When Pickles Stood in the Way of Assimilation

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Anti-immigrant activists like to attack modern immigrants for “not assimilating like our ancestors did.” Oddly, the neo-Know Nothings oppose funding for the kinds of English language and civics programs that would insure that newcomers entered the mainstream as soon as possible. I’m guessing that’s because they really aren’t looking for assimilation, they just want to beat up on a target they know can’t fight back.

But the call for assimilation resonates among many people of goodwill who harken back to an era when all immigrants learned English while in transit to the US on the Titanic and threw off the ignorance of The Old Country when they landed at Ellis Island. The Irish shed Catholicism just as quickly as they rejected their Celtic music. The Germans gave up beer and their curious attachment to a professional civil service and became tee totalers and advocates of the political spoils system.

Nostalgia being the enemy of history, this picture of the past is, of course, distorted. As the readers of my series on The Immigrants’ Civil War know, the United States in the 1850s and 1860s provided services in the languages of the foreign born, and created all-German-speaking units in the United States Army. Readers of the series will soon learn that the glorious Protestant crusade to convert the Irish failed and that there are still Catholic churches in America today.

One of my favorite Tales of Assimilation is the drive by the native-born to change the most important factor in an immigrant’s life—food. As Southern Europeans began streaming into America in the 1890s, their smelly, pestilential cooking polluted the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan. Garlic and tomatoes, reformers soon found out, made up the core of Italian cooking.

Young white Protestant women, newly graduated from college, with all the culinary expertise that designation implies, trooped downtown to teach middle-aged Italian women how to cook. They taught the classic 19th century American-style food preparation, which could be summarized thusly: “Place large piece of meat in oven. Cook till done. Then continue cooking one additional hour”.

We don’t know how many of the immigrants adopted the American style, or how many Italian men sued for divorce over the change in cuisine.

Last week, Jane Ziegelman, the author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, a book about cooking at what is now the Tenement Museum, wrote in a recent New York Times article about another food fight to get immigrants to assimilate:

Politicians, public health experts and social reformers were alarmed by what they saw as immigrants’ penchant for highly seasoned cooking. They used too much garlic, onion and pepper. They ate too many cured meats and were too generous with the condiments. Strongly flavored food, these officials believed, led to nervous, unstable people. Nervous, unstable people made bad Americans. In other words, to be a good American, you had to eat like one.

While pastrami and corned beef came under fire, the most dangerous impediment to 100 percent Americanism was the pickle.

Ziegelman describes it:

Pungent beyond all civilized standards, toxic to both the stomach and the psyche, the pickle was seen as morally suspect. As Dr. Susanna Way Dodds wrote in the late 19th century, “the spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness … and the poor little innocent cucumber … if it had very little ‘character’ in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the ‘totally depraved.’
The fact that pickles were produced by Jews made them doubly suspect. Immigrants who refused to follow the religion of the country that had given them a home now insisted on pickling not just cucumbers, but cabbages, all kinds of peppers, green tomatoes, onions, and God knows what else:

From Ziegelman:

Their cheap price tag made pickles enormously popular with the working class. Immigrant mothers gave them to babies to gnaw on, a kind of edible teething ring. Every weekday, when the neighborhood schools let out for lunch, Lower East Side children raced to the nearest pushcart or deli for a meal of penny pickles and a handful of candy.

Progressives believed that pickles had some addictive agent in them, and reformer John Spargo issued a warning:

For the children of the poor there seems to be some strange fascination about pickles. One lad of 10 said that he always bought pickles with his three cents. ‘I must have pickles,’ he said.

The attempt to break the pickle’s hold over the immigrant kitchen table ultimately failed. In what must be the ultimate irony, McDonalds, the purveyor of the iconic American hamburger, includes a sliver of a pickle in each of its sugar-coated Satan sandwiches and I detect a bit of pickle relish even in its “Secret Sauce.”  Simply put, what once seemed dangerously foreign became part of the American smorgasbord.


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