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This thesis traces the development of Italian home cooking from within the homes of Italian immigrants in New York City, to its acceptance in American homes, and finally its popularization by the prepared food and restaurant industries. In time, Italian food would go from relative obscurity to become the first ethnic cuisine largely adopted and prepared in American homes.
The first chapter provides background on American cuisine and Italian immigration to the United States. It then examines early cooking habits among Italian immigrants by contextualizing their cooking habits in New York City's Little Italy. How early immigrants prepared Italian food, and with what ingredients, allows us to understand the early culinary traditions of Italian-Americans and how those traditions came to influence American culture at large.
The second chapter incorporates the narrative of Italian home cooking into the broader context of changing home cooking trends in America during the rise of the prepared foods industry. I examine how and why Americans began preparing Italian food in their own homes with such enthusiasm. I argue that Italian food became so popular in American homes because it had already become Americanized in a way that appealed to existing American dietary customs. Increased consumption of meat and dairy products, eating family meals, and celebrating excess, all of which became characteristic of Italian-American food, already appealed to an American appetite. By assuming those qualities once it reached American shores, Italian food found a popular following in American culture.
The final chapter addresses the rise of the Italian-American restaurant industry. Outside the home, Italian restaurants, like Italian home cooking, became widely popular among Americans, particularly in New York. In this chapter, I use home cooking as a point of departure to understand the rise of an important new industry. By forming an entirely novel dining out experience for American eaters, many of whom had never tried ethnic food before, Italian-Americans set the standard for modern restaurant dining. After examining the formation of early Italian restaurants in New York City and their increasingly central role in the city's culture,
I conclude by discussing the popularization of pizza, which, though rooted in Italian cuisine, became as American a food as there has ever been.
While many immigrant communities have brought their cuisines to America, the Italian story is one of particular importance. This is so not only because it has become one of America's most beloved cuisines, but because it is one which has remained loyal to its roots in Italian culture while becoming a uniquely American story. As any Italian immigrant to this country can tell you with unwavering conviction, the Italian-American experience of food has never lost sight of its past on the Italian peninsula. But when Italian food came to this country, it established itself in an American way, one that pays homage to American ideals of life, family and culture. It has found such success as a cuisine of "home cooking" because, in fact, home cooking has always been a piece of American culture, even as today it loses ground to food prepared outside the home. Italian cuisine's entry into American cultural life both for the Italian immigrant and others presents a story of family, food and, often, good fortune.