Reviews Round-Up

I round up (some of) the book reviews so you don’t have to. Onward!

Ronald Bayor, writing in The Journal of American History, finds much to admire in Diner’s book but thinks she uses too many anecdotal examples and overstates her case. He points out that Diner underplays the role of anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe, asking more broadly, “Could property ownership and a more secure political future have less meaning in emigration than food for these groups? And did religion, language, and nativism have less meaning for the creation of an American ethnic group consciousness than food?” Nonetheless, “this is a significant work that clearly brings European scarcity and American plenty into the immigration-ethnicization discussion.” (Bayor specializes in immigration history at Georgia State.)

Harvey Levenstein reviewed Diner’s book in the American Historical Review. This line made me LOL: “her appalling description of Irish cookery is a refreshing change from the usual hagiographies of immigrant cooks.” But Levenstein isn’t convinced that hunger was the key motivator for emigrants: “But her main point, the importance of “hunger” in the immigration, remains rather problematic… After all, as she acknowledges, it was not the hungriest who left but those who had somewhat more in terms of resources.” He points out that plenty of people emigrating from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe went to places other than abundant America, places where acquiring enough food would be challenging. Like Canada.

Levenstein teaches in Ontario, I feel compelled to point out, and wrote a book on the transformation of the American diet around the turn of the twentieth century.

In the Urban History Review, Sarah Elvins cannot resist using culinary metaphors to describe Diner’s book, a “treat” whose “strength is in its ability to retain the distinct “flavours” of the communities involved.” She find little to critique in the book aside from some wandering chronology, roaming back and forth between 1820 and 1930. Still the book is easy to digest. 😉

Mindy Weidman, who I believe was an undergraduate in history at the time, reviewed Diner’s book for the journal Food & Foodways. Curiously for a journal on food history, this review treats Diner’s book as an immigration history with an overemphasis on food.  Diner, Weidman argues, “minimizes the significance of any other factors [to immigration] and, instead, proclaims food abundance and possibilities for an improved diet as the primary motivation pulling migrants to the New World.” If the review means anything, I’d say it reveals an academic resistance to taking food seriously as a motivator of human behavior.

In the New York Times Book Review, food critic Robert Sietsema says this thing that is anathema to grad students: “In proper academic fashion, the book also includes introductory and concluding chapters that rehash what will be obvious to the reader of the other six chapters. You can skip them, unless you expect to be tested.” More usefully, for our purposes, he laments Diner’s lack of field research in today’s ethnic restaurants. He wants more of a sense of actually tasting things in the writing.

I chuckle when Mark Choate describes the book as “a tasteful and satisfying feast” in the International Migration Review. Diner’s reach exceeds her grasp at times, but she provides welcome insights showing “how emigrants developed new traditions, in a context much different from the Old World.”

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1 Comment

  1. Wow, thanks for these Carly. Lots to discuss.


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