Chances are, the vast majority of Baby Boomers grew up eating a variety of ethnic-based foods. To a large degree, this depended on the background of their families, and how long their families had resided in the United States. Regardless, many traditional cultural dishes made their way across the oceans, along with immigrants in the nineteenth century, to become ingrained in the American diet … most notably, Italian cuisine.
Italian cuisine is often split into the various regions of Italy’s boot and Sicily, but as a general rule, a division of north and south will suffice for our discussion. Northern Italian became known in the U.S. for polenta, white sauces and risotto, while Southern Italian brought olive oil, pasta and tomato sauce. From the early days of the nineteenth century, Italian immigrants — like all immigrants — had to adjust family recipes to the ingredients they could easily find in their new home country.
In every age, there was always a backlash against immigrants, and food was often a battlefield. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the blending of cuisines into the American diet prompted unscrupulous journalists and powerful politicians to launch a campaign against the foods prepared and sold by immigrants, particularly Italian. The Italians were derided as dirty, uneducated and poor (like the Irish and many other groups before and since), so it stood to reason (in their estimation) that the foods they produced were impure and unsafe to eat. Food was always a class indicator. In turn, this prejudice led to the establishment of the first Federal meat inspections and legislation on the preparation and handling of foods as a way to tamp down the spread of these “lower class” cultural food ideas. Italian foods survived the assault.
Soldiers returning from the War had a taste of the real thing overseas — pizza, baked ziti, lasagna, gelato, cannoli and more. Many of these dishes had been available in the U.S., in cities that had a large population of Italian immigrants, but for most soldiers, this was their first foray into the cuisine. Italian immigrants began opening more restaurants to serve this desire for a taste of Italy as people moved out of larger cities and into new suburbs. Yet post-war American tastes were entering into the picture. Americans ate more meat than Europeans, and expected larger portions of fewer dishes. For example, spaghetti and meatballs was a true Southern Italian dish, but only as one of many dishes in a multi-course dinner, and served in smaller portions. It took the influence of Americans to increase the size to a “dinner portion.”
At the dawn of the Baby Boom, Italian restaurants began their quest to capture the new families as regular patrons by catering to their tastes. In addition to dinner-sized portions of spaghetti and meatballs, they served sausage and peppers, ravioli, lasagna, stuffed manicotti and baked ziti. By the 1960s, the style of a traditional eggplant parmigiana dish was used to create veal and chicken versions — true Italian-American dishes. Italy did not have a meat version of the dish. Veal and chicken picante, chicken cacciatore, shrimp diavolo and more joined the growing menus of the burgeoning Italian-American restaurant scene. Many boomers gained a love of spumoni and tiramisu desserts during this time period.
However, most families before and during the boomer era ate their meals at home. Restaurants were frequented on special occasions or while traveling. To give the family that ate primarily at home a taste of Italy, companies such as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee (which began selling canned pasta in 1938) expanded their product lines for boomer families. Many boomers will recall with varying degrees of nostalgia the mushy pasta and watery tomato sauce of the canned ravioli and Beef-A-Roni. Likewise Franco-American Spaghetti and Meatballs in a can was available for early boomers. In 1965, the company introduced SpaghettiOs, “the neat, new spaghetti you can eat with a spoon.” Both became a part of the boomer diet. While their origins were from the old country, the tastes were all-American.
Meanwhile after the War, delicatessens expanded their product lines with American-made versions of Italian meats and cheeses, such as mortadella, salami, capocolla, prosciutto-style ham and pepperoni, and ricotta, provolone and mozzarella cheeses.
Commercials on TV and ads in magazines related to the popularity of Italian-American foods in different ways. Some promoted Italian-based food items, while others used the cultural aspect for their own means. In 1969, the Prince Spaghetti Company in Boston, Massachusetts ran an ad that not only wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Italian-American food, but suggested TV viewers eat it more often. The Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day commercial campaign ran for 13 years. To this day, boomers can answer the question of, “What is Wednesday?” Consequently, Mister Boomer still eats pasta on Wednesdays, though his family rarely bought the Prince brand.
Mister Boomer’s father knew an Italian family that owned a restaurant. He often brought the family to the restaurant on occasions such as Mother’s Day or Easter. Truth be told, Mister B has a partial Italian ancestry. As a result, home-cooked spaghetti with meat sauce and meatballs, chicken cacciatore and many other Italian dishes were served up at home on a weekly basis, or by his grandmother and aunts when the family visited.
Mister Boomer has written before about his sister’s love of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni and Franco-American SpaghettiOs. Mister B and Brother Boomer preferred the ravioli. They often used the hand can opener to pop the lid on the tall can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli themselves. Though part Italian, the family was much like other boomer families in enjoying Italian-American foods.
Today, according to the National Restaurant Association, Italian cuisine is among the top three preferred in the country. A look in supermarkets will show the variety of Italian-American products available to families across the country, including frozen lasagna, pizza, and parmigiana dishes, plus fresh tortellini or gnocchi, and jars of tomato or Alfredo sauce, to say nothing of real Italian imported cheeses, meats and sausages.
The evolution of Italian-American foods happened during the boomer years, and boomers had a seat at that dinner table. How often did your family enjoy Italian-American restaurants and foods at home, boomers? How does your experience compare to your eating habits today?