Nostalgia, Marketing, and Comfort Food in “Red Sauce”

Ian MacAllen is a writer, editor, and graphic designer who lives in Brooklyn. He and his wife are both half-Italian, and one night, while dining at an Italian restaurant her family had frequented since her childhood, he started to wonder about the evolution of Italian-American food. The answers he found are in his new book about Italian immigrants and the red sauce cuisine they created. Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American tells the stories of a cuisine that became American through the use of fresh ingredients, comforting recipes, and consumer appeal.

In Red Sauce, you write that “red sauce has fallen out of favor, even as pizza, lasagna, and spaghetti and meatballs have grown into American staples.” How and why did this happen?

Red sauce was always very uniquely Americanized, whether it was seen as ethnic and Italian, or part of the broader, American melting pot. The modern idea of authentic Italian food had to do with Food Network, and the growth of a new understanding of importing European foods, driven partly by new media like television and the internet. You also had the rise of new chefs and restaurants. 

Part of that was a shift in the kinds of Italians that had come over after the war. The 1880s through World War II was the era of mostly southern Italians. What happened after World War II is that laws changed about immigration, but you ended up getting a broader selection of where people were originally from. Northern Italy was starting to send people. In the age of jet travel, people began to have different experiences. More and more people visited Italy and had restaurant food there, so they had a different understanding of what to expect from Italian food. There’s this desire in food culture to seek out new and interesting things. It’s part of the reason people go out to eat at restaurants. We seek out something that is novel or innovative. 

It’s also the ways people talk about it. Chain restaurants like Olive Garden talk about authenticity, but at the same time, will have spaghetti and meatballs on their menus. One way to sell a cuisine to people is to make it new. The fascinating thing with this is the move toward what would be described as authentic Italian cuisine or northern Italian. To some extent, that tracks with the shifts in immigration. You had more people coming from the north, and those influences were beginning to have an impact on food. 

Another difference is that in the 1880s, when you started seeing immigration from Italy to the United States, Italy had just united as a nation. One hundred years later, when northern cuisine was becoming more popular, you had a nationalization of the Italian language, and the cuisine of the country became more ‘Italian.’ The idea of regionality was still important, but in the entire 20th century, this is a country that went through two world wars, and these were things they experienced as Italians, not as individual kingdoms.

You write about how macaroni and cheese became a popular dish in the South before many other Italian-American foods became widespread. What are other connections to the Southern United States that you noticed?

The Carolina Housewife, which was a cookbook from the early 19th century, has what is basically an Italian tomato sauce recipe. I haven’t made any of these recipes, so I can’t speak to their quality, but I do find it interesting how Italian cuisine penetrates into parts of the United States like Appalachia. Different regions interpreted immigrant food and integrated it into local cuisine. With macaroni, it’s a food that preserves very well, so when you’re at sea for six weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean, having macaroni is a very easy way to have calories stored that aren’t going to spoil. Italian merchants from Genoa had strong ties to trading in New Orleans. Heartland grains that came down the Mississippi River were exchanged for Sicilian oranges. Italians consumed huge amounts of pasta, which requires wheat. As the population grew, they needed more wheat to sustain that. 

Thomas Jefferson bought a pasta machine to make Italian pasta. There was talk that he was trying to commercialize that, but he never did, and the machine he bought was definitely meant for small-scale production. But the fact that he was an advocate for fresh pasta shows how you have that food entering the South. 

Macaroni and cheese is a very Americanized dish. In the United States, we had a lot of wheat and a lot of cheese. But it also shows the influence of Italian cuisine in America even before the great wave of immigration.

What made you want to write Red Sauce?

My wife and I were out to dinner, drinking red wine. We’d been to Italy before, so we understood that spaghetti and meatballs was not an Italian dish. We knew that chicken parm was not really Italian, per se. But it raised the question, ‘If it’s not Italian, where does it come from?’ I started Googling. Google had some answers; Wikipedia had some answers, but they’re not fully sourced. So, I went to the Strand and picked up a couple of books. I read through those, and they had some answers, but not all the answers, and not all in the right order. Before I knew it, I was doing research at the library. I thought, ‘If I’m doing the research, I should start taking notes.’ I turned this research into notes for a book, knowing that I was basically doing a book. 

Reading through cookbooks takes a long time. I looked at a lot of cookbooks, some of them more useful than others. But it’s a very modern style in a cookbook to have narrative information leading up to your recipe. Today, the author will have a couple of paragraphs about why that recipe is important to them, maybe some information about historical context, and that really contextualizes what that recipe means. But if you look back at a recipe from 100 years ago, some of the first Italian cookbooks in English are just lists of recipes. And sometimes, they’re not even particularly good recipes. They’re just lists of ingredients that say, ‘Combine these things in the oven, and don’t burn it.’ It was a challenge to figure out how to talk about those recipes, particularly when there was not context. The impetus for writing the book was really just tracking down where all this stuff came from that was so much a part of my life growing up and the things that I cook three times a week in my kitchen.

Besides the Southern connection to macaroni and cheese, what are some other regional ties to recipes that you noticed?

Pizza plays a major role in what we think of as Italian-American food, and what we think of as American food. It started in Naples. Where you had Neapolitan immigrants land, you had some kind of pizza. If you fast-forward, early pizzerias were in New York. But as immigrants moved, pizzas evolved. As they moved into the Midwest, you got American quirks. Those tend to be fluffier and sweeter pizzas. The big, chain pizzerias are all from a very small geographic Midwestern area originally, within a few years of each. Papa John’s came a few years later, but they were all in the breadbasket of America. Anywhere in America, you can get a Pizza Hut or a Domino’s or a Papa John’s. For most of America, that is pizza. The world now looks at that as American pizza, compared to Italian pizza.

What makes the wave of immigration that created red sauce cuisine unique from other immigrant food traditions?

Italian immigration was particularly large for its ethnic group. It tended to be from the south of Italy. It tended to be from the farmer/peasant class, people who didn’t own land, and probably never could have owned land, because they wouldn’t have had the capital. They typically were not tradespeople or skilled artisans. It was like you turned on the tap, and Italians started coming, and then you turned off that tap right before World War II. The one element that encouraged red sauce to be a little more distinct than some of the other ethnic foods is the way Italians initially came to America. 

In the first couple of decades, it was mostly men coming with the intention of going back to Italy. The idea was that they would come to the United States for a few years, make some money, and go back to Italy. They didn’t bring wives or children or elderly parents. But for a lot of them, their intention of coming only temporarily changed. There were long periods of separation, and when they reunited, they celebrated. This encouraged celebratory meals. To show your love, you made a bigger meal than you could possibly eat. It also showed off the fact that you’d made some money in the United States. It became traditional that every Sunday, your family came over to eat. And you’re all living in close proximity. Your immediate family would be in your tenement, and the tenement next door would have your cousins, and next door to that would be their cousins, and on every holiday, everyone would get together at a shared table. Red sauce cuisine evolved from this connection between food and love.

You write, “The recipes invented or augmented in America have sumptuous properties because peasants were imitating what they believed the rich ate.” Is that why they fit well into the melting-pot nature of American food?

Very few Italian immigrants were people who ate at restaurants when they were in Italy. The evolution of restaurant culture roughly happened at the same time that Italian immigrants came to America. Before the 19th century, restaurant culture was made up of restaurants attached to hotels, so you would only eat there if you were staying in a hotel. That was beginning to change at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. Italians opened up living room restaurants in the fronts of their houses. From there, they were trying to attract people who were not Italian. They were running a business; they wanted more than Italians there. So they imitated what they saw around them. 

Lobster fra diavolo is a good example of this. It was definitely not something that you would eat in Italy, in part because lobsters in the Mediterranean are not very sumptuous, and they were already very rare in the 19th century. But they were very popular in New York in the early 20th century. Getting lobster and champagne at lobster houses was not unlike going to a club and ordering bottle service today. Back then lobster fra diavolo was a spicy whole lobster, even though today, it’s mostly a sauce you toss with pasta and other shellfish besides the lobster.

You write that marketing “helped invent the idea of a unified Italian cuisine, even when (Italy) itself was not culturally unified.” What were the results, in terms of both production and mass appeal?

The biggest longstanding part of that is the red tomato. Tomatoes were not always red. They were more likely to be red by the early 20th century, but the round, red tomato, that McDonald’s tomato that is perfectly round on your Big Mac, was an illustration. People started illustrating canned tomatoes as bright red so you knew what was in the can. It was the same with a lot of the olive branches and Chianti bottles wrapped in straw. Companies were selling food to Italian immigrants because they were willing to pay extra for imported food. It was a connection to home, and marketers took advantage of that.

You write that the invention of foods like spaghetti and meatballs “required the convergence of immigrant nostalgia and American abundance.” Is that combination uniquely American?

In any country based on a large population of immigrants, those people are going to have nostalgia. Italian-Americans at this point are often third or fourth or fifth generation. Because it is comfort food, it is really embraced. Everything comes back around, and people are nostalgic for the red sauce foods they can’t get at restaurants anymore. My parents’ generation grew up going to red sauce joints. There’s an element of, ‘Where can I get that again?’

Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American
Ian MacAllen
Rowman & Littlefield
Published on April 4, 2022