Worshipping Frozen Culture
Words by Liz Williams
Elizabeth M. (Liz) Williams is the Founder of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB) and the National Food & Beverage Foundation. Liz grew up in New Orleans in a half-Sicilian family, so she was immersed in food her entire childhood. She has always been interested in the way that food both reflects and drives culture.
Whenever immigrants move to a new country, they bring their culture with them. Here in America the descendants of those immigrants proudly celebrate certain cultural practices that they have learned from their immigrant forebears from Italy. Italy, which is made up of regions full of their own cultural distinctions, whether in language or shapes of pasta, has yet to be unified for 200 years. Those regional cultural distinctions mean a great deal. But when you transfer to a new land, as so many of the ancestors of today’s Italian Americans have, you reach out to your fellow Italians, even if they are different from you. For other Italians will still understand you, while you adjust to the new world that America represents. Tuscany or Lombardy will not mean as much to an American as the more general Italy will mean. The descendants of those Italian immigrants, the first generation in particular, will learn and respect the cultural practices of their parents. This might mean eating certain foods, worshipping in certain ways, believing the various customs about family and world view.
With each generation certain customs become diluted. It is often food that makes its way down the generations most intact culturally. But what is Italian – as determined in Italy – continues to change in Italy.
And what is Italian in the minds of the descendants of Italians in America, remains frozen in the year that the family ancestors arrived here. So when we in America, try to decide what it means to be Italian, what we are really examining is what it means to be an Italian-American. That is, one of the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants from all over Italy. What it means to be Italian is changing in Italy, and that means ways of eating, thinking, and even worshipping. What it means to be Italian American, however, is rooted in memory and family that is fixed in time, honoring those who came before, not evolving today. This immigrant phenomenon is neither good nor bad. It merely is. But what is important is to know that it exists, so that if we make a pilgrimage to Italy, we can recognize that being Italian is a modern development of the present. Being Italian American is born from a pride in the brave souls who traveled to America for a new life.