Assimilation Nation: Immigrants, Food, and Cultural Politics

Mrs. Raphael Marengin, […] St., first floor rear. Pepine, 10 yrs. old, cracking nuts with her teeth. The mother had just been doing the same. Carmine, 8 years old, has cross eyes, and with the boy about same age works too. Some of them work until 8 or 9 p.m. at times. Boy holding baby is foolish. Husband works on railroad part of the time. 10-year-old-girl cracking nuts with her teeth. The mother had just been doing the same. 8-year-old child has cross eyes and works, as well as the boy. New York City, 1911. Manufacture of food in tenement homes is now prohibited in New York State. Location: New York, New York (State). Library of Congress.
Americans love to flaunt our immigrant heritages (it is said that there are more Irish Americans than there are Irish in Ireland) but the United States has historically not been terribly fond of immigrants themselves. They tend to be poor, don’t speak English, and practice bewilderingly different customs, so we are hesitant to welcome them into the melting pot for fear they might ruin the meal. For well over a century, Americans have engaged in cultural imperialism in their efforts to quell the threats (real or imagined) posed by immigrant groups, and this is an issue that we are still figuring out how to talk about.

In Anzia Yezierska’s 1927 novel Arrogant Beggar, she explores the difficulties that Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their children in New York City faced in establishing themselves as successful Americans. She highlights the tensions between wealthy German-American Jews and poor Russian and Polish Jews as her heroine, Adele Lindner, goes to live at the Hellman Home for girls, a charity institution that ostensibly helps young single girls from immigrant families lift themselves out of poverty and the squalid Lower East Side tenements.

Adele soon discovers is that the purpose of Hellman Home is really more about keeping these young women in lowly positions than helping them. Adele is pressured into learning domestic service in as her benefactor hopes that she will “become a leader among [her] people…[and] teach them that the joy of living consists in serving others.” [1]

She becomes disillusioned with the Home after she overhears the affluent women who run it preach to each other how the girls in the home must learn self sacrifice and economy while they drip with diamonds and pat themselves on the back for helping the poor. Adele even learns that her wealthy employer is paying her less than fair wages in the interest of “economy.” The women who run such charitable organizations subscribe to a sort of social Darwinism which “scientifically” says that it is the place of the lower classes to selflessly serve their betters. Yezierska brutally exposes the so-called charities that take advantage of the poor immigrant communities and only “help” insofar as they try to make unfamiliar peoples unthreatening and servile.

More cultural imperialism in the United States’ treatment of immigrants can be found at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” Megan Elias explores the roles that food played for immigrant communities by looking at two families represented at the museum: a German Jewish family from the 1870s and a Sicilian family from the 1930s. She discusses how the development of the science of nutrition was prejudiced as nutritionists tended to define the healthiest food as American food that was often unfamiliar to immigrants. As such, during the depressions of the 1870s and 1930s, the food relief provided to poor immigrant communities could be alienating; Elias notes that “for many families on relief the supplies added a new problem to already suffering households – how do we eat this stuff? – and a painful sense of suspension of normalcy.” [2] Further, Elias demonstrates how eating like an American was associated with upward mobility and belonging for immigrants. When Esther Levy published the first kosher cookbook in America in 1871, she acknowledges that many American Jews abandoned rules about keeping kosher in favor of adopting American eating habits and so includes several recipes that are both American and Kosher. [3]

With such a history, the Tenement museum seeks to facilitate meaningful dialogues about America’s fraught relationship with immigrants and immigration through a program called Kitchen Conversations. With this program, the museum hopes to encourage visitors have open discussions about contemporary immigration issues and to recognize the roles they can and do actively play in those issues. [4]

Has immigration to the United States changed all that much in two hundred years?

[1] Yezierska, Anizia. Arrogant Beggar. 1927. (Reprint, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 46.

[2] Elias, Megan “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” The Public Historian 34, No. 2 (May 2012): 13-29. 26.

[3] Elias, Megan, 21.

[4] Abram,  Ruth J. “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” The Public Historian 29, No. 1 (Winter 2007) 59-76, 61.

9 thoughts on “Assimilation Nation: Immigrants, Food, and Cultural Politics

  1. Food really is important to how Anzia Yezierska addresses the issues of immigration and class in her novel. When the novel starts Adele is still immersed in her own culture’s culinary traditions, but when she goes to the Hellman Home and works as a maid/waitress she encounters Hellmans’ value system for food. The Hellman Home decides what she can eat, how it must be prepared, and even how its cleaned up afterward. Her ultimate rejection of this (and Aurthur Hellman’s advances) and decision to open a restaurant specializing in Eastern European Jewish cuisine is how she asserts her own identity over the Hellmans’ desires to Americanize her. It’s how she finds her own place in life.

    Today though, we really have embraced immigrants’ food as a part of our own lives. What’s more fun than going out for Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, or Korean food? Going out to a city often means a search for the most “exotic” food available. We always want something that seems different and more exciting than our own cultural norms.

    1. I think there’s a fine line between embracing the foodways of a different culture and fetishizing them.

      I read a really interesting article last week about the concept of “the Chinese Restaurant” in visual media. It essentially asserts that what we tend to think of as a typical Chinese restaurant (lots of red, maybe a dragon, lanterns, etc) was an orientalist construct meant to make white people feel like their dining experience was an exciting voyage into a new world.

      Many Chinese restaurants today look pretty much like any other restaurant, but we still have this preconceived idea of what we want one to look like, and I think that’s an important idea to unpack. Why do we expect that just because the food is different from our version of “normal”, the surroundings should be too?

      For the interested, the article I’m talking about is here:

  2. As Lindsey has written, Anzia Yezierska’s story of a young immigrant woman trying to find a respectable place in an exclusive American society is very relevant to the issues that immigrants face today. In thinking about immigration politics today versus in the first few decades of the twentieth century, one thing that immediately pops is the whole race thing. I have always been fascinated by the way that white ethnic minorities have been treated in a white power structured country. Though it was eventually possible for such immigrants to Americanize and reap the benefits of their whiteness, the struggles that they faced, as seen through the story of Adele, are surprising to me.

  3. I think that there is a comfort factor in why people work to maintain their traditional foodways. When thinking back on research regarding German-American foodways in Wisconsin, I found that German immigrants who emigrated from various parts of Germany brought with them not just their recipes, but also their preferences for the local German varietal of vegetables and other foods from their local region in Germany. Those immigrants who had preceded their family in the journey to the United States recommended they bring seeds from home with them, as the local variety’s were limiting.

  4. Lindsey’s main post (as well as the novel itself) reminds me of how those providing assistance often assume they know best how those receiving the “help” should use it. There is a debate raging today about how those receiving food benefits (SNAP, WIC) should be required to receive nutrition education with these benefits. Though today’s debate is more class-based than ethnicity-based, is such a suggestion that different from Adele’s (and other immigrant’s) experiences in the past? Adele needed and wanted help, but didn’t want her life dictated by her benefactors. Should values (whether they be moral, or cultural, like food) be dictated by the ones handing out the “help”? Is that the right you have as a benefactor/taxpayer? I’m not sure I have an answer, but food seems to be just a small part of a much larger conversation.

    1. I have to agree – what struck me most about the novel was how much still rings true today. We still want to make sure that charity is the “right” sort of charity, and we’re quick to assume that we know the “right” way better than those receiving charity. How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t give money to homeless people on the street because they’ll just buy drugs/alcohol with it”? And how different is that, really, from Mrs. Hellman dictating to Adele how she must spend her money? I know it’s a cliche to say we learn from history, but learning about social reform movements in this period has done more than just about anything else to make me check my assumptions and privileges.

  5. I think the way the Tenement museum is handling the issue of immigration is great. Food is a common denominator for every person. Like Colin says, everyone loves going out to get Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese but they rarely think of the implications.I think Kitchen Conversations is an excellent conversation starter for an immigration discussion. Everyone has an opinion on it, but it’s uncomfortable to find a starting point. The discussion is unlikely to yield an exact answer, but these Kitchen Conversations provide an opening for thought. Like Brian from Massachusetts said “Let this little bit of thinking be evidence that your museum was an experience that went beyond the time of the visit and made a deep impression.” I mean, that’s what it is all about, isn’t it?

    Abram. Ruth J. “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” The Public Historian 29, no 1. (Winter 2007) 59 – 76. 76.

  6. I couldn’t help but think of the “American dream” while reading Arrogant Beggar.” Adele seemed so full of what some perceive as the “ideal” immigrant – wide-eyed and full of hope. Instead of assisting in the fulfillment in this dream, Mrs. Hellman and her colleagues fit her into their dream, one where the masses live the life they are accustomed too rather than helping them archive the life they want. When reading Abram’s article on the Temement musuem’s kitchen conversations, is seems that the immigrant’s road to the American dream is still convoluted in the minds of many Americans. I feel that the facilitated dialogue like those at the Tenement Museum should be replicated by more institutions. It is through conversations like these that people from all walks of life can better understand how very different the American experience can be for each individual.

  7. As an Irish American, I feel a sense of pride from my immigrant past. I related to Adele in many ways and with my background in Development understood the line between true charity and faux charity. The character of Mrs. Hellman intrigued me in many different ways. During the times that Adele tried to put herself in Mrs. Hellman’s shoes, I found myselt attempting the same thing. What was life like for a woman in the late 1920s who married a wealthy man? The cage may be guilded, but it is still a cage. Philanthropy was her only social output besides the constraints of the household. I agree that her charity was faux and only given to make herself feel more important. I struggled as Adele did to determine if it was better to have this charity or not at all. In the end, I was proud of Adele for standing up for injustice even in the face of starvation. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What would I have done?”

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