Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Hungering for America"

The first paragraph of Hungering for America by Hasia Diner presents her basic premise and what she set out to do:
"People," novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "do not love alike." "Neither do they starve alike," he observed in his commentary on Hunger, ... by... Knut Hamsun. ... The comment suggests a relationship between food, scarcity, and the social history of immigration. How people experienced hunger in one place and then recalled its pangs in another had everything to do with who they were, where they came from, and where they went." (Hungering for America, p. 1)
Last night, my culinary book club, sponsored by Motte and Bailey Bookshop, had a far-ranging discussion of this book, which covers three immigrant groups who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Italians, Irish, and Jews. We were all interested in how the book showed that Italian immigrants created a cuisine by combining elements of regional cooking from Italy, and used this food to forge an identity; showed how Jews extended the food rituals and great importance of food in their lives when they came to America; but that the author strongly showed that the Irish came without any strong feelings about food and identity and did not create foods that gave them a sense of identity at all until they had been in the US for nearly100 years.

The chapters that describe each group's pre-immigration situation -- in each case a situation of great food insecurity -- were extremely interesting, we all found. The fact that the Irish starved due to potato blight while their colonial masters were growing and exporting many kinds of food is well known. In earlier days, the author shows, Irish lower classes had had access to at least some of these foods, but in the 18th century were reduced to a diet almost exclusively made up of potatoes. The hostility and almost total separation between the British upper classes, even those who seemed to have become "Irish," and the poor people meant that there was no transfer of  foodways or use of foodways to form an Irish identity; this carried over when the Irish fled the "Great Hunger."

As we discussed the book, we talked about a number of different experiences and observations we have made about immigrant foods in our experiences. We wondered about other ethnic groups, such as Germans, Lithuanians, Swedes, and others -- the very special characteristics of the three groups -- that all experienced. I was recalling my exposure, through Arny and Tracy's Irish sabbatical years, to Irish people now, even during a time of great (though temporary) prosperity. They continue to harbor deep hostility towards those who mistreated them, and remember how their forbears starved. We each remembered a variety of experiences in the places we came from: Southeastern Kansas, the Boston area, near Buffalo, New York, and St. Louis.

Previous posts I have written about Hasia Diner's book:

At one point we talked about the differences that the book noted between Irish saloons, where men went to drink together; German saloons where food was served and families gathered; and Italian restaurants where wine was part of the dining experience. Irish drinking was a recognized problem; Jewish drinking wasn't even mentioned. So I had the opportunity to tell the old joke:
     Q. Why don't Jews drink?
     A. Because it dulls the pain. 


Jeanie said...

It sounds like a very interesting evening and a not-easy but fascinating book -- I suspect made all the more so by you foodie-readers!

~~louise~~ said...

I don't mind saying that the thought of being a fly on the wall for your culinary book club meeting is quite tempting. I have rather steep opinions about the relationship between "food, scarcity, and the social history of immigration." Very interesting post, Mae. Thanks for sharing...