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The Italian American Red Sauce Revolution

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In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: An exploration behind our beloved so called "traditional" Italian dishes.



To many Americans, "Italian food" brings to mind big bowls of saucy spaghetti topped with baseball-sized meatballs. Or crispy breaded chicken parmesan, smothered in chunky marinara and oozing toasted cheese. We love these dishes, treasure them, even, and pride ourselves in preparing them the way our Italian grandmothers taught us. But this saucy, rich, breaded food isn’t the food of Italy. These recipes we hold dearly, while seemingly delicious and powerful enough to evoke strong sentiments of comfort, aren’t authentic Italian. So what are they?

Dishes like the one’s we’ve come to regard as “traditional Italian” aren’t in fact very traditional, but make up their own category of Italian American cuisine. These dishes were created when Italians immigrated to the United States and were greeted with an abundance of ingredients that weren’t available in such quantities in their homelands. Ingredients that were reserved for special occasions in Italy, or only used sparingly due to their price, were easily obtainable in the United States. Large portions of meats, tomatoes, and cheeses were now able to be purchased freely. Italian immigrants took advantage of their access to food, creating robust and nourishing dishes that conjured up a new sense of American pride. 


Birthday Lasagna from Food52


Ever wonder how the idea of a family’s “red sauce” grew to be such a big deal? With the copious amount of tomatoes available, red sauce grew to be a staple for Italian immigrants -- so much so that it became a competitive reputation game. Smells of bubbling tomatoes and crisping garlic filled the streets of every immigrant neighborhood. Whether it topped spaghetti or pork or pizza depended on the day, but the title of best red sauce in the neighborhood was a serious prize to claim. 

Overhead genius meatballs

Although they had access to once-expensive ingredients, Italian immigrants were also restricted. Ingredients that made up the backbone of specific regional dishes were prevented from entering the country by trade laws until the mid-to-late 1900's. With the lifting of the laws came an influx of regional gems: think truffles, cheeses and extra virgin olive oils. Italians were now capable of reproducing the traditional food of their home region. 

While we adore our lasagnas, eggplant heroes, and fettucine alfredos, we can’t consider them authentic Italian food. Rather, consider them a product of the melting pot that is our country; a consequence that blended Italian spirit, technique and newfound American pride with the agricultural influence of the United States. 

Photos by James Ransom

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Tags: strange food history, italian food, italian american food

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