An Italian cooking show, much like Italian cooking in general, is all about ingredients. Turn on Mario Batali and you’ll hear all about olive oils from Umbria, tomatoes from Naples, rice from the Po Valley, and cheese from Lombardy. Judging from TV shows like his, you’d think Italians did nothing but work on farms and in vineyards. So why is it that there’s no Italian agricultural tradition in America? Why is it that the Irish, English, Germans and Swedes put down farming roots in the states while the Italians didn’t?
The answer is that Italians had an entirely different view of America than other immigrant groups. True, many Italians, like the Irish, left home because of food shortages. Others left because they couldn’t find jobs. Yet most Italians saw these as temporary situations, and planned to return home one day. And so Italian immigrants (most of whom were men) tended to cluster in cities, working as tradesmen in construction, in the garment industry, meat packing plants, in shops and on loading docks, sweeping streets, just about anything they could do to earn and save a little money for the return trip.
Eventually some 40% of the roughly 2.5 million Italian immigrants that arrived in America between 1890 and 1920 returned to Italy. The rest stayed and went on to make some really knock-out food.