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Little Italy, NYC Mulberry Street, ethnic food in urban America

The transformation of food in America in the 19th century

At the start of the 1800s, American cities had only a few public dining options such as taverns or hotels; by the end of the century, restaurants had become “a central part of the fabric of cities.” In the 19th century, the landscape of food consumption in America greatly changed. The modern concepts of retail food shops, restaurants, industrial food systems, and diverse food options emerged. As commute times increased, urban workers no longer went home for lunch, and instead grabbed hot meals being served by their offices and factories.

Travelers and tourists started to want meals from places other than their hotels, and newly-arrived immigrants sought social places that connected them to their homeland through food. Bringing their cultures with them, the increasing immigrant populations in urban areas greatly influenced American cuisine, which was experiencing a time of great transformation. The below facts illustrate how America became a melting pot for tastes and flavors by the start of the 20th century:

1. In the beginning of the 19th century, street food vendors consisted mainly of poor women selling a single item. As ethnic diversity increased throughout the decades, vendor options became much more diverse. “German vendors offered pretzels and sausages; Chinese salesmen peddled rock candy; Italian peddlers hawked fruits and vegetables.” Mexican immigrants sold tamales—San Francisco’s most famous street food by the 1880s.

2. Although New York City did not pioneer the restaurant (that distinction goes to Paris), New York did create a template for high- and low-end restaurants that other cities replicated. The most famous elite restaurant, Delmonico’s, was opened up by two Swiss-born brothers in 1827. They employed a French chef and “pioneered such dishes as Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska.”

3. In New Orleans, in 1840, the first French restaurant, Antoine’s, was founded by the French immigrant Antoine Alciatore. Antoine is still run by descendants of Alciatore to this day and continues to serve French Creole food.

4. Chinese entrepreneurs dominated San Francisco’s restaurant business, but they did not serve Chinese food. The restaurants prepared a mostly European menu, and only a few served high-end Chinese food, which “catered exclusively to white patrons.”

5. Washington, DC was the most cosmopolitan city in terms of its food offerings. The city boasted an extremely international array featuring German, Italian, Chinese, and Tex-Mex dishes.

German emigrants 1874
“Germans emigrate 1874” by Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

6. The sale of food items—whether it was by way of restaurant, grocery store, or street vending—provided immigrants a means to climb their way up the economic ladder. This contributed to the food landscape in America becoming more cosmopolitan in nature, as urban populations became increasingly foreign-born.

7. German, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican ethnic grocery stores “were important social institutions in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the United States.” The shops sold foods imported from the ‘old country,’ such as sharks’ fins from China and olive oil and pasta from Italy, and became informal gathering spaces for locals. Ethnic groceries also offered news from home and served as informal post offices, banks, and job offices. The stores gave ethnic groups a way to connect with one another and with their countries of origin.

8. In the 19th century, native-born Americans did not eat at ethnic restaurants. Restaurateurs were intolerant in many ways, and very few cosmopolitan diners went to Little Italy or Chinatown as they considered it a “foray into the exotic.”

9. The United States offered an abundant food landscape to late-19th-century immigrants in comparison with that available in their homelands. Foods that were previously accessible only to wealthy landowners in Italy, like pasta and olive oil, became staples of the Italian American pantry. Meanwhile, meat—a treat that Italian peasants might enjoy on an annual basis—was eaten weekly or even daily in the United States. Abundant family meals, once relegated to feast days, became weekly Sunday dinners in the homes of urban Italians and Italian Americans.

10. Sandwiches and spaghetti (Italian); egg creams (Jewish); nachos and chili (Tex-Mex); and hamburger, sausages, pickles, and the lager beer (German) were all introduced into the American diet by urban immigrants in the 19th century.

11. German immigrants are credited with inventing the American beer industry in the 1800s. They opened hundreds of breweries in cities where they settled, some of which—Pabst, Schlitz, Anheuser-Busch, and Piel’s—grew into national brands.

Featured image credit: “Mulberry Street, New York City” by Detroit Publishing Co. Public Domain via the Library of Congress.

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