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Actor Zach Braff and the history of Italian American food

(Courtesy photo)

On the latest episode of my podcast,”Your Last Meal” actor and filmmaker Zach Braff lets his native New Jersey shine through by proclaiming his love for chicken parm.

“Chicken parm is my favorite thing in the world, I could eat chicken parm every single day,” Braff said. “It’s just so good, I want to have it every day. My mouth is watering and it’s breakfast time here.”

But if you go to Italy, you’re not going to find chicken parmesan. It’s strictly an Italian-American dish created by southern Italian immigrants to please American palates. Americans love big portions of meat and all things fried and sweet, which is why Chinese immigrant restaurateurs came up with General Tso’s chicken, a strictly Chinese American dish.

Italian American food

These days, pretty much everyone loves a good Italian meal and many of us start dinner by sizzling garlic in a pan of olive oil, but back in the day this was not the case. NYU food studies chair, Krishnendu Ray says between 1880 and 1924, the United States was flooded with poor southern Italian immigrants, and there was plenty of discrimination against them and their food.

“There are lots of complaints by school teachers, nutritionists that Italians eat all this garlicky food and spicy food that gives them a craving for alcohol which is why they drink so much wine. One of the ways of protecting the American nation from these Italian bad habits, including their terrible food, is in fact prohibition. The argument for prohibition, the venom of it, is often directed towards Italians, Italian food and Italian wine.”

It’s not until the ’50s and ’60s that Americans begin to accept Italians and their food; think of the famous spaghetti scene in the 1955 Disney film, “Lady and the Tramp.”

“They send their children to American schools, the most important institutions of upward mobility of poor people,” Ray said. “So that upward mobility is what reintroduces us to Italian food. Could be meatballs and spaghetti, pasta, pizza.”

It’s not until the 1980s that Italian food gets fancy, that people are willing to spend big money for northern Italian cuisine like osso bucco and risotto and pumpkin ravioli with a butter sage sauce. Ray says this is a classic pattern: we hate a culture and its food, we eventually accept it and then we claim it as our own.

“Today most Americans consider pizza an American food,” Ray said. “In fact, the National Restaurant Association has stopped classifying pizza as ethic food since the year 2000.”

He gives another example of the pattern.

“In the New York Times in 1882, there’s sort of a screaming headline that says ‘Chinaman Eats Octopus’ as if that’s big news. All that is going to change, especially in the 1980s when calamari becomes popular and old fashioned snobbery is declining. A newfangled omnivorousness is emerging where, in fact, we score points for being able to talk about pupusas and empanadas and the best tacos and the best chicken tikka masala, etc. People are acquiring cultural capital by being able to talk about what used to be disdained as poor people’s food.”

To hear more from Zach Braff and his favorite dish, chicken parm, listen to Your Last Meal on iTunes, at www.yourlastmealpodcast.com, or wherever you get podcasts.

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