Risotto and Italian Immigration

Much like other immigrants, Italian immigrants used food as a way to remain connected to their culture and Italy.  Even though most people think of Italian cuisine they think of spaghetti or other types of pasta, but one of the most prominent Italian dishes is risotto. From its origin to its move to America, risotto has remained mostly unchanged, which reflects its importance to Italian culture and the connection between immigrants and Italy.

Risotto is a rice based dish originally from northern Italy. Rice was first brought to Sicily and Spain by the Arabs who brought it from Asia1. The humid conditions of Italy made it the perfect place to grow short and medium grain rice. One of the first recipes for risotto was that of Risotto alla Milanese. This dish originated in Milan, there are many stories depicting its origins, but it is unclear how it came about. Risotto alla Milanese is similar to most risottos, except for its color. The recipe calls for saffron, turning it yellow. Its history began in the 14th century, but since its origin, risotto has remained mostly unchanged, with the exception of a few regional differences. 

The base for all risottos is the same, using a short grain rice, traditionally arborio rice, and slowly adding liquid until it is absorbed to create a creamy consistency. Making risotto starts with cooking either a shallot or onion in butter. Once that is done the rice is added and toasted to create a nutty flavor. The first liquid added to the risotto is typically white wine. Once it has been absorbed by the rice, warm stock, chicken, beef, or vegetable, is added ladle by ladle and absorbed into the rice. The last step of making risotto is adding parmesan cheese at the very end. Even though the base of risotto is the same, it can differ slightly depending on the region that it is made in. As mentioned before Risotto alla Milanese is made in Milan and saffron is added to make it have a yellow hue. In Rome, risotto is often mixed with sausage, minced chicken liver, or shredded bacon2. Regardless of where it is made, risotto is a relatively cheap and simple dish to make that is also filling. This is why it became a popular and staple dish in Italy. Even as immigrants moved across the globe, risotto has remained mostly unchanged. 

Recipe for Risotto from The Thorough Good Cook a Series of Chats on the Culinary Art and Nine Hundred Recipes

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were when Italian immigration was at its peak. Most of the immigrants were from southern Italy, coming to the U.S. to flee poverty in Southern Italy. However, before the spike in immigration, there was a small number of Italians from Northern Italy that had already immigrated fleeing from wars caused by the unification of the country3. During this time there were many mixed feelings surrounding their immigration. In the never ending cycle that is American racism and xenophobia, many Americans did not have a favorable opinion surrounding Italian immigrants. They either thought they were lazy or criminals. However in a newspaper article from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, the author expressed how that is indeed the opposite of Italian immigrants. “Many of the Italians who swarmed into this port within the past few years are meeting with success in New York. The great majority of them were unskilled laborers in Italy, but hundreds, if not thousands, of these very men have tried business here, beginning on a small scale, and gradually extending their field of operations.”4 Part of the reason why Italians left Italy was so that they could become successful in the United States, which for many Italians happened. Part of this was because of their assimilation to U.S. culture. In that same article the author says, “They are a hard-working, well-disposed, honest body of people, who have in them the stuff of which first-rate American citizens are made… They are eager to give their children an education and insist on English education alone”. Even though Italians assimilated once they came to the U.S. to become more successful, they continued to use food as a way to keep their connection with Italy.  

Italian identity was closely related to Italian cuisine. For many Italians, cooking formed a connection to Italy, even if they had never stepped foot in the country. Many immigrants of the early 20th century encouraged their children to assimilate to American culture. In many cases this is the same for Italian immigrants as well, however those in the restaurant industry did not encourage this. In order to import food from Italy, it was important that these immigrants and their children continued to learn and speak Italian. By doing this generations of Italian Americans felt tied to Italy through nationalism and patriotism5. This nationalism created a desire to continue using Italian cuisine as a means of staying connected to Italy. 

Notes

  1. Valentina Harris, Risotto! Risotto! Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
  2. Sala, George Augustus. The Thorough Good Cook a Series of Chats on the Culinary Art and Nine Hundred Recipes. London: Cassell and Company, Limited London, Paris & Melbourne, 2002. 
  3. “Destination America. When Did They Come?” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/destinationamerica/usim_wn_noflash_5.html.
  4. “The Italian Immigrants.” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 7 July 1889, p. 4. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3003033531/NCNP?u=lln_aluno&sid=bookmark-NCNP&xid=f7dbbaf4. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.
  5. Simone Cinotto. “‘Buy Italian!’: Imports, Diasporic Nationalism, and the Politics of Authenticity.” In The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City, 155–79. University of Illinois Press, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt3fh46s.12.

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