The history of Italian food in America begins on Ellis Island. That’s where the red sauce trail picked up after its 5,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic from Sicily.
Sicily had long been coveted, and then exploited, by the great powers surrounding them. But mass emigration to America didn’t occur until the late 1880’s, when the newly unified Italy turned out to cause as much of la miseria for Sicilians as foreign powers like Spain and France had been before them. Political unrest, heavy taxation, and an economic crisis led Sicilians to leave the island in waves: before 1880, fewer than 1000 Sicilians went to America each year. In 1906 alone, more than 100,000 Sicilians went to the U.S. Over a million Sicilians emigrated to America between 1880 and 1930, and estimates of today’s Sicilian-American population run as high as 18 million people.
More than anywhere else, the food that we have come to know as Italian has its roots in Sicilian soil, in the vast fields of durum wheat the island used to produce Italy’s first dried pasta (a technique they learned from the Arabs, who first started drying noodles a few hundred years earlier to hold them over on long ocean voyages), in the red red tomatoes of the coastline south of Syracuse, in the olives grown and crushed across the sun-baked hills around Corleone.
Photo from the often Italy-fueled blog Can You Stay for Dinner
Chicken parm? Baked ziti? Spaghetti with meat sauce? All of these dishes start in that big, brown, tragic, beautiful island called Sicily.
Of course, full-blood Sicilians, past or present, might not recognize many of America’s favorite Italian foods. Sicily, crossroads of cataclysm, doormat of invading scoundrels, has been a deeply impoverished island for many thousands of years, and its humble cuisine was built around the limitations of its history. It’s no surprise, then, that when Sicilian immigrants began to slowly gain status in their newfound country, the food of their homeland picked up a few bells and whistles along the way: an extra ladle of sauce, a sprinkle of soft cheese, a hunk of pork or a fistful of ground beef. A century later, in the land where more is always more, Italian food has gotten bigger, redder, wetter, cheesier, but the blueprints for the version familiar to so many of us are still to be found at the bottom of the boot.
At least, that’s our theory, and we’ll be spending the next nine days doing everything we can to prove it. We don’t expect to find spaghetti and meatballs or mozzarella-blanketed ziti or meat lover’s pizza over here, only whispers of their origins. That means spaghetti with tomato and slow-cooked pork in Palermo, plates of eggplant-spiked pasta alla norma from streetside countertops in Catania, and thick, cheesy, chewy slices of square (aka Sicilian-style) pizza everywhere an oven is burning. Along the way, we’ll be sending pasta postcards to our Tumblr account and Facebook page, and writing about our most important discoveries right here on Roads and Kingdoms. We’ll even be asking you, red sauce reader, to send in pictures and recipes of the Italian food that gets you going.
It won’t be all durum wheat and cherry tomatoes, of course. Sicily may be an island, but it’s not isolated from the multiple crises swirling in the Mediterranean these days. So, if we can get access, we’ll be visiting one of the infamous Centers for Identification and Expulsion where illegal immigrants who crossed from Africa by boat are held. We’ll look at what the Euro crisis and possible demise of the European project is doing to the identity of a people who often looked at themselves as Sicilian first, European second, and Italian third.
Which, if anything, is fitting for the task at hand. For at the bottom of every bowl of pasta ever eaten in America lies an immigrant’s tale, an identity struggle. We’re flipping the script this week, getting back to where these tales and struggles and mountains of delicious starch all began. Whether it’s thousand year-old issues of cultural identity or just another bowl of al dente spaghetti, we’ll do our best to get to the bottom of it this week in Sicily.