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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

"They'd Never Believe Me"

This will be an unusual column.  I've had some minor catastrophes in the last few days, and so I'm tired and not in a mood to think creatively.  Also, as it happens, a few days before misfortune struck, I came upon notecards from nearly fifty years ago.  Yes, I am trying to clean out files, but at a snail's pace.  It's a dreadful job, rewinding bits and pieces of your life. 


These are 3x5 lined notecards of the sort that we used before we took notes by scanning and entering into computer files.  The notecards were written in ink and cursive, which – for whatever inexplicable reason – I stopped using a couple of decades ago.  The cards still are easy to read, though, and to be honest, I've decided that they are interesting enough to fill a column that I can write without much thought.  Yet I trust at least some of these thoughts will be new to you, and that you will not hold this week's lazy methodology against me. 


They are from the section of my first book, Foreign and Female:  Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1920, that concerns domesticity, as opposed to employment, health, and other aspects of immigrant life.  The first chapter of that section is about food and is titled "The Fruit of the Land."  An abundance of information was available on that subject, partly because a mother's first priority is feeding her family, and mostly because sociology was a new field and social workers used food budgets as a way to measure assimilation – and to justify grants from foundations, also a new phenomenon.


Another source was letters back home, which often began by detailing food.  A Norwegian girl who immigrated without a family wrote in 1847:  "I left for Madison, the capital of Wisconsin… There I have worked at a hotel for 5 weeks, doing washing and ironing, and I enjoy the best food and drink in abundance.  A breakfast here consists of chicken, mutton, beef or pork, eggs, or small pancakes, the best coffee, tea, cream, and sugar."  Rosa Cavelleri, a very poor Italian later in the nineteenth century, was virtually a slave to her brutal husband.  She reminisced of her first meal in America:  "Bread!  White bread!  And butter to go on it.  I ate until I no longer had any pains in my stomach."


An Englishwoman wrote already in 1818, when there was very little immigration, of the abundance available in America.  "My husband can go out and catch a bucket of fish in a few minutes, and John brings as many apples as he can carry when he comes from school, also cherries, grapes, and peaches… We have a gallon of spirits every week."  Another Englishwoman added that she had "plenty of rum" and that "the poorest families adorn the table three times a day like a wedding dinner."  And when asked why he told people that he ate meat three times a week instead of the actual fact of three times a day, an Irishman replied, "Because if I told them that, they'd never believe me."




Although food seemed amazingly available, that was true only in some times and places.  By the 1993 depression, Rosa Cavelleri had a new husband, several children, and instead of a Missouri coal camp, she lived in Chicago.  Her Giovanni had found work as a timber cutter in Wisconsin, but even though Rosa worked fulltime, her earnings were not enough to cover the family's costs.  When she tried to obtain free food at city hall, police beat her.  She knew, though, that butchers routinely threw liver to dogs and cats, so she asked for some, mixed it with cornmeal, and for three cents, her children thought they had "the king's supper."


The years just after the Civil War were prosperous in the North, but immigrants who toiled in New England's textile mills shared little of that.  A newspaper editor wrote that since summer fruit arrived in 1868, he saw a "drove of poverty-stricken children, often girls, clad only in one or two ragged garments, down on their hands and knees, greedily picking out in the mud bits of spoiled and decaying fruit." Police tactics were the same, as he added, "If driven away, they troop back again like a pack of famished vultures."


The most likely to have inadequate diets were young women who preceded their families.  They typically worked in factories and tried to save large portions of their income to bring loved ones to America.  Anzia Yezerska, a Russian Jew, wrote in her memoir:  "I used to be more hungry after a meal than before.  The food I could afford to buy only whetted my appetite for more."  When questioned about their diets, many women seemed to feel that eating adequately had to be justified.  Most had only coffee and bread for breakfast, and "if eggs appeared on the menu, the girl usually explained that it was because she was anemic or otherwise run down."


Somewhat surprisingly, the US Senate held hearings on hunger in 1912, and its report cited many young women who had little or nothing to eat when factories shut down for summer.  But these were likely to be women without a man:  men worked construction jobs in summer and often were idle in winter.  None appeared to cook or offer other household help, however – with the exception of Rosa's stellar Giovanni.  He taught her to make coffee, which she never had in Italy.  Instead, she drank wine for breakfast; at age seven, her mother said she was "too old" for milk.




Milk was a running battle between social workers and their clients, as most immigrants could not justify the expense for a mere drink.  Some also held taboos, believing that milk would cause a child to resemble the animal from which it came.  This belief was more likely with cow's milk than with that of sheep or goats, but those animals were almost unavailable in America.  Even those who grew up on milk and had cows experienced problems.  Gro Svenson wrote:  "I remember I used to wonder when I heard that it would be impossible to keep the milk here as we did at home.  Now I have learned that it is indeed impossible because of the heat here in the summertime…If one were to make cheese here, the cheese itself would be alive with bugs."


Nutritional knowledge also was not what it is today, and the general rule of doing what they thought Americans did could be inappropriate.  Just one example:  a sick baby was brought to a charity clinic, and the mother questioned about its diet.  "What do you give the baby to eat?" the nurse asked through an interpreter.  "What we have ourselves," was the reply.  "I always did that in our own country."  "And what did you give your children in the old country?"  "Soup and buttermilk," answered the mother, smiling, apparently at the pleasant recollection of those days.  "What do you give your child now that you have yourself?" the nurse inquired.  The answer:  "Beer and coffee."


I especially saw a pattern of doing what Americans did in regard to fish.  It was a dietary staple in much of Europe, but rarely appeared on menus in America.  A young pastor's wife in pioneer Iowa, Elisabeth Koren, recorded a natural abundance:  "A river so full of fish, mostly carp and pike, that at times one cannot see the bottom."  Others wrote that they could catch fish with their hands, but yet even Norwegians seldom ate it.  Elise Warenskejold had lived in eastern Texas for nearly forty years when she wrote nostalgically, "I have not eaten fish cakes since we lay in Droback, waiting for a favorable wind." 


Instead, they ate a monotonous diet that centered on pork and pickles.  One frontier woman complained that "alive, pigs invaded both church and cabin, and slaughtered, they appeared on the pioneer's table three times a day."  Elisabeth Koren confirmed this, saying of the Norwegian cooks who hosted the newly arrived, "Their dishes vary from boiled pork to fried pork, rare to well done."  Pickles, of course, were cucumbers preserved from the previous summer, and summertime diets were more varied.  Social workers even credited urban immigrants for growing small gardens on balconies. 


Seeds for their familiar foods often was lacking, but several wrote of amazing new things, especially melons.  Elisabeth Koren did not get enthusiastic about much of anything, but she inquired, "Do you know the watermelon?  It is extremely juicy and refreshing."  She also praised cantaloupe, and added, "You should see how people here eat one big melon after another." Gro Svenson echoed the thought:  "I must tell you something about a fruit called watermelon… I have cooked molasses from them, and I have also brewed juice… We share with our friends and neighbors, many of whom walk several miles to get a chance to taste our watermelon."  In Texas, Elise Warenskjold praised sweet potatoes, which "are not boiled in water, but are baked in the oven," and are "delicious."




Learning to cook in America also could be a real adjustment.  First and most difficult of all, was the lack of familiar foods.  Utensils were different, too, and stranger still were the gas appliances that arrived in the late nineteenth century:  "Stoves with no fires in them and no place for the wood, just holes in iron, and if you turn a handle and apply a lighted match, fire comes."  Of course there were no open-air ovens of the sort that European women used, and most gave up on baking bread.  A Chicago social worker recorded that virtually all ethnicities bought their bread, but among Italians, there was a pattern of mixing dough at home and taking it to a bakery to be baked.  They paid ten cents for this service.


Despite often working in Chicago's stockyards, Poles and Lithuanians did not lose their appetite for meat.  Over 80% of the families in one study showed that adults ate more than a half-pound per day, with meat accounting for 16.5% of their annual budgets, compared with 13% for rent.  This pattern of spending a lot of money on meat seemed particularly likely among Slavic immigrants, and a study of copper miners in Michigan showed that "a Croatian man ate two or three pounds a day, more meat than Germans or Americans."


Italians ate less meat, and despite the era's scorn for "macaroni," several social workers noted that they had especially balanced diets.  One recorded that women raised their own chicken, rabbits, and goats when possible, and "not one will buy ready-ground hamburg steak or slaughtered poultry."  When charity baskets were given out at Christmas, Italians often would exchange with non-Italians the American items that their stomachs refused.  This could be seen already on immigration ships, as hungry people nonetheless left cereal uneaten.


Holidays presented a problem, too, not only in obtaining special foods, but also creative accounting.  One report said of a client:  "She served very meager meals long before and after, worried about the social workers.  Besides, the pies and cakes for these occasions [could cost] as much as $4.  These pastries, almost sacramental in significance, appear in the homes of quite poor Italian families, who not infrequently spend anxious hours adjusting their budget so that it will bear scrutiny by the relief investigator."  Many women also regarded a child's lack of appetite for a food as a valid reason not to serve it, and when visiting nurses disagreed, they simply didn't tell the truth rather than "make that nurse too sad."


The most touching thing I read about food was not in the section on it, but rather on religion.  During the 1893 depression, schools in New York City gave free lunches – but only to children who recited a Christian prayer.  Jewish children went hungry until their parents gave permission for prayer.  No school system would do that today, and we do make progress.



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