Immigrants & Ovens

Reader Gerhard from Vienna submits this interesting email:

I think if you leave your homeland for another continent, you’ll hold on to anything that evokes the feeling of home. So why fresh pasta once a week if you can bring in Italy every day? Still you have to get accustomed to the new environment.

A fascinating thought for me as an European, btw. All our roots can be traced to some other place… but living in America, almost everybody’s roots have been unearthed just a very short time ago… a couple of hundred years ago or less… which makes me wonder if people do hold on to the things, the food, the traditions of their origin.

I am digressing… anyway, still today Greek people bring their food in pots and pans to bakeries and pick it up again when it is done. When the bread-oven is hot anyway, while not use it for dinner as well? btw, this is why Greek food has a reputation for being served lukewarm; it takes a while to bring the Stifado back home from the bakery

To your first point, Gerhard, it’s all about what you grow up with. Especially in and around bigger cities, American kids are used to asking each other about their nationalities. Though I can’t remember too many childhood friends whose parents had accents, most of their grandparents did. That I think points to the huge influx of European immigrants we had all through the last century, especially between the 20’s and 50’s. Of course immigrants are still coming, though these days from different places, particularly Central America.

To your second point about communal ovens: I know some places still retain the culture. I understand that while there are only a handful left in places like Italy, there are more in Greece. North Africa is where I understand communal oven culture still thrives. In places like Morocco and Algeria. There I’m told you can tell just about everything about everyone in town by the foods they bring to the oven — who’s rich, who’s poor, who’s having guests, who’s getting married. Somebody should write a book about communal oven culture some time before it’s all gone!

4 thoughts on “Immigrants & Ovens”

  1. Interesting observations. I think more often than not, “ethnic” food traditions become part of America itself. My outlook may be a bit skewed (I’m from NYC), but these days I can go into a regular supermarket and buy a bottle of nam pla as easily as I can buy a bottle of ketchup. I can go to a banh mi place on one corner, get a sub on the next, a felafel or schwarma down the street, and that’s not at the expense of hot dog and hamburger places. This works wonderfully in both directions. Immigrants (and the next generations) are able to find many of the products they are used to, so they can still cook according to their traditions if they want; and locals (like me) can take advantage of the accessibility of these new foods and recipes, and learn the whys and wherefores of them. (BTW — there’s a Greek bakery in my neighborhood that is operated by the third generation of the family, but they don’t have a communal oven!)

    1. Ah New York. Mrs. Pastry would move us back there in a red hot second if she could. But I think you’re right that eventually all these influences work their way into the fabric of the country. To pursue the Italian food example, most Americans think Italian food is all about big plates of paste covered with cheese! It’s been incorporated, but not the way most Italians would approve of. It’s its own thing now. Tex-Mex is another great example.

      Thanks for the email!

  2. Interesting reading about communal ovens! I live in Malta and we too had communal ovens run by the local baker. This was pre domestic ovens in every house. It is not done any more nowadays (at least I don’t know about it) since every household has its own oven.
    As noted above you could tell who the families who brought in the food to be baked were.

    1. Very interesting, Joe. I know so little about Malta or it’s cuisine. I expect that like many other places in Europe and the Mediterranean, communal ovens were once common. But clearly I need to visit!

      – Joe

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