Elizabeth Zanoni intervenes in a historiography that has traditionally understood global markets as either the movement of people or the movement of goods. She, instead, explores the Italian migrants to the United States and Argentina and the Italian food they brought, consumed, and produced in their new homes. Zanoni calls these processes «migrant marketplaces» described as «urban spaces defined by material and imagined transnational links between mobile people and mobile goods» that were highly gendered (p. 2). Zanoni studies the relationship between food and migrants through both consumerism and production, weaving together a fascinating story of North-South hemispheric connection about taste, trade, and identity.
In six chapters, Zanoni’s comparative analysis of New York and Buenos Aires, from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, highlights the similarities and the significant differences in the historical development of Italian communities in the two cities. Between 1880 and the beginning of World War II, over four million Italians migrated to the United States and over two million migrated to Argentina. In the same period, these two countries annually received 80 percent of all Italian products exported to the Western hemisphere. Zanoni argues that from 1880 to 1914, Italian political and economic elites viewed these Italian working-class migrants and entrepreneurs as an army of commercial warriors and defenders of la patria. This «army» was an effective alternative to formal colonialism in the consolidation of Italy’s position in the world economy.
Zanoni also shows that Italian migration to the Americas prompted a demand for and exportation of Italian food products that, in turn, would revitalize agriculture and industrial food production in Italy. During this period, for example, Argentina and the United States together imported 75 percent of Italy’s global exports of vermouth, 60 percent of Italian tomato preserves, and 44 percent of Italian olive oil. Production and exportation of these products, Italian experts agreed, would help improve the standard of living at home and strengthen the purchasing power of Italian workers. Yet, Zanoni notes that keeping this wheel turning was a difficult balancing act for Italian migrants in the Americas. These members of the working class were urged to become consumers of Italian exports in order to support the Italian economy, but they also needed to save and live thriftily so they could send money to their families back in Italy. Zanoni also reveals that the advertisements of Italian food exports at this time reflected the social and ideological characteristics of the migrant marketplaces. To match the masculinist and militarist language that was used to describe the role of Italian migrants abroad and to reflect the masculine nature of Italian migration before World War I, export iconography commonly depicted notable male political leaders, industrial power, and imperial pursuits.
Zanoni’s most important contribution is to explain how the migrant marketplaces in Buenos Aires and New York developed differently. This was partly the effect of demographics. Between 1881 and 1890, Italians represented 59 percent of Argentina’s total migrant population but only 6 percent of the United States’. By 1910, Italians made up 7 percent of New York’s foreign-born residents, while they were 23 percent of the Buenos Aires population. Zanoni demonstrates that in New York, Italians and their foods were perceived as racially inferior, and thus Italian cuisine was mostly ignored and rejected by Anglo-American consumers. In addition, Italian merchants encountered a unified native-born middle class that made it difficult for them to enter the middle-class ranks. As a result, Italians composed a small percentage of the United States’ total number of food merchants and retailers, and Italian food businesses and foods were culturally, socially, and geographically relegated to Italian urban enclaves. In Buenos Aires, in contrast, the large number of Italian immigrants and the lack of a native-born middle class allowed Italian merchants, producers, retailers, and consumers to consolidate their power in the food sector and to influence food culture vastly. Zanoni explains that by emphasizing a common «Latinity»—shared Latin racial and cultural similarities—between Italians and Argentines, the Italian food sector successfully depicted Italian food products as harbingers of European progress and civilization, and Argentine consumers eagerly incorporated them into their diets.
Yet, Zanoni shows that the dissemination of Italian cuisine was based not only on Italian imports but also on substitution tipo italiano («Italian style») products that in many cases were less expensive than their Italian counterparts. In the United States, the mature manufacturing structure and extensive distribution networks—combined with food knowledge and expertise, advanced technology, and access to imported staple ingredients—fostered the expansive domestic production of «Italian-style» goods. In Argentina, this industry developed more slowly and later than in the United States. Still, tipo italiano products that competed with Italian goods had a significant presence in the Argentine market in this period, though they were mainly European imports, mostly from Spain and France.
Zanoni argues that with World War i, the increase in the numbers of Italian migrant women profoundly feminized the migrant marketplaces in New York and Buenos Aires, and consequently, female consumers became the new targets as well as the protagonists of food advertisements. Moreover, food manufacturers and merchants urged migrants to «buy Italian» in support of the country’s war effort. Zanoni affirms that this nationalistic commercial iconography assisted in asserting an Italian identity over the regional or local identities that had been predominant at the turn of the century. Concurrently, the attenuation of Italian trade to the United States and Argentina due to the war boosted the tipo italiano industry in both countries, but especially in the United States. In fact, the more robust industry in North America took advantage of the decrease in Italian imports and began exporting its products to Argentina, a trend that continued in the interwar period. Zanoni notes that the interwar period also witnessed a change in advertisement dynamics in both countries. Taking a new approach, American food producers began to reach Italian consumers (in the United States and in Argentina) as a distinctive market by using their language and their press for the first time. In contrast, Argentine food companies and importers began to deemphasize the Italianness of their products and their consumers, appealing instead to recent migrants and second-generation Italians as Argentines.
In the 1930s, the migrant marketplaces experienced a new transformation connected to the end of mass migration and the boycott of Italian products imposed by the League of Nations in response to Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Zanoni argues that in spite of the little support for fascism among migrants in the United States and Argentina, food producers and merchants exploited the national sentiment for commercial purposes, while Mussolini supporters explicitly pressured migrants to consume Italian products and reject goods from sanctioning countries. For Italian fascists, this created a paradox because female consumers in the Americas were encouraged to spend on Italian food products as a patriotic act, but Mussolini curbed female consumption within Italy.
With its focus on migrants as gendered consumers and on food production, trade, and consumption from a true transnational perspective, Zanoni’s historical comparative analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of Italian migration.
Natalia Milanesio (University of Houston)