complicated to make at home, they called ahead and ordered canelons.  The restaurant set to making the pasta, stuffing it, and coating it with béchamel.  Béchamel shouted that you were understood food, just as today an informed choice of olive oil labels you as understanding food.

And here the story branches.  The first branch has to do with ladies learning to cook canelons.

Ladies who wanted to cook this kind of food (or more likely teach their cook to make it) attended the near-professional classes offered from 1924 to 1931 in the feminist Institut i Biblioteca Popular de Cultura de la Dona. We may not think of cooking classes and feminism as a natural pair, but to the founder of the Institut, Francesca Bonnemaison, they were, like libraries, part and parcel of improving women’s culture and competence.

The classes were taught by a professional chef, Joseph Rondissoni, an Italian Swiss, who during his career was executive for various hotels, opened a gourmet shop, and edited the journal Menage, very influential in Spain, designed to improve household management, particularly cooking.  Rondissoni was a disciple of Escoffier who prided himself on sending out well-trained chefs around the world.  In Ma Cuisine (1934) Escoffier offers a recipe for canneloni stuffed with chicken, foie gras, game, or other meat (though he coats them with a demi-glace sauce with tomato).

And when Rondissoni published his Culinaria in 1945 following the end of the Spanish Civil War, recipes for “canalones” and other pasta had a prominent place in an early section of the book.

Culinaria is still in print.  The 6th edition was prefaced by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, one of the best writers on gastronomy not just in Spanish but in any language (though look him up–he was much, much more).

It is true that a recipe for canelones Rossini had been published earlier by one of the founders of modern Catalan cuisine, Ignasi Doménech. Following the custom of associating the Italian singer and gourmet with truffles, he suggested stuffing them with a mixture of chicken livers, bacon, pork loin, brains, grated cheese, tomato sauce, truffles, breadcrumbs, sherry, and egg yolks. The distinguished historian of Spanish cuisine, Néstor Luján, credits Domenech with the popularity of canelons, an attribution that fits nicely with recent Catalan nationalism.

I tend instead to credit Rondissoni, just because he did so much to shape Catalan and Spanish cooking in the 1940s and 1950s.  But it would need more research to resolve the issue.

The second branch of the story concerns the pasta.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, part of the great explosion of factory-made dried pasta, canelons were imported from a French firm called  La Poule (the chicken), 16 to a box. It tells you something about how prestigious (and presumably expensive they were) that they were separated by pink tissue paper.

Canelones el Pavo

Ramon Flo, who made industrial pasta in Barcelona from 1911 on, saw an opportunity.  After various efforts, he found ways to make these cylinders, now flattened out, selling them under the copycat brand name El Pavo (the turkey) from 1914.

By the 1920s, canelons had become a modish dish for well-to-do Barcelona families to serve on December 26th, St Stephen’s Day. They displaced a rice dish made with the leftovers of the Christmas Day soup. Nestor Luján remembers that his family used El Pavo.

Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, as Spain began to recover from the Civil War, canelons became the common Catalan dish for St Stephen’s Day. And now they are omnipresent in Catalonia.  They appear as the highest flights of fancy in famous destination restaurants, in humble take out places, besides being obligatory for St Stephen’s Day, made from El Pavo pasta, on sale in any little grocery.


Thanks to Jeff Koehler who xeroxed for me the introduction to 100 Recetas de Canelons (1990) by the famous Catalan gastronome and historian Néstor Luján from which part, but by no means all, of this story is taken.

World Food History: Six Food Histories I Found Essential

I love lists of good books, especially if they refrain from inflated claims about being the best books. There are so many good books out there, they are so diverse, that specifying any subset as best always seems just ridiculous.

So I thought I would list six books on food history that I found  (a) opened new perspectives on world history and (b) are perhaps less well known than they should be due to age, limited print runs, or high price.

Don’t think they will be a whiz to read or that they are cheap. You may have to fight your way through them. You may have to order them on inter library loan.  But I can guarantee the time and effort was worth it for me and perhaps for you too.

1. H. T. Huang,  Fermentations and Food Science. Vol. 6. Part V of Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Fermentation and Food Science

Fermentation and Food Science

You probably already know about the extraordinary series of volumes on Chinese science and technology initiated by Joseph Needham, embryologist, Marxist, professor at Cambridge University. Some of the first volumes were perhaps overly dedicated to proving that China was first in everything, a necessary corrective forty years ago but less necessary now. As the volumes marched on, a more balanced perspective emerged.

This volume is by H. T. Huang,  born to a Chinese family in Malaya, was educated at the University of Hong Kong, and got caught up in the turmoil of World War II, which had the happy side effect of allowing him to observe traditional food processing in his ancestral Chinese village at first hand. For many years he worked in the food processing and pharmaceutical industries as a biochemist, becoming a Program Director for the National Science Foundation in Washington.

It’s hard to say too much about this book.  You want to a summary of distilling, east and west.  It’s here. Or pasta, ditto. Or tea, ditto.  Alcoholic fermentations and soybean fermentations form the heart of the book, treated with equal respect to ancient Chinese texts and modern knowledge of biochemistry.

And as you make your way through the nearly eight hundred pages, you realize that the raw materials, the plants and animals that are the basis of our food, in no way determine the actual tastes, textures or even the very nature of the final food products we put in our mouths.  Consider the grains. In the west, malting (sprouting) grains is assumed to be an intermediate step in the making of alcohol. In China, it is assumed to be an intermediate step in the making of a sweetener (malt sugar). To make alcohol from grains, the Chinese (and many other peoples of Asia) go a whole different route, beginning by allowing the grains to mold.

(2)  Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (2004). Few cuisines have been as romanticized as Italian.  Into this nostalgic mush wades historian Carol Helstosky with a study based on her Ph. D. in European history at Rutgers

that details the food available to Italians from the 1860s to the 1960s. “Refashioning and inventing Italian cuisine,” she says briskly in the conclusion, “has grown from a modest effort to commemorate Italian-American ethnicity to a multi-million dollar industry aimed at an American public hungry for nostalgia and simplicity.”

Drawing on a wide range of sources, Helstosky makes it very clear that few Italians during the first hundred years of a united national history “could consume a nutritionally adequate diet” thanks to a mixture of economic and political constraints.

The details about the links between politics and diet in Italy are fascinating. From the point of view of world food history, though, just as important are that these are typical of nations around the world during the century around 1900. A combination of factors, including industrialization, urbanization, and nationalism made those in power concerned for the first time with more than the ancient commitment of simply keeping their subjects alive.  Governments and charitable organizations were among the leaders in trying to ensure a diet abundant and varied enough that citizens were strong and healthy.  Helstosky’s book is an excellent introduction to just how hard that project was to pull off.

(3). Adam Maurizio. Histoire de l’alimentation végétale depuis la préhistorie jusqu’a nos jours (Paris, 1932).


Adam Maurizio, born in Switzerland was a ethnobotanist before the term or the avocation was popular, as well as honorary professor at the University of Warsaw in Poland.

When archaeologists were busy investigating the origins of farming, he understood clearly that farm products, notably the seeds and grains that formed the basis of the human diet from before farming to his own time, required extensive processing. He brought to this book his deep knowledge of different milling techniques, of the grain cookery of central and eastern Europe, and of the problems of famine in the wake of World War I.

The four parts deal with the plants eaten before agriculture, with the wild grains and soups/alcohol, of the earliest farmed grains and flatbreads, and milling and bread.

Although modern archaeologists would correct some of his claims, and although he deals almost entirely with Europe, there is still much to learn from this book because few apart from Maurizio have systematically looked at grain processing. It is also a reminder that central and eastern Europe had a great culinary tradition and great intellectuals, that it really is useful to read books in languages other than English, and that food history did not start yesterday.

(4).  Carolin Young.  Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver: Stories of Dinner as a Work of Art (Simon and Schuster, 2002).

Apples of Gold
Carolin Young has a degree in European history, studied with Barbara Wheaton, pioneering historian of French cuisine, was Chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery for a number of years, and moves easily between Paris and the East Coast of the United States.

Carolin dissects twelve dinners from a monkish one at Cluny in twelfth century Burgundy through a surrealist picnic in France in the 1930s. Her emphasis is on dining and art but she weaves many different stories together.  What tickles my fancy about her stories is that they completely undercut the cliché about dining bringing people closer together over the table. This may happen of course.  So may many other things.

I used two chapters extensively in my own work.  One describes a meal given for the young Louis XIV by his Superintendent of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet.  The other looks at the culinary maneuvering of the machiavellian Talleyrand in the course of his triumphant career as the leading diplomat of the early nineteenth century (or perhaps ever).

I wont spoil the fun by giving away the stories.  Carolin’s book is on sale on Amazon for a knock down price so buy it and see just how much more meals can mean than harmony over food and drink.

(5). Paul D. Buell and E.N.Anderson, A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Szu-Hui’s Yin-shan Cheng-Yao. Introduction, translation, commentary, and Chinese text, with an afterword by Charles Perry (2000).

Ch. 4. Fig. 3. Soup for the Khan.tiff

If you thought the Mongols just galloped about, sucking blood from their horses’ necks and drinking their milk, re think. The little I knew about the Mongols from my high school education was almost all wrong, I discovered.

This is the title page of the Mongol Chinese cookbook presented to the Emperor in 1330. The Mongols at the center of world history for a century or more (much longer than the British Empire).

In their commentary, Paul Buell, expert on the Mongols and much else, and Gene Anderson, anthropologist and historian of Chinese food and much else again, bring their formidable linguistic and analytical skills to unpacking what’s  going on in this cookbook. The head cooks (think master chefs) at the Mongol court assisted the emperors in exercising an elaborate culinary politics that reflected and reinforced the Mongols’ rule over Persia, China and regions far beyond.

Add a discussion of Turkic breads by Charles Perry and you have a fascinating glimpse into the role food could play in the Mongol (and other empires.

(6).  Christian Peters, ed. Andrew Jenkins. Bread and the British Economy, c. 1770-1870 (Scolar Press, 1995). 

Bread was the chief food of industrializing Britain. It sustained a population that increased threefold between 1770 and 1870. Bread was the fuel that powered the muscle and sinew of labour in ‘the workshop of the world.’

These opening words to the introduction explain just why bread was so important in world food history.  If bread fueled the industrial revolution, so inversely the industrialization of food changed the way we all eat.

There are lots of studies of food in the British Industrial Revolution and new ones appearing all the time. Christian Peters was a successful businessman and then a mature student. His approach was in the style of the great E.A. (Tony) Wrigley, who has carried out one pioneering study after another of the social and demographic history of the British Isles, finding all kinds of ways to quantify and thus confirm or correct vague claims.

Sad to say, Peters died before finishing this book, hence the editor.  Even so, this is packed with data about kinds of wheat, about changes in milling, about why the poor liked white bread, about the legalities and prices of bread. A gold mine.


Your contributions welcome.  And of course there were also many world histories that were equally revealing.  But they’re not the subject of this post.

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