I want to get this out of the way at the get-go: I was raised on SpaghettiOs, and I loved them. Surely you remember Chef Boyardee with his jaunty toque, smiling from the front of every can. I loved the Chef’s sweet sauce, his squishy little meatballs, and his round noodles that were as far from al dente as one could get without losing solid form. I still remember the joy I felt when my mother opened a can for my lunch.
My history with SpaghettiOs prompts pity among my Long Island in-laws, who, no matter their genetic backgrounds, were weaned on homemade red sauce and teethed on slices of Sicilian pie (that’s “pizza” to you). As far as I can tell, everyone on Long Island is at least a little bit Italian, even if they’re Irish or German.
These people take their red sauce very seriously. It’s like a religion, with competing denominations advocating for different ingredients and techniques. Until I met Christopher, I never thought much about what sauce went on my spaghetti, but for 25 years I’ve been slowly climbing out of that pit of ignorance. I’ve had lessons in Grandma Josephine’s cacciatore, and of course I have Christopher’s meat sauce recipe committed to memory.
And so it was with the enthusiasm of a convert that I dug into Ian MacAllen’s newly published Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American.
MacAllen has written a kind of social history of Italians in the United States through the lens of their evolving culinary traditions. He charts the way Italian immigrant communities — made up primarily of people from the more impoverished south of Italy — adapted their simple cucina povera to an American context.
He explores how profoundly immigrant cuisine was shaped by the ingredients they found here, such as relatively abundant and inexpensive meat, and, more often, those they could not find here: olive oil, hard wheat pastas, Italian cheeses. He also examines the shifting cultural values of Italian immigrants, initially treated with suspicion and contempt, as they — and their food — became distinctly American.
MacAllen begins with a dizzying tour of the history of the most important components of red sauce cuisine. Pasta has been nourishing Europeans “since the ancient period of history,” though its earliest forms might not be recognizable to modern pasta lovers. Other core cuisine components are relative latecomers: tomatoes and peppers are new world fruits that did not appear in European kitchens until well after the Columbian exchange.
What contemporary Americans think of as Italian food has roots in southern Italy, but MacAllen’s main point is that it is so profoundly marked by its American trajectory that it can no longer be thought of as Italian in any real sense.
The food traditions the immigrants brought with them were simple, inexpensive, and largely vegetarian. But as their economic fortunes improved, Italian-Americans embellished their cuisine to fit their new circumstances. The result was that the American red sauce tradition comprises dishes immigrants imagined they should eat now that they could afford to.
“Many of the dishes in red sauce cuisine evolved from foods of festival and celebration,” MacAllen writes. But here their newfound wealth led to ways of eating that blurred the distinction between celebratory meals and ordinary ones.
MacAllen reminds readers that Italian immigrants and their cuisine were viewed almost universally with suspicion in America. Broader appreciation of red sauce foods came after immigrants opened restaurants for hungry factory workers. These entrepreneurs were essentially inventing a restaurant cuisine without the benefit of any experience either as restaurant hosts or as customers.
It was in these humble, often home-based restaurants that some of the great dishes of the red sauce tradition were created. Veal Parmesan likely evolved from a Neapolitan eggplant dish that was a mainstay in poorer regions of Italy. In the U.S., an abundance of veal as a byproduct of the northeastern dairy industry made it financially feasible to substitute meat for eggplant. German immigrants’ schnitzel, a preparation unknown in southern Italy, might also have influenced the development of veal Parmesan here, as well as its cousin veal francese.
In these ways, the dishes developed in red sauce restaurants were a unique hybrid cuisine unlike anything to be found in Italy.
This is the lesson that many Americans learn when they travel to Italy and find the food there surprisingly unfamiliar. My brother-in-law concluded on returning from his first trip: “The Italian food on Long Island is just better than the Italian food in Italy.”
As MacAllen exhaustively illustrates, some of the dishes Americans love most are Italian in the same way that fourth-generation Italian-Americans are Italian — which is to say barely at all.
Assimilation in America did something else remarkable to the evolution of Italian identity and food here, Red Sauce points out. Sicilians, Calabrians, and Neapolitans began to view themselves as simply Italian. Their food traditions were also increasingly homogenized.
The assimilation (or not) of immigrant communities into dominant American society is both fraught and of the moment as our society grapples with the ways in which some groups are or are not able to become fully American. MacAllen touches on this theme but never quite explains how Italian immigrants, reviled and discriminated against as not-quite-white when they first arrived, made their way into middle-class American whiteness.
Facts come at the reader fast and furious in this book. We learn that the shapes represented by the roughly 1,300 varieties of pasta currently available are not primarily a function of regional differences but a reflection of modern product marketing. Did you know that there exists a pasta variety called pisarei — baby penises? I was also relieved to read that Chef Boiardi (later Boyardee to help Americans with the pronunciation) was a real person, an Italian immigrant from Emilia-Romagna. He arrived in New York in 1917, eventually becoming chef of his own restaurant. He began putting up his tomato sauce at the request of patrons before eventually founding his canned food empire.
We’ve come full circle back to SpaghettiOs with appreciation for them as industrial-scale evidence of the integration of Italians in post-war American culture. And perhaps no more distant from Italy than modernized red sauce dishes available in red sauce renaissance restaurants opening across the country.
The event: A talk by Ian MacAllen, author of Red Sauce
The time: Wednesday, Aug. 24, 6 p.m.
The place: East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St.
The cost: $5