One thing I wish Hasia Diner had done in Hungering for America is bring her immigrant groups and their foodways together at some point. Between 1820 and 1920, a lot of Irish, Italian, and Jewish people began living in close proximity to one another, and maybe this changed the way people ate. Her America is a bounty. But, try as it might, it couldn’t be all things to all people.

The other day I got called out for not caring for chopped liver, which some might guess would surely be my birthright. Putting aside for a moment this food’s ignominious role in a persistent idiomatic expression, I spent my early childhood years as a quietly rebellious vegetarian. When they asked what I was rebelling against, the unspoken answer was “whaddya got?” in a reading after bedtime, getting As in school kind of way. You know.

But while I may have passed up the finer examples of old school Jewish cuisine, I started to realize that what I associated with my Jewish grandparents was not Jewish cuisine, but Italian(-American) food. In recent years I’d do anything for the frozen ravioli my grandmother used to make for us as kids and then as grown-ups at her home in northeast Philadelphia. When I talk to my Bubba, who is now 90 1/2 and living at a retirement community near Harrisburg, she always talks about how much she used to like pizza. (I tell her they could probably order some, but it’s too much bother, she protests.) When they serve lasagna in the dining room, it’s the rare occasion when she doesn’t check the box “small portion.” For lasagna, she will eat.

This stuff is delicious, and I think so too. But it means something special to my grandmother. She grew up in Vineland, NJ, and had a legit wicked step-mother. She left home early and came to Philadelphia to work, and got a job doing something clerical at the Navy Yard. She boarded with relatives in Philly, until she met my grandfather – at a dance, he was Coast Guard – and they got married and moved to their house on Trotter Street in the northeast. They were there until just a few years ago, after my Poppop turned 90 and subsequently hurt his knee, and they moved out to be closer to my uncle. My grandfather, who is now 94, grew up in Philly; his father was a grocer on 11th street near Girard. For my grandmother, the city was her salvation, her independence, her taking control of her life after an unfair childhood. Her community was Jewish, but her stomach was Italian, too.

One of the few times my grandfather ever took my grandmother out on a date, they went to Victor Cafe. It’s a South Philly Italian joint where the waiters sing opera. Some 63 years ago, my grandparents went there, to the “Music Lover’s Rendezvous,” for a romantic, Italian meal. I can’t help but feel that to go to Victor Cafe would be a kind of homecoming for me. It’s still open at 13th and Dickinson, about a mile and a half from where I live. I crave the Italian food, am not sure I am ready for opera singing waiters? But hey, it worked on my Bubba.

My grandparents, my father, my uncle, and me, at a Chinese restaurant (of course) in northeast Philly, 2007

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  1. kloknyc

     /  February 2, 2012

    I think our relationship with foods of different cultures is interesting and your example is case in point of ‘food as a social fact’ demonstrating the ways in which food connects us to others and through which we understand and associate our social connections.

    Last night actually in the immigration class I am taking this semester the professor discussed her experiences talking with students who are 3rd, 4th and 5th generation European immigrants. Interestingly, she said that most are Italian (or part Italian) and that their association with food was the strongest attribute through which they claim their Italianness…however, she also acknowledged that many of mixed European ethnicity associated with Italian ethnicity based on their family meals and the food they shared and experienced growing up..again, reinforcing the power of food, essentially ‘taste’ and the impact it has on our identity and socialization, alas the power of ‘taste’!

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. This is interesting. Jews got to eat and go for Italian and of course Chinese food. So what’s going on? Perhaps — and I am thinking ahead a little to next week’s book. What is being performed here? Is it about taste? About class and the mapping of the city? Is it an attempt to appear cosmopolitan?

    My grandparents took me to fancy restaurants in Miami Beach and tried to teach me manners. That, they saw, as their role. (A role I am urging my mom to play with my kids. Another story.)

  3. pjdalmasy

     /  February 4, 2012

    Sorry for replying to all these posts simultaneously. I recently dined at Victor about six months ago on a Groupon. If you can find one of those $50 for $15, I’d recommend it. The opera definitely makes the trip worth it. The food could be better.


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