Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 6



Yaaay, last day! Last day! I know it might seem like a dream to have to eat pastry every morning, but this part of the diet has left me feeling gross and hungry every day. Sugar consumption would have been just as prestigious as meat consumption for Italians in America. I didn’t realize how far my own diet had strayed from such a sweets-laden, carb-heavy menu like this week, so I’m glad to be done with it.

I went to Ferrara Bakery in Manhattan’s Little Italy, founded in 1892, and ordered a 1/4 lb of ameritti and pignoli cookies, which are some of my FAVORITE FOODS ON THE PLANET. But my order got mixed up: when I got home, I discovered I have two, chocolat-enrobed cannolis instead. Not very accurate to 1919, although Americans have always loved enorbing foods in chocolate. Oh well.


Homemade Macaroni with tomato sauce and chopped meat.
Pot roast. Peas.
Ice cream.


After church, Sundays were taken up by  a giant, late-afternoon meal, laden with pastas and meats. This meal was the most complicated dishes I prepare all week, and even these recipes  seemed simple to some of food I’ve cooked on on this blog.

I’ve never made pasta from scratch, but I figured why not give it a shot? I had stopped at Di Palo’s the night before and picked up some fresh pasta as a back up in case things really went wrong.

On pasta, Gentile had this to say: ‘The Italians serve the spaghetti or macaroni at the beginning of the meal, in place of soup, and they give it the name of Minestra Asciuttaor, “dry” soup. Besides the familiar spaghetti, the paste is served in many other forms and with different seasoning. This is by far the most popular Italian dish, and it seems to have pleased the taste of all the peoples of the earth.” The instructions I used to roll out my own pasta came from Wood, who said the best pasta was made with eggs. Back home, Southern Italians likely made pasta simply with water and flour; here, they could afford a richer pasta with eggs. Here’s Wood’s recipe, which I followed:

Tagliatelli o Pasta Fatta in Casa (Noodles or Home Made Paste)

Allow about a cup of flour to an egg. Put the flour on a bread board, make a hole in the middle, and break in the egg. Work it with a fork until it is firm enough to work with the hands. Knead it thoroughly adding, more flour if necessary, until you have a paste you can roll out. Roll it as thin as a ten-cent piece.

This paste may be cut in ribbons to be cooked in soup as Tagliatelli or cut in squares or circles and filled with various mixtures to make Cappelletti, Ravioli etc.

I used semolina flour (available from Bob’s Red Mill). I had to add a little extra water to the egg, then added more flour as I rolled it out “thin as a ten-cent piece.” I think it turned out well, especially for my first time!


I decided to cook it using another Wood recipe:

Spaghetti Italian Style

First put one quarter pound salt pork, sliced, in a small pan fry out and then strain it. Put fat back in pan; cut some garlic, if you like, one onion, too; stir a little and then put in two pork chops. Cook for about ten minutes, then add one cup strained tomato and cook for about half an hour to an hour according to meat. Second, put enough water in a good sized pan and let come to a boil; then put in one half pound spaghetti and cook .Strain spaghetti in a colander and spread in a platter over spaghetti; spread grated cheese and sauce. Put meat in a dish separate.

She used dry spaghetti, I simply subbed my fresh-made pasta. I fried bacon in a large skillet, and when it had browned, scooped out the bacon and leftt he hot fat. Then I added a medium-sized onion, chopped, and three chopped garlic cloves. When they had browned a bit, I added a big pork chop from Di Palo’s that I had cut into two-inch squares. Once the meat was brown, I added two cups of tomato sauce from the pot o’ sauce I made earlier this week, as well as salt and black pepper. I covered it and let it cook for 20 minutes, then added my fresh pasta and let it cook ten minutes more. When I plated the pasta, I topped it with crumbles of bacon and a grating of parmesan cheese.

The pasta turned out a bit too al dente, but still (I thought) very good. I love a tomato sauce paired with bacon fat; and although I thought the limited seasonings would be boring, the acid and sweetness of the tomatoes paired nicely with the umami meat. I scarfed a plate and swabbed up the sauce with bread.

Then came the “pot roast,” which is a very American/New England term. So what is it that they were cooking? I search Gentile’s Italian cookbook, and found this recipe for “Stewed Veal.” Veal is mentioned a few other times the meals that Sophinisba documents, so I thought it was an appropriate recipe for Sunday dinner.

(Stracotto di vitella)

Place in a saucepan one pound of veal or more, bone included, a piece of butter or some olive oil (or the two together), half a medium sized onion, one small carrot, two celery stalks cut in small pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Put it on a low fire, turn the meat over often and when browned add a pinch of flour and some tomato paste, bringing it to full cooking with water poured little by little. The flour is used to keep the sauce together and give it color, but care must be taken not to burn it, because in that case the sauce would have an unpleasant taste and a black, instead of a reddish color. The stewed veal can be served with some vegetable.


I actually decided to cook this dish in my slow-cooker; it could cook slow and low and I wouldn’t have to pay attention to it. I could have browned the meat, but I didn’t; I just put two, 1.5 lb bone-in veal shanks in the slow cooker, and seasoned them as the recipes directs, including a tablespoon of tomato pasta I mixed with a little water. I didn’t want to serve peas with the veal, as the menu suggested, because this dish was pulled from the summer menus, and peas aren’t in season now. So instead, I tucked little carrots and potatoes around the veal. I added four cups of water, and set it to cook on high for four hours.

The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and despite the simple seasoning, so flavorful. Even thought I felt full after eating a whole plate of pasta, the meat and veggies felt light in comparison, like I had plenty more space to fit them in.


I had planned to treat myself to some gelato later in the afternoon, but never had time after running to a series of meetings (how very un-Sunday of me). I got home late in the evening, and was feeling peckish, so I made some “supper.”


Rice cooked in milk with egg.
Cake. Coffee.


This supper is supposed to be a light meal after the heavy afternoon dinner. But the rice cooked in milk with egg was a really baffling recipe. I texted Jill to see if we could figure out was up here; she answered “Like an enriched rice pudding?? Rice pudding isn’t Italian…and I feel like rice pudding would have been known to her (Sophinisba), so she would have described it as rice pudding. I am really stumped.”

It didn’t mention sugar in the recipe, so I suspected it might be savory. Could it be a misinterpretation of risotto? but looking through Gentile’s book, I found this recipe for a savory rice dish with eggs:

(Sfornato di riso con rigoglie)

Make a good brown stock  and use the same for the rice as well as for the giblets. To these add some thin slices of ham and brown them first in butter, seasoned moderately with salt and pepper,completing the cooking with brown stock. A taste of mushrooms will be found useful.

Brown the rice equally in butter, then complete the cooking with hot water. Drain and put the brown stock, adding grated cheese and two beaten eggs, when the rice has cooled a little.

Take a smooth mold, round or oval, grease it evenly with butter, cover the bottom with buttered paper and place in it the rice to harden it in the oven. When taken from the mold pour over the gravy from the giblets, slightly thickened with a pinch of flour and serve with the giblets around, seeing that there is plenty of gravy for them.

I pulled parts of this recipe to create my dish: I browned the rice in butter–the only time I’ve used butter this week; perhaps I should have used olive oil. then, I cooked the rice in whole milk instead of stock or water. I turned off the burner, and while the rice was still got, poured in a beaten egg mixed with a generous amount of greater parmesan. Is stirred constantly while pouring in the egg, and let it sit, covered, for 10 more minutes. The result was creamy; sort of crumbled, but held together in chunks by the egg.

When I gave it a try…it was weird, at first. The rice felt a little greasy, from all the dairy fat, which is not a sensation I’m used to with rice. but then it grew on me–it was nutty, from the toasted rice, and cheesy from the generous parmesan shavings. Yeah I can get behind it. But if anyone has a better idea what this dish might be, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

The rice was enough; I skipped the cake, and definitely didn’t want coffee at 9pm.

So that’s the end of this week-long experiment. As I mentioned in another post, at one point I wasn’t certain I was going to continue writing this week in light of what was going on nationally; in the end, I’m really glad I did. It’s served as documentation of this important week in my life, as well as an outlet for issues that are important to me.

It’s the end of this experiment, but there are many more to come. Thank you for joining me.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 5

day5_1I went on a pilgrimage of sorts this weekend.


On Saturday, I woke up at a Bed & Breakfast near Rochester. I was speaking at a conference that afternoon, and part of the deal was my room and board. So when I wandered downstairs to the quaint dining room, I didn’t stick to my diet. I ate what they gave me. I had a cup of black tea, which I had really missed this week, as well as a homemade jelly donut, a slice of apple cake, yogurt, and a ham and cheese souffle.

Before I went to the conference, I wanted to make a special stop: I was close to Mt. Hope Cemetery, the final resting place of Susan B. Anthony. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, but her grave site was recently in the news because hundreds of women stopped by to stick their “I Voted” stickers on her grave. The cemetery decided to stay open late on Tuesday to give women the chance to do so. Check out this PBS article to see incredible photos of her gravestone covered in stickers, and the long line of women waiting to add their badge.

I had preserved my “I Voted” sticker, because I felt I wanted some physical reminder of what had happened Tuesday. When I realized I would be near her grave site this weekend, I knew this was a pilgrimage I had to make. After driving to the cemetery, the trees in high-fall colors, I walked up to silent grave and dutifully stuck my sticker to the grave. The other stickers had been cleared away; mine was the lone reminder.

Before too long, a young woman walked up, probably from the nearby University of Rochester, wearing a camera around her neck and a shirt that said “Women Belong in the House and the Senate”.  She commented she was sad the stickers were gone; I told her I had traveled from NYC to add mine.

“Frederick Douglass is here too, do you know that? His grave-site is amazing.”

“Yes, I passed him on the way here. I noticed he has a big plaque. But I’ve been wondering where Susan’s plaque is.” The sight of Douglass’ grave had made my heart sing, but feel a little confused when I approached Anthony’s. Other than a few signs to direct visitors to her grave, there was no other information or fanfare.

“Yeah. It shows even now how we treat men and women differently, even though they fought for the same things,” she answered, then added hesitantly: “…I’m sorry, I’m a feminist.”

“Anyone standing at this grave site at 9am on a Saturday is a feminist.” I responded.

Before I left, a mother and her grown daughter joined us in front of the grave. We all stood there silently, looking at the head stone. Then I walked back to my car and sobbed in the front seat.

If I could write Susan B Anthony’s plaque, here’s what it would say: “I think she would be proud of how far we’ve come, but perhaps she would be sad at how far we have left to go.”

I also visited the grave site of Lillian Wald. Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurses service, a group of young, college educated women that were the first organization to provide affordable health care, in this case to new immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Wald was also a lesbian. Settlement Houses and social work were considered a socially acceptable job for women with a college education who wanted to delay, or defer, marriage. If you weren’t taking care of your own husband and children, then it was seen as honorable to “sacrifice” those goals to help the children of the world. But Settlement Houses also became a place for any women who wanted to escape traditional gender roles and sexual expectations. It was a safe place for women who wanted to be with women, whether as colleagues or lovers.


In her 1915 book, The House on Henry StreetWald described her awakening to the cause of social justice; sentences in bold are my own added emphasis:

I had spent two years in a New York training school for nurses; strenuous years for an undisciplined, untrained girl, but a wonderful human experience… I had little more than an inspiration to be of use in some way or somehow, and going to the hospital [on the Lower East Side] seemed the readiest means of realizing my desire…The Lower East Side then reflected the popular indifference—it almost seemed contempt—for the living conditions of a huge population. And the possibility of improvement seemed, when my inexperience was startled into thought, the more remote because of the dumb acceptance of these conditions by the East Side itself. Like the rest of the world I had known little of it, when friends of a philanthropic institution asked me to do something for that quarter…

From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed making, [ed note–a lesson in nursing for local families on the LES] a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed making lesson and carried it with me.

The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, one of those who stand on street corners exhibiting deformities to enlist compassion, and masking the begging of alms by a pretense at selling; although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarder— who were literally boarders since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on,— and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean, bed soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings judged by any measure of moral values…Indeed my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life and for society of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part.

That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire.

I hope this election is our country’s baptism of fire. It has been an awakening to me that I need to do more, everyday, to fight for the disenfranchised. I hope, as a country, these feelings don’t fade after a few weeks. I hope they build steam over the next few years.



Saturday afternoon, I spoke at the Domestic Skills Symposium at Genesee County Village on the topic of the history of funeral food traditions. I started my talk by saying I felt this topic was fitting, because I had been grieving since Tuesday. And that I had watched my fellow mourner’s Instagram feeds fill up with photos of carby comfort food.

Have you turned to a particular food to nourish and comfort this week?

After my talk, there was a luncheon of mourning foods from the past and present, including funeral cakes flavored with caraway seed, sweet and lemony pan de muerte, stewed prunes–served in the Middle Ages, mostly for their dark color; there were Jell-o molds and Mormon funeral potatoes, and fried chicken. I stuffed myself.


Lima beans with celery, onions and tomatoes.
Stuffed artichokes.
Bread. Coffee. Fruit.


By the evening, I was back on the road to drive to NYC. And I was back on my Italian diet. I made the mix of lima beans, celery onions and tomatoes in advance, gently sauteing them all together. I was bummed I didn’t have time make the recipe for stuffed artichokes, but here is a recipe from Gentile’s Italian cookbook:

(Carciofi in stufato)

Wash the artichokes and cut the hard part of the leaves (the top). Widen the leaves and insert a hash composed of bread crumbs, parsely, salt, pepper and oil. Place the artichokes in the saucepan standing on their stalk, one touching the other. Cover them with water and let them cook for two hours or more. When the leaves are easily detached they are cooked.

I had a sweet roll and a plum with my dinner.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 4


Breakfast came from a local coffee shop; they didn’t have any Italian cookies or pastries, so I went with the pumpkin loaf. Forgive me for this deviation.

I ate at a morning meeting at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The meeting was essentially group therapy; I cried. Again. I’ve been working at this museum for over seven years, and institution that believes immigration is a good things, and uses the stories of people of the past to remind us that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. If we know about the xenophobia of the past, perhaps we can stop it today.

Working at this museum has meant I’ve never felt like I’m in a “New York bubble” of liberalism. Daily, I interact with people who come from all parts of this country, let alone the world. I speak to people from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs. There is a part of me that believes I have at my job–maybe if I had tried harder, worked harder, people would have been more sympathetic to the disenfranchised, and this election would have turned out differently.

On the other hand, tickets to tours at the museum are beyond sold out all weekend. I don’t know why folks are coming, but maybe it’s for solace.

I’ve become grateful for the chance to document this historic week on my blog. And I am grateful to all of you who have commented–please, continue to do so, and share what you would like to share, and what you need to share.



Egg omelet. Chocolate.
Bread. Stewed fruit.


Southern Italians ate a lot of eggs, but not for breakfast–as we’ve seen this week. And especially on Friday, a fast day, they were the main course at meal times instead of meat. If you know more about the history and significance of the Friday fast, or have your own personal experiences with it, I’d love to hear more in the comments.

To determine if there was a particular Italian style of making omelets, I searched Gentile’s Italian cookbook for omelet. I came up from look at multiple recipes that often included meat, but it’s FRIDAY, so we’re not eating meat today. I looked at a few of Gentile’s omelette and came up with a simple recipe. I added salt, pepper and dried parsley to slighty scrambled eggs, sautéed some slivers of onion in olive oil, and poured to eggs on top. I used a larger pan that I normally use for omelettes, because Gentile describes the omelets as thin. Last I added, at her recommendation, some shavings of parmesan cheese (which, by the way, is from DiPalo’s Fine Foods, founded in NYC by Italian immigrants in 1925).

I know I haven’t been sharing recipes for most of this dishes, but for example I looked up “stewed fruit” in cookbooks from the time and came up with nada. There’s aren’t really recipes as ways to cook food, using what you have. I actually really like cooking this way. Stewed fruit feels very settlement house cooking class–mushy and vaguely healthy. I cut up an apple and a pear, and added then to a saucepan with a little water, a spoonful of brown sugar, and a little cinnamon. Americans werent cooking with/supportive of a lot of spice in food, but they were down with a little cinnamon (pretty much that and black pepper were ok).

Every meal I’ve made has taken about 20 minutes of active cooking time, and maybe another 20 minutes inactive. I find these meals really efficient, easy, not a lot of cleanup. But man there is a lot of sugar. It’s more sugar and carbs than I usually eat in a day.


Fried fish.
Fresh tomatoes. Cucumbers.
Bread. Fruit.

image1I took this photo in the front seat of my car. I’m on the road!

This menu is pulled from the summer menus that Sohpinisba gives; I liked its simplicity, and I thought it would be easy for my traveling day. I was on the road Friday night, on my way to Rochester to a public speaking gig. When it was dinner time, I was in very, very rural upstate NY, so I stopped at the only restaurant that I knew had a fish sandwich: Burger King. I ate a “Big Fish” sandwich in my car, and it was actually pretty gross. I had big fish burps all night.


Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 3

day3_1The coffee available at Starbuck’s is another result of the massive Italian immigration to the U.S. All the lattes and espressos are thanks to Italians!

This morning, for the first time in my life, I finished a full cup of coffee. On coffee, Sophinisba said: “The coffee is made strong but is served with hot milk the cup half or two thirds filled with milk before coffee is poured in. Very often nothing is eaten with the coffee.” Based on her description, I ordered a cafe latte at Starbucks. I had a biscotti, too, since  Sophnisba said Italian cookies were also often a part of breakfast.

My first sip of coffee was shockingly bitter; but it reminded me of my grandfather. He’s the only person in my family that drank coffee, and I remember how to smell filled the house when I stayed over with him and grandma when I was a kid. It also felt like I was taking my medicine–caffienating after two nights of restless sleep.

I ate and drank my cafe latte on the subway; I had camped out at a close friend’s the night before. I was feeling too heartbroken to be alone.



Egg tamale (egg, cheese and bacon).
Baked potatoes. Bread. Fruit.


The egg tamale is a dish that really had both Jill and I stumped as to what it could be. I thought perhaps this was some American recipe, but searched cookbooks from the time to no avail. Tamales were a very popular street food in the early 20th century, so I got to thinking, maybe Sophinisba is seeing a food she doesn’t recognize, and is using a term she does know to describe it. So tamales are corn…maybe this was a polenta dish? Polenta is a Northern Italain staple, as opposed to Southern. But in America’s Little Italies people from all over Italy were meeting, and their foodways were combining. Plus, it’s got good ol’ American bacon on it. So I made what is my best guess for this dish: polenta, topped with grated Parmesan cheese, a fried egg and bacon. I also baked a few potatoes, and had a banana. Bananas were super common and considered super american. But I skipped the bread. It was enough food as is.



Soup with macaroni.
Meat with vegetables (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions etc.)
Bread. Fruit.

day3_3It looks more like a random collection of food than a meal, but I promise it tasted very good.

I had left over lentil soup and macaroni from Tuesday, so I combined them with an extra ladleful of tomato sauce to make Soup with macaroni. I roasted a mess of veggies–exactly what she listed–with salt and olive oil. And I had a special guest for dinner: Jeffrey Marsh, LGBTQ activist and fellow author. And vegan! He wanted to get together and I had a sudden realization that he could eat everything I was preparing for dinner. The meals, you may have noticed, are really light on dairy. Southern Italians used used olive oil, not butter, and just a smattering of cheese here and there. I served myself the last of my roast chicken, and Jeffrey supplied the bread, as well as the apple and pear we split for dessert.

We talked about the election and how to move forward. I don’t know if I have any revelations to share with you, other than a promise to be a good person, and try to do good things for the world. I’m gathering money to donate to causes I believe in, investigating what organizations to join to become more politically active, and taking steps to try to amplify my voice as an advocate for an inclusive America.

I feel it’s so important to be proactive, because as a historian, I know that history can repeat itself. America did NOT welcome Italian immigrants with open arms. Take a moment to read this article about the history of racism and violence against Italians in America, and about the Immigration Act of 1924 that virtually banned Italian immigration to this country, a “legislative expression of the xenophobia.” Just 5 years after Sophnisba Breckenridge observed this Sicilian family’s dining habits, Italian immigration to America came to a standstill.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 2

day2_1My sad ass ate my sad-ass breakfast.

I woke up Wednesday morning feeling devastated. And I’ll tell you why: it’s a part of my life that I have not talked about publicly. In fact, on this blog–although I put myself through experiments like this one–I seldom talk about my personal life.

A little less than two years ago, I left an emotionally abusive marriage. I also experienced a sexual assault during this marriage; but, being a woman, it was not my first and it is unlikely to be my last. One of the reasons I am sad is because my country has elected a man who has been accused of dozens of alleged assaults; I feel by electing him, we continue normalize this behavior, and his presidency will create a permissive environment for what I went through to continue to happen to myself and other women. I woke up today feeling like I did in the darkest part of my marriage–unsafe, unloved, and trapped. That is how I feel in my country today.

So I ate my breakfast, and I was sad.

After breakfast, I went to Brooklyn to see my obgyn. I purchased my healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, because I am self-employed and therefore I am in charge of my own healthcare. Additionally, this past year I have been on Medicaid. Leaving my husband and dissolving my marriage was extremely financially difficult; the financial burden lifted by my free healthcare has been key to getting myself back on my feet. I worry about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and I worry about the rolling back of social services that have helped me get on my feet, but that so many other people still need.

I didn’t eat much the rest of the day, but around five I went to my part time job at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an institution devoted to telling stories about the history of immigration in order to make connections to the present. They asked the employees if they wanted to stop in for a chat and some pizza. So I ate some pizza.

day2_2It was from Williamsburg Pizza on Broom Street and it was delicious.

I realized that the food I ate yesterday, and the meals I’ll have later this week, aren’t really what we consider Italian-American food–like pizza. I was eating Italin food with some American influence; not the Italian-American cuisine that evolved in this country.

If you were a Southern Italian at the end of the 19th century, life was rough back home. A 1901 study that came out of England estimated the yearly income of a Southern Italian to be about $45 a year. But the average American laborer in 1901 could hope to make $750 a year. And although grains like wheat (in the South) and corn (in the North) were the staple diet, but the average Italian consumed about a third of the poundage per person compared to England, and half the poundage of meat of an “English workhouse pauper.” What they had was what they could grow in their vegetable gardens, what could be foraged from the forests and what they could get from their animals that they didn’t have to sell: eggs and milk made up a big part of the daily diet, as chickens and goats cost very little money to keep.

In America, Italian immigrants held on to their food traditions, but because they were making more money, they became incredible consumers of Italian imported food products: expensive olive oils, cheese, cured meats and semolina pastas. Meat, especially, was a sign of success; even immigrants who returned to Italy were often marked by their acquired American taste for beer and steak.

Those who stayed in America developed an Italian-American cuisine centered on abundance. The dishes invented here combined as many expensive ingredients on one plate as possible. American pizza is a perfect example: in Italy, these rounds of dough used were used to test the temperature of baking ovens; they were topped with cheap ingredients, like anchovies or pig fat (I would eat a pig fat pizza). The pizza places in America were set up by former farmers and laborers; they were not tied to the traditions of baking in their home country. They created a new pizza for America: a firmer crust laden with cheese and meat, meat,  meat.

Pizza is now as American as hamburgers and hotdogs, and the type of pizza we make here is an uniquely American dish. We often talk about how immigrants who come to this country should change their ways, but I think it’s more important to remember the positive ways immigrants have shaped American culture and cuisine. For what would America be without pizza?

At my meeting at the Tenement Museum, we toasted Hillary. We talked about our fears. We talked about he importance of doubling down on advocacy and action. Sometimes we just sat in silence. My colleagues–men, women, people of color, immigrants–all felt like lesser people today. Less heard, less looked after, less powerful. Today it feels like a long road to change that.

On my way home, I swung by the drug store to buy some Pepto Bismol, because my stomach had been aching all day. Hilariously, there was a huge crowd of people around the antacids, comparing and discussing their various merits.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 1


Here’s what Sophhisba had to say about an Italian family’s breakfast:


Coffee or chocolate.
Bread, toast, or Italian cookies.

For children bread and milk or oatmeal and milk. The coffee is made strong but is served with hot milk–the cup half or two thirds filled with milk before coffee is poured in. Very often nothing is eaten with the coffee.

I’m not a coffee drinker, so I opted for chocolate this morning. Although who knows, maybe this week will change me and I’ll take up the vice of coffee. I used to think my aversion to bitter flavors, like coffee, was just a me not trying hard enough to like it–but after I listened to a recent episode of the podcast Gastropod, I realized I might have a genetic aversion to bitter tastes.

I had the chocolate in my house anyways. The hot cocoa for breakfast thing is something the Americans would have pushed; in the 19th century, hot chocolate was seen as a nutritious healthy drink, especially for children. I think it’s a remnant of an older idea from when chocolate was expensive and rare; it was thought something that expensive and rare must have healthful, medicinal properties. Additionally, nutritionists were also really pushing milk in the early 19th century.

Here’s an ad from the 1880s advertising cocoa specifically for breakfast:

And a 1924 school lunch menu that also pushes cocoa:

I had my cocoa with a toasted roll, which, yes, is actually a Pan de Muerte–a sweet bread eaten for the Day of the Dead in Mexico (and Mexican neighborhoods in America). I had it in the apartment, I hadn’t gone shopping for this project yet, and it was a little old and dried out. So toasted ,it worked as an fine substitute for an Italian roll. Waste not want not. Breakfast wasn’t really great tho–all those carbs, I felt both full and hungry, which was a barfy feeling–and starving an hour later.


After breakfast, I went to vote. My polling place is on Hester Street, which runs east-west through Manhattan, through neighborhoods that were formerly Jewish and Italian, a century ago. Today, I heard English, Spanish and Mandarin spoken in my polling place. I wept with joy when I cast my vote for the first woman president.



Stew of spinach, lentils and onions.
Baked apples. Bread. Coffee.


Lunch was special because long time friend of Four Pounds Flour, Jill, was coming for a visit and bringing her new baby with her! I invited Jill because she is my go-to when it comes to Italian cuisine. An Italian/Jewish New Yorker herself, she is fluent in Italian and has been back to the motherland pretty much every year since we’ve met. I sat her down to help my decipher some of the menu items for this week, but there are some entries that still had us both baffled. I

We had an awesome meal that took me an hour to prepare start to finish, which really made me happy. Efficient and delicious. The lentil soup recipe came from Maria Gentile’s 1919 Italian Cookbook. I even made my own stock–I keep a zip bag of vegetable odd and ends in my freezer. When the gallon bag is full, I put it in a pot, cover it in water, bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for 20 minutes. Done.

After I strained the stock, I pulled out two carrots I had thrown in there, now cooked, and sliced them and added them to a large saucepan along with 1/4 of a white onion, 4 garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and dried parsley. I meant to throw some kale in there–instead of spinach, because I had it on hand–but Jill showed up, and I got distracted by the baby and I forgot. So when the veggies browned, I put the homemade stock over top, added a cup of lentils, and simmered about 20 minutes until the lentils were tender. We enjoyed it with hunks of fresh bread and a funky salami that Jill had brought from Eataly, and Italian specialty superstore in NYC.


For dessert, I had sliced up two Fuji apples and put them in ramekins with a little water, a tablespoon of brown sugar, a pat of butter, and a sprinkle of a “pie spice” blend. 30 minutes in the over at 375 degrees, and that was it.

I was much happier with lunch than breakfast! I was warm, satisfied–and these simple, quick foods were totally delicious.


Macaroni with tomato sauce.
Meat (left over from Sunday).
Bread. Coffee or wine.


I made a big pot of this 1919 recipe for tomato sauce to last me the week. I used more onion and garlic than the recipe recommended, plus celery, bay leaves, and dried parsley. I browned the vegetables with oil, salt and fresh cracked pepper, then dumped an enormous can of San Marzano tomatoes and a couple scoops of tomato paste, too. I love that the recipe tells Americans “Catsup and concentrated tomato soup do not make satisfactory subsitutes as they are too sweet in flavor.” You got that right. Gross. The sauce turned out ok, not as flavorful as I would have liked, so I’ll search for ways to adjust it this week.

For tonight’s “macaroni,” I decided to use actual macaroni, dried and boxed. And I actually did have meat left over from Sunday, parts of a roast chicken, that I added to my meal. Dinner, again, was really quick and easy to prepare, and it tasted good and made me feel good. Way to go Italians!

I forgot to pick up a bottle of wine to drink with dinner, so I bought it on my way out to watch the election results with friends in Brooklyn.

I hoped for a historic day, and for our future as an inclusive country. I did not get that day.

As an entrepreneur, I am afraid my business will collapse, along with the economy. As a sufferer of a chronic health issue, I am afraid I will lose my healthcare, which I purchased under the affordable care act. As a woman and an abuse survivor, I am afraid I will be sexually assaulted, because a man will empowered to do so in this permissive climate. As an advocate for immigrants and religious freedom and those that are disenfranchised, I am afraid for my friends who are black, Hispanic, and Muslim. As a human, I am afraid for my friends who are LGBTQ. I am afraid we won’t be able to protect each other.

I do not know if I will be continuing this experiment this week.

Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy. This photo was taken very close to where I live, which is part of my motivation for wanting to learn more about the lives and daily meals of Italian immigrants a century ago.


Over the next week, I plan to eat like a family living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1919. While researching the garlic chapter in my forthcoming book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (out December 6th! pre-sale here!), I delved deep into period resources discussing the dining habits of America’s first prodigious garlic eaters, Italian immigrants. I stumbled open the wonderful book New Homes for Old by Sophinisba Breckenridge, a turn of the century social worker, progressive, and reformer with a fantastic name. Sophinisba’s book was written to help Settlement House workers: American-born, college educated men and women that choose to live in new immigrant neighborhoods to help recent arrivals get “settled.” The Settlement Houses provided education and entertainment for new immigrants, and the workers spent a lot their days debating what aspects of new arrivals could be kept in their adapted country, and which must be thrown away in order to become Americans. That’s what Sophnisba was researching while writing her book.

One of the appendixes Sophinisba offers is a weekly menu of the diets of many immigrant groups, including Italians. Of her menu for an Italian family, Sophinisba has this to say:

ITALIAN (Sicilian)

The following menus represent the diet of a Sicilian family from Palermo. They have been in America over twenty years, but their diet has changed little. There are ten persons in the family–the mother and two unmarried daughters, a married daughter, her husband and four children…Food for the children is prepared separately. For breakfast they have cereal, milk, bread and stewed fruit; for lunch rice or potato, bread, milk and the green vegetables cooked for the family if not cooked with tomato sauce. For supper, the children have bread and milk. It is not common in Italian families to make so much difference in the diet for children; they are usually fed on the highly seasoned dishes the family eat, but in this family the mother prepared special food for her children, and her daughter is doing the same and planning their diet even more carefully.

Notice the subtle prejudice in this paragraph–particularity in the way Sophinisba describes Italian food as “highly seasoned,” which is clearly considered a deficit. Nutritional science had just been invented/discovered, and domestic scientists put nutrition above all else. However, in the early years of this science, there was a lot of baloney. The way the children are being fed in this Italian family is the way the Settlement House workers, nutritionists, and public schools encouraged them to eat. It was thought to be nutritious, scientific, and AMERICAN. But when I looked at this menu–like everything their eating is white and mush.  I’m shocked these kids weren’t malnourished (maybe they were). And to think of them, while their parents are enjoying soup with beans and handmade pastas drowned in tomato sauce. It’s tragic!

But the diet of these children would have been seen as a great success to Sophinisba. In fact, the daily menu even reveals that even the parents were cooking under American influence. More on that as we cook through the daily menus.

What follows Sophinisba’s introductory paragraph are two menus, for seven days each, one dated August 1919 from the week Sophinisba spent observing this family; the other, a more general menu for the winter. You can view both menus in the original document here. I’ll be pulling from both to create my meals over the next week. The tricky part of this menu is that it’s Italian food documented through the lens of an American social worker. It’s sometimes hard to determine exactly what they’re eating; Sophinisba pretty much just refers to everything as “macaroni.”

So here’s my plan: I’ve dug up two other primary sources to help me interpret this menu: The Italian Cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, published in 1919 by author Maria Gentile; and nutritionist Bertha Wood’s 1922 book Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to HealthThe former genuinely praised Italian cuisine as been tasty, healthy, and cheap; while the latter took more of a “know your enemy approach.” Wood outlines Italian recipes and encouraged Settlement house workers to use ingredients familiar to Italians to encourage them to cook “healthier” food. Both of these books are written by American women; so these recipes are their interpretations of this foreign cuisine. But that’s partly what I’m curious about–how Italian-American food was understood by Americans at the time. Additionally, I’m going to see if I can decipher dishes Sohpinisba mentioned, like “Macaroni with Peas,” to see if I can find authentic, Southern-Italian equivalents.

Wish me luck and follow along as I attack Italian-American food from 1919 all this week!

Update: If you would like more context about what the Settlement House Workers thought of the Italian diet, check out this post I wrote for the Tenement Museum’s blog.