While celebrating a family birthday around a crowded, multi-generational table, I pontificated at my children about the way certain dishes and cuisines have shifted within American society from outsider status to everyday favorites. My immigrant in-laws nodded in agreement as we all discussed the way “normal” home cooking varies over time and between homelands.
“Why, when Grandma was a child,” I intoned, “spaghetti was an ethnic Italian food that your American great-grandmother would never have made at home. Isn’t that funny, since we eat pasta and pizza every week?”
“Ah yes,” replied my younger son, “cuisine-ophobia is a terrible thing!”
I’m not actually aware of whether my grandparents, both born in California around the turn of the previous century, were xenophobic. I don’t know whether they felt Italians to be frightening† foreigners at any point in their lives. I never met that grandmother, who died shortly after my birth, and my grandfather seemed an innocuous, quiet homebody living with us when I was a child, but he passed away before I was old enough to discuss anything so contentious as race relations with him.
My mother’s best friend growing up in Portland, Oregon after WWII was a second generation American with Sicilian parents, however, so my mom was definitely familiar with Italian home cooking. I know from her stories that she spent a lot of time at their house. My grandparents were friendly and comfortable with at least this one neighborhood family, whether that prompted them to cook spaghetti or not.
†Canadian historical tv drama “Bomb Girls” was the first nudge for me to consider that Italian immigrants would have been seen as threatening during WWII. Growing up in the Pacific NW, I was more aware of our internment camps for Japanese Americans and the legacy of that fear, but it is obviously all related.
2012-14 tv series, Bomb Girls at IMDb
Italian Americans as “threat” during WWII from Smithsonian magazine