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Two handfuls of flour go flying into the empty mixing bowl on the freshly washed counter. Three eggs crack against the lip of the bowl, the yoke flowing out. A pinch of salt lands on the freshly cracked eggs as olive oil oozes out of the bottle. The bowl is placed under the running fossett for a few seconds to complete the mixture. Strong hands knead the ingredients into a moist dough ball. After a few hours, the dough is taken out of the refrigerator, ready to be turned into macaroni (pasta). The dough is put through the hand crank dough roller to be flattened. Then, it is formed into long strings and laid to dry on the comforter in the spare bedroom. I have witnessed my grandma carry out this process of making delicious, fresh homemade pasta many of times to prepare for Sunday dinner. This simple but important ritual has been passed down through my family starting from my great grandma to my sisters and myself.
One of the groups I am part of is Italian Americans, or more specifically 4th generation millennial Italian Americans. While there is a vast amount of research on the ethnic identity of Italian Americans who immigrated to the United States during the early to 1900s, the research regarding the ethnic identity of 4th generation Italian Americans is scarce. Ethnic identity is different from personal identity because it focuses on the way a member of an ethnic group is influenced by that ethnic group. For Italian Americans, food plays a significant role in their ethnic identity. Many Italian Americans that grew up in the early to mid-1900s never went to restaurants to eat, so the only food they knew was Italian food (M. Litwin, personal communication, November 10, 2015). Today, as a 4th generation Italian American that is fully assimilated to the American society, homemade Italian food is still a significant part of my life. Lorraine Caputo (2011) describes how her daughter went to Japan, but when she came back, she asked Caputo to make her some of her favorite Italian dishes (p. 194). This embodies the Italian Americans after being fully assimilated to the American society. I love the American culture, but I always come back to my Italian roots.
The Italian Americans who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s lived in communities dominated by Italian Americans. These communities became very close and were a dominant element in the Italian American culture. The tight-knit Italian community along with the importance of Italian food played major roles in the ethnic identity of the 1st and 2nd generation Italian Americans that immigrated to the Unites States in the early 1900s. However, Michael Buonanno (2011) believes that the identity of Italian Americans today is still evolving, but instead of focusing on the “old times” we should be focusing on the ways in which Italian Americans are creating their ethnic identities today (p. 9). Andrea Dottolo (2015) and Lorraine Caputo (2011) have written autoethnographies about Italian Americans and how they themselves retain their ethnic identity after being fully assimilated to the American society. However, these authors are significantly older than I am. There have not been any autoethnographies about how 4th generation millennials retain their ethnic identity in the American society. In this autoethnography, I myself am a 4th generation millennial Italian American, and I can shed some light on how we foster our ethnic identities. I foster my own ethnic identity through my close-knit family that allows me to have a strong foundation. Additionally, Italian food has given me the opportunity to not only embrace my culture, but also to experience a part of my ancestor’s lives. Lastly, telling the stories of my ancestors has become a substantial piece of my ethnic identity because it allows my family to keep our history alive.
Food has always been a significant part of the ethnic identities of Italian Americans. Andrea Dottolo (2015) analyzes how food represents “family, morality, culture and home” to Italian American women (p. 373). Additionally, as Caputo (2011) says, “Italian Americans are either revered for the sensual art they have made of food or objectified as the Hollywood gangster” (p. 182). Both Dottolo and Caputo are focused only on how the aspect of food affects women. However, Italian food has played a significant role in my life as well as the women in my family. In the past, women have usually done more of the cooking than males. However, in today’s society, women work in the workplace just as much if not more than men do. The stereotype that only women do the cooking is dying and would be considered a sexist comment today. I usually help my mom make dinner and have learned the recipes that have been passed down in our family for generations such as making homemade pizza.
Italian Americans who emigrated from Italy to the United States in the early 1900s usually in communities like Boston’s North End that were comprised of almost 100% Italians (Smajda & Gerteis 2012 p. 626). Many of the Italians who came over, like my great grandma, did not speak English and it was hard for them to make friends outside of the community (Litwin). Because many of the Italians could not relate to anyone outside the community, the community became a very strong in-group. But, Allport (1954) says that every in group also must have an out-group (p. 40). The out-group for the Italian Americans was the immigrants who had come before them, primarily the Irish. My grandma told me that when her parents came over from Italy, the Irish looked down upon the Italians and made them take the dirty, grimy jobs such as working in the coal mines (M. Litwin, personal communication, November 10, 2015). The well-paying jobs were hard to come by for the Italians in part due to the discrimination they faced mainly by the Irish. Part of this discrimination may have come from the stereotype that Italian Americans were gangsters. Cavallero (2004) examines how the American media in the 1900s created the stereotype of the Italian mobster (p. 50-63). Additionally, Cavallero (2004) says that the 1930s were a time of constant “denigration” for the Italian Americans (p. 52). This discrimination further bonded Italian communities together. In Smajda and Gerteis’s (2012 p. 3-9) article “Ethnic Community and Ethnic Boundaries in a ‘Sauce-Scented Neighborhood’”, the ethnic communities essentially prevented assimilation because the people in the communities were so closely knit socially. These communities came to be known as “Little Italies”. The “Little Italies” were densely populated and vibrant communities. However, as time progressed, many of the Italian Americans began to move to the suburbs and the “Little Italies” began to shrink. Buonanno (2011) says that the “Little Italies” that exist today are nowhere near as lively and upbeat as the ones that existed 50 years ago (p. 9). Today, few of these communities still exist and the ones that do are much smaller than the ones that existed in the early 1900s. I live about 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, where there is still a “Little Italy” today. Although it is still a lively community with many authentic Italian restaurants and shops, it is nothing like the “Little Italies” of the past. The close-knit community that was at the heart of the old “Little Italies” has disappeared from the “Little Italy” in Baltimore and many of the residents are not Italian.
Effects of Assimilation
The diaspora of the Italian Americans has significantly changed the dynamic of what Italian Americans consider their ethnic identity. Growing up in America in a community that was not dominated by Italians, meant that my only exposure to my Italian heritage came through my family. The schools I attended and the friends I made were mostly non-Italian. For this reason, instead of thinking of myself as Italian first, as my ancestors once did, I think of myself as American first and Italian second. An “American Italian” you might say. This is due to the assimilation of the Italian Americans that took place as they moved out of their tightly-knit communities that prevented assimilation. So the strong sense of community that the Italian Americans felt had slowly disappeared. This caused Italian Americans to hold onto their ethnic culture in different ways. As the dynamics of a group change, the group adapts, but still holds onto its roots. As Allport (1954) says in-groups can evolve and adapt in order to reflect the values of the members of the in-group (p. 37). In-groups are not static because the beliefs and values of the people in those in-groups are not static. In the case of 4th generation millennial Italian Americans, we are assimilated to the American society and have never been part of the communities that were once so pivotal to our ancestors. Instead, we hold onto our ethnic roots through the closeness of family, family traditions, food, and the memories of the “old days” passed down from our grandparents.
Christine Walley (2013) says that autoethnographies take a look into family member’s lives while in the context of a larger conversation and attempt to apply their lives to society as a whole (p.15). Autoethnographies attempt to fill a gap in the research that has been done on a particular in-group through the use of scholarly research but also personal experience in that in-group. Gordon Allport (1954) defines an in-group as a group of people who use the term “we” to signify the same thing (p. 31). My most prominent in-group is Italian Americans, or more specifically 4th generation Italian Americans. Many autoethnographies would split this section into multiple sub sections, however, I feel that family, food, tradition, and memories are too intertwined for me to split them up.
In my family and many other Italian families, family comes first. Whether it’s missing a party with my friends to go to family dinner at my grandma’s house or taking an hour out of my busy schedule to sit down and have dinner with my family every night or going to see my cousin’s play, family always comes first. At least once every month, my immediate family, my cousins, aunts, uncles, and my grandparents would all gather together at one of our houses (usually my grandma’s) to celebrate basically anything that we could. Sometimes we would just get together for no reason if we hadn’t seen everyone in a couple weeks. These celebrations have given me some of my fondest memories of my childhood, but also shaped the person I have become. Having such a close family has given me a self-confidence that I could not have achieved without my family. I know that I have a strong foundation and that I can always count on my family. This has helped me to be confident in myself and take challenges head on. For example, I would never have been able to achieve a 4.0 in high school all four years without my family supporting me. However, having a family as close as mine does have some drawbacks. For example, my social life was significantly affected. While most of my friends were hanging out on a Friday or Saturday night, I was with my family. Additionally, your privacy is essentially non-existent when you have such a close family. Whenever something happened in our family, large or small, it would spread through the family rapidly whether you wanted it to or not. For example, when I got a new girlfriend, I got calls from all of my relatives within a couple hours of telling just one of my family members. However, one of the best things from when we do get together was that we always have extremely excessive amounts of food no matter what the occasion. I remember one time at my grandma’s house where it was just my immediate family and my grandparents. My grandma made enough pasta and gravy (that’s what pasta sauce is called in my family) to feed about 20 people. Many non-Italians have never heard of pasta sauce being called gravy before, but in Italian families, especially in the “old times”, it is always called gravy. My grandma grew up in an Italian community in Bayonne, New Jersey. Both of her parents were first generation Italian Americans who met in the United States (M. Litwin, personal communication, November 10, 2015). In the community that they lived in, as well as in the majority of Italian American communities, pasta and red sauce or meat sauce was always called macaroni and gravy (M. Litwin, personal communication, November 10, 2015). This tradition has been passed down in my family for generations and I will pass it down to my children as well. As you can see, all self-respecting 4th generation Italian Americans such as myself will call the sauce you put on your pasta (or macaroni as my grandma calls it) gravy.
Another tradition that my family has is that we host the Christmas party every year. The preparation for the party starts about a week before Christmas. The first couple days are spent cleaning up the house and setting everything up for the party. The rest of the time is spent cooking. The house smells of freshly made bread, gravy simmering on the stove, the ham cooking in the oven, and much more. We usually have to make enough food to feed about 100 people because we invite all of my extended family including 2nd cousins and family friends. On Christmas day, my grandparents are always the first ones to show up. My sisters and I help them bring in a carful of homemade food ranging from my grandma’s famous brownies, chocolate chip cookies, a couple cakes, biscotti (an Italian cookie), meatballs, my grandfather’s homemade rolls, and a couple bowls of fresh fruit. Loraine Caputo (2011) describes how cooking became a way for her grandmothers and her to embrace their ethnic heritage. She says that she spends hours in the kitchen preparing meals and perfecting her dishes (p. 194). Both of my grandmother’s along with my mom have also chosen to spend so much time cooking because they feel it is part of their ethnic identity. Caputo’s daughter says it best when she tells her mom that “We are Italian” when Caputo complains about spending so much time in the kitchen (2011 p. 194). However, I have learned to cook the traditional Italian meals in addition to just my sisters as it was when my grandma grew up. Learning to cook my family’s meals has allowed me to share in a substantial part of my ancestor’s lives, something that I would never have without Italian food.
As time passes, the house fills up, making it hard to move through the rooms. The upstairs is filled with laughter, conversation, and of course story-telling. My grandfather will retell the stories growing up in a row house with little money. His father fixed shoes for a living in an Italian community much like in the North End. As Smajda and Gerteis (2012 p. 628) say, “You used to be able to have your shoes fixed here but that’s not so easy anymore”. Next, he’ll talk about how he started his own paper route when he was 12 years old to help his parents pay the bills. These stories remind us of our roots and keep the family history alive. My grandma will tell us the stories about her parents that just like me, she had heard hundreds of times (M. Litwin, personal communication, November 10, 2015). I will pass these same stories down to my kids along with my own stories. Additionally, these stories have taught me that you never can tell when you are in the “good old days” (or the memories that you remember for the rest of your life) until you leave them. This has had a significant impact on my life because I try to make the most of every day, whether that means getting up early to work out instead of sleeping in or making sure that I do my absolute best on a paper.
“Dinner!!!!” My dad calls down in the basement and all of the kids rush up the stairs to get in line. The aroma coming from the kitchen is floating throughout the house and everyone gets in line to taste the delicious food that my mom, along with our help, has been preparing for days. My mom’s chicken parmesan is front and center next to my dad’s delicious mash potatoes. There’s pasta and meatballs, sausage and onion, pork and sourcrout, ham, mac and cheese, corn, my grandpa’s homemade rolls, lasagna, bread from Chef Palino’s (a small mom and pop Italian restaurant), and much more. Many people make the mistake of filling up too much on dinner because there’s so much food. Their mistake always proves costly when they see the dessert table. We usually have more dessert than we do food for dinner. There’s my grandma’s brownies, chocolate chip cookies, candy cane cookies, biscotti, three or four cakes, tandy cakes (a thin vanilla cake topped with a layer of peanut butter and a layer of chocolate), thumbprints (a tradition of my grandma’s), fresh fruit, and any other desserts that our guests bring. Sitting around the table for dinner and dessert embodies my ethnic identity as an Italian American. All of my family is there laughing, telling stories of the “old days”, continuing our family traditions, and making new memories that we can add to the wealth of memories that my family already has.
4th generation millennial Italian Americans today still embrace their ethnic identities, but the ways in which they do so have evolved. The ethnic communities that existed in the time of our great grandparents and grandparents are almost non-existent today. The assimilation that took place after the Italian Americans left the “Little Italies”, transformed the way that Italian Americans look at their ethnic identities. There was no longer a strong community to fall back on, but instead a tight family to fall back on. Today, close family, Italian food, traditions, and the memories of their ancestors allow Italian Americans like myself to embrace their roots, but also to keep adding to the history of Italian Americans. How will my kids and my kids’ kids embrace their ethnic identity? I don’t know for sure. I hope they will continue to love Italian food like I do, raise their families to be as close as mine is today, and continue to tell the stories of our family. Most likely, they will evolve my definition of what I believe to be my ethnic identity into their own version.
Allport, G. W. (1954). Formation of In-Groups. The Nature of Prejudice (pp. 29-47). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Buonanno, M. (2011, fall). Ethnicity, Nostalgia, Affirmation: The Rhetoric of Italian American Identity. Voices, 37(3/4), 3-9.
Caputo, L. (2011, July 1). Gender, Food, and Loss. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 12(3), 179-195.
Cavallero, J. J. (2004, summer). Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, AND Sopranos: The Historical Roots of Italian American Stereotype Anxiety. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 32(2), 50-63.
Dottolo, A. L. (2015 August 31). Slicing White Bre(a)d: Racial Identities, Recipes,
and Italian-American Women. Women & Therapy, 38(3-4), 356-376.
Gerteis, J. & Smaja J. (2012, September). Ethnic Community and Ethnic Boundaries in a “Sauce-Scented Neighborhood”. Sociological Forum, 27(3), 617-640.