The inspiration for Ian MacAllen’s book came to him one evening several years ago over a plate of veal parmesan at the now closed Trattoria Spaghetto restaurant in the West Village.
“I knew they would look at you strangely if you ordered this from Italy,” says MacAllen, who has Italian ancestry. “Corn [veal Parmesan] was such different food than what my wife and I had had when we were in Italy. I started googling things about the origins of Italian-American cuisine, and there were no good answers. From there, it got out of control. Before I knew it, I was writing a book.
“Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American” (Rowman & Littlefield) is the fascinating result, a well-researched look at how Italian immigrant cuisine made its way into the American mainstream, with pasta and pizza now synonymous with “American cuisine”. .”
As Italian immigrants made their way to American shores, it was often the men who were alone ahead of their families. When they arrived, they suddenly found they could afford a totally different standard of living.
“They had money to spend. At that time, Italy taxed food that you could grow in your own garden,” says MacAllen. “They were coming to New York and suddenly being able to buy meat all the time – they had access to all these foods that they hadn’t eaten before. Then the families came and the food became a way to celebrate their family reunification.
One chapter deals with master businessman Ettore Boiardi, better known as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee of Spaghettios. Boiardi’s restaurant in Cleveland, Il Giardino d’Italia, was so popular in the 1920s that customers showed up with empty jugs of milk, begging for his red sauce. This eventually led to a canned food business – and later a contract to supply Allied troops in World War II. Returning American troops now had a fondness for canned spaghetti, seeking it out in new Italian-American restaurants that had opened across the country.
“In women’s magazines at the time, there were explanations of how to pronounce the words ‘lasagna’ and ‘pizza’,” MacAllen explains. “The spaghetti, meatballs, and tomato sauce was one of the few ethnic foods to make it into the military cookbook.” (The food also gained popularity in the 1920s, when a publication called The New Macaroni Journal published two of silent film star Rudolph Valentino’s favorite recipes; if a celebrity liked it, it must be good. )