The idea of an “American cuisine” is as old as the country itself. However, it can be argued that our earliest cuisine was really dishes that immigrants ate in their own countries. Our American journey in flavor and taste needed a few generations to gather steam — and that was during the Boomer Generation.
Around the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, immigrants began opening restaurants for the cross-cultural working class population. They worked dishes they brought with them from the old country, and adapted local ingredients where the items they were used to weren’t available. But very quickly, a concept was injected into the dishes, a desire that in the vastness of the nation and the land of plenty, portions could be larger, and meat, now abundantly available, could take a bigger role on the plate. Regionally, dishes grew, and celebrated local produce, seafood and meat.
By the time two dogs shared a plate of spaghetti in The Lady and the Tramp (1955), boomer-generation America had selected Italian as their favorite “exotic” cuisine. What most boomer parents did not know was that the dishes they thought of as Italian were actually variations. True Italian cuisine stressed vegetables and smaller portions of seafood and meat. However, most Italian immigrants arrived from the southern half of Italy, and the island of Sicily. They brought their love of sausage, pasta and tomatoes with them. This new Italian-American version centered on sauce, cheese and generous portions of beef, chicken, veal or pork. Pepperoni pizza, spaghetti and meatballs and Chicken (or Veal) Parmigiana — all favorites of the era, if not to this day — were American inventions, inspired by Old World recipes, but given a New World twist.
Italian-American Chicken Parmigiana required mounds of melted cheese — usually mozzarella then topped with parmesan — resting on a sea of tomato-based red sauce, which covered a breaded and fried chicken cutlet. One newspaper food critic account from the 1950s recalled being served chicken “…the size of the plate!” No one knows who served the first Chicken Parmigiana, or where or when. But it is agreed upon that the origins of the dish came from a Southern Italy eggplant dish called Melanzana alla Parmigiana. The “Parmigiana” did not refer to parmesan cheese, but rather, meant the dish was prepared in the style of Parma, a region in northern Italy; “Parmigiana” meant the eggplant was twice-cooked. First breaded and fried, the eggplant rings were then lightly topped with tomato sauce and a sprinkle of meltable cheese, then baked.
The Italian-American version substituted chicken or veal for the eggplants, and pumped up the amount of everything else. Eggplants weren’t widely available, though Asian and Arabic cuisines utilized the vegetable in a variety of ways. Americans weren’t going for these types of dishes at the time the same way they latched onto Italian-American. You will recall that the primary dishes for Chinese take-out during the boomer years were chop suey and chow mein (see Boomers Ate Chinese Take-Out). What was available was meat, and lots of it. Boomer parents just won a major war, had good paying jobs, and felt rich when they ate big. They instilled that national appetite into their boomer children.
Throughout his childhood, Mister Boomer was served spaghetti and meatballs weekly, and by the time he was teenager, plenty of pizza. He ate Chicken Parm on occasion, but actually preferred Eggplant Parmigiana. He judges a good Italian lunch take-out to this day by the quality of their Eggplant Parm hero. Mama mia, now that’s American!
Did you enjoy Chicken Parmigiana, boomers?