- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

By Hasia R. Diner
Harvard University Press, $39.95, 292 pages, illus.

"Hungering for America," the latest book by Hasia R. Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, is about the century of European migration that took place between 1820 and 1920. In this period of tremendous political, economic, and social change, Europe's poor increasingly looked beyond their nations' borders for work and sustenance.
In time, millions heeded the call of Lady Liberty, that Mother of Exiles, whose warm invitation to freedom's shores rings as true today as when poet Emma Lazarus penned these words in 1883: "Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Drawing extensively on primary sources, the author poses two specific questions for herself and her readers: How did the Italian, Irish, and east European Jewish poor experience hunger in the 19th century? And how did emigration to America and the discovery of abundant food there change them?
Mrs. Diner contends that "the memories of hunger and the realities of American plenty fused together to shape the ethnic identities of millions of women and men," and she sets out to tell us why. She writes that modernization and overpopulation in the latter half of the 19th century worsened the plight of Italy's rural poor. Average peasant families spent 75 to 85 percent of their income on food yet still ate a regular diet of polenta and acqua sale (hard bread served in boiling water with olive oil and salt). They found relief from this meager fare on holy days when the country's small land-owning elite offered them gifts of food and wine, but their plight ultimately sent them packing in search of a better life.
Italian immigrants to America wanted to emulate the lifestyle of their wealthier compatriots who had demonstrated such largesse. They brought with them sacred notions about meals shared with family at a common table and created a rich and varied cuisine that was at once Italian and American. For them, food embodied "what they had become and what they had achieved."
"East European Jews," Mrs. Diner writes, "derived tremendous pleasure from food, reveled in sensuality of taste, and did not consider interest in food to be a low order of concern." However, adverse economic conditions in the 19th century and the growing search for work and food, "propelled the exodus" to an America of skilled workers, artisans, "common laborers," and servants. According to the author, these immigrants were "the less observant of the east European Jews," and their eagerness to embrace American life, including American food, "upset the boundaries between sacred and ordinary."
Nonetheless, Mrs. Diner assures us that, "Jews, before and after migration, put food at the center of their sacred system and imbued the preparation and consumption of food with deep meaning." No matter how many American novelties whet their appetite, "certain foods [still] anchored them to the past and tradition."
Widespread famine in Ireland in the 19th century drove 4.5 million men and women off the island. Of these, more than 3 million arrived in the United States. However, unlike the Italian and Jewish immigrants who "fused food and ethnic identity," Irish immigrants had no intention of doing the same. Their experience of famine and their near singular reliance on the potato for sustenance was simply "too painful a mark on Irish Catholic identity to be considered a source of communal expression and national joy." Instead, they built strong communities and created an "eloquent expressive culture" that had nothing to do with food.
The 50 pages of notes that appear at the end of the book demonstrate that the author has made a valiant effort to show how hunger helped fuel a century of migration. She has also managed to explain how the abundance of food in America contributed to the development of distinct Italian, Irish, and Jewish ethnic identities. In this respect, Mrs. Diner can claim victory in accomplishing her stated goals. However, one can't help wondering if buried inside this strained academic exercise rest the makings of an intrinsically more interesting and satisfying study.
The book's most thoughtful passages have less to do with ethnic distinctions per se than with the fact that deep down everyone hungers for more than just physical nourishment. Regular references to notions of the "primacy of the family" and the "intimate connection between sanctity and food" get close, but not close enough, to uncovering the essential reason why millions of people from around the world have heeded the call to America's shores: They hunger not just for food but for family, faith, and freedom.
In this one respect, "Hungering for America" is vaguely reminiscent of Leon Kass' beautiful contemplation of human longing "The Hungry Soul." As Mr. Kass sees it, "the hungry soul seeks satisfaction in activities animated by wonder, ambition, affection, curiosity, and awe… . The meal taken at table is the cultural form that enables us to respond simultaneously to … inner need, natural plenitude, freedom and reason, human community, and the mysterious source of it all. In humanized eating, we can nourish our souls even while we feed our bodies."
Although she lacks the eloquence of Mr. Kass, Hasia Diner is at least on the right track when she suggests that something more than food produced the "powerful draw of America" that brought millions of Italians, Jews, and Irish here in the 19th and early-20th centuries. That same draw has kept men and women hungering for an invitation to the feast ever since.

Amanda Watson Schnetzer is a writer in New York.

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