The assimilation of culture and maintenance of ethnic identity in the Italian American Community.

By Ahmad Ridhuan Alauddin


Italian immigrants migrated into the US together with many of their Europeans neighbors. When they first came to US most of the migrants had a very hard life. Arriving in a new country, the Italian migrants mostly had very little money and had no idea of their new place apart from US being the land of opportunity. The lack of resources and contacts in the new country prompted many of these immigrants to settle down in the place the first set down.

These immigrants came from various parts of Italy they were scattered all around the US. This paper will look at the common menu of those Italian migrants and look at how it has involved in the community that is now known as the Italian-American. This essay will mainly try to address the significant issues of the process of ethnic identity.

This paper will argue that the role of family is very important in advocating ethnic identity. The influence of a very rigid and traditional family institution helped the Italian immigrants whom in the end were known as Italian American to maintain their identity. This is fascinating because despite undergoing changes from generations to generations their tradition is still very much alive and important to them. The paper will further argue this point by looking, the transmission of ethnic consciousness amongst the Italian American.

Last but not least we will look at the maintenance of ethnic group boundaries and most importantly, the role of food in such process. Overall, this essay aims to look at the evolution of the Italian migrants in America and how this has affected their everyday food.

This paper will articulate all the forwarded arguments and try to answer the main question of whether Americanization disintegrated the original Italian culture and traditions amongst the migrants or have their community managed to stand by their roots and maintain their cultures through generations.

Common menu of the first generation Italian American

The Italian immigrants that migrated to the United States came from many parts of Italy. They originated from states such as Sardinia, Sicily and Naples. The geographical factor causes the type of materials available to each region to be different. The different cooking material available to the regions means each region has its own tradition and food pattern.

Naturally someone that migrates tends to bring together his or her norms from original country to make the transition easier. The Italians were no different they as they settled down in states such as New York city, Boston and Philadelphia they still try to maintain their roots and consume food that they usually consume back at home. (the Italian American) This led to the Italian migrant community to have such a diverse eating pattern but however, the dominance of migrants from certain region had caused the control of food distribution network by certain regional groups in the US led to a common pattern in the immigrant population.(1984 150)

The study of what Italian migrants consume are pioneered by dieticians that are interested to study the relationship between ethnicity and the unhealthy diet amongst people that migrate into America. Initially it was believed that these immigrants the Italian in particular consume too many carbohydrates and do not consume enough proteins. This is understandable especially if we look at well-known Italian dishes such as the pasta and the Italian bread.

This believe however cannot be entirely be agreed upon. A study by a dietician in New Haven Connecticut (King 1935) provides us with information regarding the menu cycle of the Italian migrants. The cycle of the common menu amongst the Italian American points to a very interesting pattern. There were another study being done after the first study. The second the study was conducted by Nizzardini and Joffe and their study again concluded that there is a common meal pattern in the Italian migrant community. This provides a basis of argument for the menu chosen in this essay. This essay accepts the variability of the Italian American community but will assume the most common cycle of menu as the menu consumed by the Italian American community as a whole.

G. Goode, Karen Curtis and Janet Judith Theophano argued that the Italian American menu can be described in terms of item and pattern.

“ The Italian American diet described in the literature can be described in terms of item and in terms of pattern. Items frequently emphasized include macaroni, greens, tomatoes poultry, fish, fruit, Italian bread, cheese, olive oil, wine and coffee. Meat and fish were used in small quantities-simmered with tomato sauce and fried. Shellfish were sautéed in oil and garlic or streamed in a tomato sauce. Roast chicken could be served as a main dish. A ‘one pot’ meal was characteristic of this dietary pattern. Combinations of vegetables and macaroni, legumes and macaroni, sauce and macaroni, and soups, which stressed vegetables, were prevalent.” (1984 150)

Based on the study in New Haven, Connecticut came out with a weekly cycle of the common menu for the first generation Italian American proves that her argument is valid. The study projected a weekly cycle of meals in the was shared in which Sunday was emphasized; on Monday soup were served. Observing strict religious values, they fasted on Wednesday and Friday. The study also deduced that Macaroni was eaten three times a week.
The study also revealed detail meal pattern of the Italian American. On Sunday the first meal was breakfast, taken early in the morning. It was simple meal consisting of a hot drink (coffee & tea) bread t, and fruit. ‘Dinner was an elaborate meal and it its expanded form included four courses which is soup, a gravy dish; roast meat with accompanying vegetable, salad, bread and wine; and dessert. On normal days were consumed In general macaroni is the staple food that is consumed by the migrants through out the week with meat and fish being consumed only twice a week.’(1984 150-152)

The argument that food acts as “the marker of cultural identity has long been noted within anthropological work on social classification, suggesting that food consumption practices are seemingly unequivocal indicators of cultural difference” ( Douglas 1966; Bulmer 1967; Levi- Strauss 1962) Their argument is that the food that is consumed by people can reflect their surroundings because people in general will consume what they have around them and try to improvise those food. Through this culture differences are recorded. Similar patterns of consumption thus mark our dissimilarity from others and charting as they frequently do, on to other aspect of dissimilarities. This further reinforces the argument in this essay that food consumption can be used as a representative of ethnic identity.

Ethnic consciousness

In analysing at the pattern of Italian American common menu it is a clear indication of how their original food from Italy still plays an important role in their everyday menu despite having moved into a foreign land. This strong ethnicity actually provides a strong sense of identity. The Italian migrant emphasize on maintaining their identity is perhaps the main reason for them to still be known as Italian American today, despite having arrived in the United States long ago.

Ethnic identity can be defined as values, cultural practices, social psychological traits and behavious. These factors are usually very hard to be maintaining especially amongst immigrant. They have left their original country and new generations take over from older generations and this makes it even harder for them to preserve their identity.

The younger generations in general have settled down and consider the new place as their home country. Here we see the problem, which is identity confusion. Since the younger generation was born and grew up in America, they have considered themselves more as an American rather than Italian whereas their parents and older generations still regard Italy as their home country. This conflict of identity is common especially in the third generations of migrants. The generation that have got little attachment to their original country and are more connected to their home country.

How the younger generation identify themselves will depend on how much they know about their identity. Waters concluded that “knowledge about ancestors” how much they know about their identity will be the most factor of how people identify themselves (1990 57). Waters also found that, “certain family structures and living arrangements may promote both the passage of information about ethnic origin and the interest in and socialization of children into a particular ethnicity.” (1990:62)

Alba (1990:164) in his research found a significant relationship between c between family and ethnic identity and stated, “Ethnic identity is, first and foremost, a matter of ancestry, of self-definition that is both handed down within the family and created on the basis of family history.” Alba (1990:164) also stated “the significance of the family for transmitting ethnicity is magnified by the comparative weakness of ethnicity in more public spheres, such as schools and workplaces.”

In terms of the Italian American community, Gans (1979, 1994) argued that ethnicity have become mostly subjective identities for contemporary white European Americans. Later-generation white ethnics may practice what Gans (1994 578) calls symbolic ethnicity, “The consumption and use of ethnic symbols intended mainly for the purpose of feeling or being identified with a particular ethnicity, but without participating in an existing ethnic organization (formal or informal) or practicing an ongoing ethnic culture.”

It is undeniable that the younger generations might not have an in depth understanding of their original country but the fact that Italian traditions are able to survive for many generations, the firm ethnic identity amongst Italian American must have been propagated by something very significant. This paper will argue that the Italian American manage to maintain most if not all aspects of their original identiy due to the role of family in propagating ethnic identity in the Italian American society. Many scholars that have often related the role of family in preserving ethnic identity support this argument.

Mindel, Habenstein, and Wright states that, “The maintenance of ethnic identification and solidarity ultimately rests on the ability of the family to socialize its members into the ethnic culture and thus to channel and control, perhaps program, future behavior.” (1998, 8)

González, Umaña-Taylor, and Bámaca concludes, “Familial ethnic socialization and experiences within the family are of primary importance in shaping ethnic identification.” (2006:187)

Rotheram and Phinney recognized the influence that ethnic socialization has, mainly on children. They defined ethnic socialization as, “the developmental processes by which children acquire the behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of an ethnic group, and come to see themselves and others as members of such groups.” (1987:11)

Boscia-Mulè (1999:141) suggests that, “ethnicity has an identifiable and significant role in my respondents’ private lives.It is an ethnicity expressed mainly in the form of familistic values, and through the enactment of some of the behaviors consonant with those values.”

It is understandable why family plays a very important role in preserving ethnic identity. In explaining this we can use Clark’s argument, he says that ‘family is the very stuff of ethnic identity’. They influence lives and this is the main reason why family acts as what described by Stone as ‘agents of ethnicity’.

In the case of Italian American they maintain a very strong family structure. Greeleys study about the Catholics in America found out that among the American Catholic, the Italians are more likely to live in the same neighborhood as parents and siblings their families are very close. (Greeley 1972). When families are close traditions can be passed down and celebrated. This is the main reason why Italian American still has a very strong ethnic identity despite being settled down in a foreign land for a ling time.

Maintenance of Ethnic group Boundaries

Food is essential for everyone. The food that people choose to consume especially in our daily life would definitely be something significant to us. It could mean they simple love the food but it also can signify their identity. Food is also one of the most important symbols through which ethnic groups in America have maintained their individual identities and communicated to the society as a whole. (Kalcik 84).

The reason why ethnic consciousnesses are being maintained through food is because that is perhaps the easiest and most practical way to do it. Klymasz (1973 133) explains that the loss of the ethnic language or dialect often prevents the preservation of verbal folklore forms. This is not the case with food because with its quality that is easy to learn and also can act as a significant reminder to of the past, food is a more practical way to maintain ethnic consciousness especially towards the younger generations.

Sabina Magliocco argues that the various food chosen in an Italian theme festival signifies the important aspect of community identity and the dynamics of ethnic representation.(Magliocco 148)
The Little Italy Festival that she referred is actually one way how the Italian American maintain ethnic consciousness. The interesting part of this kind of festivals is that it can show how the Italian identity has changed over the years. What are being observed in the festival is actually the assimilation of the Italian American community.

The festival was structured to portray the parts of Italian identity that are available and can be enjoyed by the whole community. However by comparison, all the activities are typically American and have very little resemblance to the activities that would usually take place in popular festivals in Italy.

Further study on the festival shows that the sellers of the food in the festival consist of both Italians and non-Italians. The assimilation of the Italian culture in the society makes it a case of the seller selling Italian food to non-Italians and it’s not about representing their regional roots or the Italian culture anymore. The Italian foods itself have become accustomed to the society.

Ethnicity can be hard to define and it changes constantly. Maintaining ethnic group boundaries is also complicated. The process of assimilation inevitable because when a totally different culture is brought into a new society sooner or later that culture will be accepted and adopted into the new culture.

In the case of the Italian American we can see how their original Italian identity being assimilated into the American society. It is wrong to say that the original culture has totally disintegrated but rather it has changed. The fact that some original traditions is still being practiced even though in different ways, this means that the ethnic identity is still very much alive.

Maintaining ethnic group boundaries is not necessary to preserve ethnic identity. We look at how the Italian American preserves their identity. They accepted the changes of the society and made the best out of it. As a result over the years they have managed to maintain their identity without being left out of the society. From the example of the little Italy festival, it can be deduced that certain identities such as their food have been preserved.

This can be seen when pizza and pastas are being sold in the festival. These foods were food that the early migrants had in their weekly menu when they first reached the United States. At the same time many aspects of the festival were not the same as the festivals in Italy but rather were things that are being done in America shows how the two different cultures has been successfully assimilated not at the expense of another.


Food is a very good indicator of ethnic identity. Different countries due to various reasons such as taste tendency, geographical conditions, economic development consumes different type of food. In this paper we look at the common menu for the early Italian migrants that migrated to America.

When they migrated they brought together with them their culture and traditions. As the community develops, this community faces a common crisis amongst people that migrate to a new place, which is the identity crisis. The dilemma that they face is to define their identity. Evidently the Italian migrants choose to preserve their identity and at the same time assimilate into the new culture.

Preserving their identity proves to be a challenging and a daunting task especially to the second generations onwards. These people have very little if not at all attachments to their original roots. Here comes the role of family members. Family plays an essential role in introducing and maintaining the ethnic identity. If families continue to practice and observe their original roots and traditions ethnic identity will definitely be preserved as people will value their origins based on how much they know.

This paper takes food to show how the Italian Americans manage to preserve their ethnic identity. The example of little Italy festival manifests the idea of maintaining ethnic identity and assimilation of that identity into the new culture. This also proves that ethnic groups do not need to maintain any boundaries with the whole society, as ethnic identity will not disintegrate.

In a nutshell by using food as a reflection for ethnic identity we can see that Americanization has not disintegrated the original Italian culture and traditions amongst the Italian Americans. Their community, despite having to assimilate into the society has managed to stand by their roots and maintain their cultures through generations.


Alba, R. D. 1990. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Boscia-Mulè, P. 1999. Authentic Ethnicities: The Interaction of Ideology, Gender Power, and Class in the Italian-American Experience. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Clark, D. 1991. Erin’s Heirs: Irish Bonds of Community. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press.

Gans, H. J. 1979. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1-20.

Gans H. J. 1994. “Symbolic Ethnicity and Symbolic Religiosity: Towards a Comparison of Ethnic and Religious Acculturation.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 17:577- 592.

G. Goode, Judith Curtis, Karen, Theophano, Janet (1984) Meal Formats, Meal Cycles and Menu Negotiations in the Maintenance of Italian American Community. In Mary Douglas Food in the Social Order. USA: The Russel Sage Foundation. 143-218

González, A. G., Umaña-Taylor, A. J. & Bámaca, M. Y. 2006. “Familial Ethnic Socialization Among Adolescents of Latino and European Descent: Do Latina Mothers Exert the MostInfluence?” Journal of Family Issues 27:184- 207.

Greeley, A. M. 1972. That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

J. Iorizzo,Luciano, Mondello,Salvatore The Italian Americans Youngstown, NY : Cambria Press, 2006

King A.A study of the Italian diet in a group of New Heaven Families. Master Thesis Yale Univeristy.

Klymasz, Robert (1973) "From Immigrant to Ethnic Folklore," Journal of the Folklore Institute 133-137

Mindel, C. H., Habenstein, R. W., & Wright, Jr., R. 1998. “Diversity Among America’s Ethnic Minorities.” Pp. 1-12 in Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, edited byC. H. Mindel, R. W. Habenstein, and R. Wright, Jr. Upper Saddle Ridge, NJ: PrenticeHall.

Nizzardini, G and Joffe, N. Italian food patterns and their relationship to wartime problems of food and Nutrition Mimeographed. National Research Council on Food Habit. 1942.

Rotheram, M. J. & Phinney, J. S. 1987. “Introduction: Definitions and Perspectives in the Study of Children’s Ethnic Socialization.” Pp. 10-28 in Children’s Socialization: Pluralism andDevelopment, edited by J. S. Phinney and M. J. Rotheram. Newbury, CA: Sage Publications.

Stone, E. 1988. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us. New York: Penguin Books.


ihsan_huhu (visit their site)

ah. thanks for the hot italian chiks