Susan J Matt. The Journal of American Culture. Volume 30, Issue 1. March 2007.
In 1991, Anton Shammas wrote of a Palestinian immigrant who had come to the United States, secretly carrying with him plants, seeds, and seven birds native to the West Bank: “Maybe that’s why Abu-Khalil can feel at home in California, surrounded by the artifacts of his lost Palestine. This country is big; it has enough room not only for the newcomers but also for their portable homelands. Among other achievements, Amerka [sic] has made homesickness obsolete” (300). Shammas suggested that as a result of America’s space and immigrants’ ability to import the things of home to the United States, there need be no more pain at parting, no more longing for a lost home. Is this true? If one can have in America the food, the clothes, the newspapers (if not always the birds and the plants) of one’s native land, does distance no longer matter? Has homesickness become an outdated and unnecessary emotion?
The answer is complex. As cross-country and international travel has become faster, more comfortable, and more affordable, leaving home has come to be seen as a less consequential act, because it appears easier to return. The same transportation technologies that make it possible for people to leave and return home also make it possible to transport some of the tastes and sounds of home to a new location. Modern, global consumer society holds out the promise that returning home is easy, and that reconstructing home in a new locale is even easier. While the home one has left may be far away, the consumer economy provides the illusion that it is relatively close at hand. In such a context, homesickness may seem to some to be an emotional artifact of the past, inappropriate in a contemporary society that takes for granted the necessity of mobility. Those who suffer from homesickness, however, know all too clearly that even with such conveniences, distances between an old home and a new one are sometimes great, and often unbridgeable.
This article examines the history of homesickness and how consumer society has reshaped the emotion. The commercialization of travel has allowed for easier migration, which often has resulted in homesickness. On the other hand, the market economy gradually has been able to offer to immigrants a wide array of familiar consumer goods from the places they have left. These may provide some comfort to migrants that earlier generations could not find. Imported goods priced for the masses became widely available in the late nineteenth century, and for that reason, this article will trace the way that immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century used consumerism to reproduce in the new world some elements of their old lives. In doing so, they assuaged, but did not eliminate, their homesickness.
A Brief History of Homesickness
Homesickness was first recognized as a widespread problem by Johannes Hofer in 1688. A Swiss scholar, Hofer wrote a dissertation on the pain he witnessed among young people far from home and the physical symptoms they seemed to endure. To describe their condition he coined the word “nostalgia”, combining the Greek word for pain, algia, with nostos, which means ‘return home’ (Hofer 381). Hofer’s new diagnosis became popular in Europe in the eighteenth century, especially among doctors working with young soldiers. Physicians elaborated on his description of the disease, and added a host of new symptoms that they had observed. Many of them believed the disease could be fatal, if left untreated (Starobinski 81-103). While at first the condition seemed to strike only populations in Continental Europe, by the 1750s, the word “homesickness” had entered the English language (Oxford English Dictionary 330), and by the late eighteenth century, it had been carried across the Atlantic. British colonists in North America used it to describe their own emotions. By the nineteenth century, the idea that homesickness was a dangerous disease also had spread to America.
In the antebellum United States, there were many who felt the emotion quite acutely, for during the years 1800-1850, Americans moved more frequently than ever before or since. According to historians Patricia Kelly Hall and Steven Ruggles, “[d]espite the difficulty of travel, almost half of the population moved across state lines, and most of those migrants moved long distances” (829). As migrants moved from east to west, or from country to town, or from Ireland to New York, many felt the shock of displacement. Some migrated freely, others from necessity; still others, who were enslaved, had no choice at all in the matter. While their experiences and circumstances differed widely, what seemed to be common to many nineteenth-century Americans was a deep yearning for the homes they had left behind.
Countless individuals in antebellum America longed for home, but few conceived of their emotions as life threatening. It was only during the Civil War that the condition of homesickness-or nostalgia as it was still called-garnered substantial medical attention. Between 1861 and 1863, army doctors diagnosed 2,588 soldiers in the Union army as suffering from nostalgia and reported that 13 soldiers died of the disease during that period; the numbers climbed over the course of the war (Flint 21). While many of the afflicted were temporarily hospitalized, the most serious cases were discharged from the army and allowed to return home so that they would not succumb to the dangerous symptoms that attended the illness (Ordronaux 64).
After the war ended, formal medical interest in the condition waned, although large numbers of the population continued to feel homesick. The millions of people who migrated from abroad in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced the condition as did the thousands of young people-both black and white-who left American farms for the city.
Doctors and psychologists, however, gradually paid less attention to nostalgia. There were scattered discussions of it during World Wars I and II, but the cultural consensus that emerged by the mid-twentieth century was that mobility was normal and that in consequence, homesickness must be conquered early. Psychologists and childrearing experts began to advise parents to train their children to master the emotion, suggesting they send them away from home so that they might become accustomed to movement and change, and thus prepared for success in modern society (Conklin 209-16). According to such experts, homesickness-or separation anxiety as it later came to be called-was an unfortunate but ultimately avoidable emotion.
This approach to homesickness has held steady, and particularly since World War II, it has become increasingly rare to find homesickness described as anything but a condition of childhood and adolescence. The meaning of homesickness changed in part because ideas about maturity and independence changed. Nineteenth-century Americans, although they moved frequently, celebrated and sentimentalized the idea of the tightly bonded family that was rooted in one place. Accordingly, they believed that leaving home was a painful, and in many ways, unnatural act; one that could easily cause illness and distress. In contrast, the autonomous individual, fond of his or her family and home, but not too bonded to them, was the new social ideal that psychological literature and popular culture promoted during the twentieth century. While many people have felt homesick in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they have become increasingly less likely to articulate these feelings because of the new connotations of immaturity and maladjustment associated with such emotions (Fisher 154). They are acutely aware that modern society requires that its members maintain a stoic outlook in the face of change and dislocation.
Homesickness in a Global Consumer Economy
The dramatic expansion of the consumer economy that began at the end of the nineteenth century also has influenced attitudes toward homesickness. The growth of consumer culture affected how people think about distance and how they think of home. It also reshaped the experience of migration. In a world where distances seemed smaller and home life easier to reproduce in a new location, homesickness began to appear irrelevant, at least to those who believed that with the right objects and easy travel, one could be at home anywhere in the world.
Some of the first to feel the effects of modern, global consumerism were the twenty million immigrants who entered the United States between 1870 and 1920. Their numbers included over 4 million Italians, 3.2 million Russians, 4.1 million natives of Poland and Austria Hungary, 2.5 million Germans, and 1.7 million Scandinavians (Kraut 20-21). These immigrants were among the first to witness the way that the new consumer economy could both carry them away from home and reconnect them to it.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, passage to America became a mass consumer good, and trans-oceanic travel an aggressively advertised commodity. Steamship companies, railroads, and American industries launched advertising campaigns across Europe in the hope of luring more migrants to the United States. They were able to attract immigrants-most of whom were already interested in emigrating-with their captivating images of America and their low fares and promises of relatively short passages on large, fast vessels (Kraut 15-16; Ewen 55-56).
During the late nineteenth century, the number of passenger ships also increased dramatically. For instance, historian Walter Nugent shows that the Hamburg America shipping line operated a fleet of 21 ships in 1871; by 1914 that number had risen to 442. As the shipping industry expanded, transportation to America became a cheaper commodity than in years previous. Increasing numbers of Europeans and Asians were able to purchase tickets to America due to falling prices. In 1860, tickets from Liverpool to New York sold for forty-five dollars; by 1880 that price had been cut in half. Not only did prices fall, but the lengths of the journies declined as well. While in the early nineteenth century, the trip from Western Europe to America took between four and six weeks, by the end of the century, the same trip took only seven days (Nugent 31-33, 45). These changes made leaving home easier, and often seemed to promise-albeit sometimes falsely-that return would be easier, as well. As transportation became cheaper, more rapid, and more aggressively promoted, immigration rates rose: between 1871 and 1920, over twenty million people emigrated to the United States (Nugent 150).
Because the journey to America had become more affordable and less arduous, many immigrants leaving for America believed that they might easily return to their families or else bring them to the United States. In consequence, some did not recognize the break they were making with their homes and their families until long after they had left. Marcus Ravage, for instance, could not fully understand his mother’s downcast mood when he decided to leave Romania for America in 1900: “I tried to comfort her by promises of daily letters, by calling her silly for imagining dreadful things, and by assuring her again and again that it was only a matter of a little time before we should be once more united.” When it came time to bid her farewell, he wrote of his mother: “She seemed calm and resigned. But when the train drew into the station she lost control of her feelings. As she embraced me for the last time her sobs became violent and father had to separate us. There was a despair in her way of clinging to me which I could not then understand. I understand it now. I never saw her again” (Ravage 51-52, 55).
This was, in fact, a common scenario. Short stays overseas became long ones, and families were never reunited. For young immigrants to America, however, these painful implications of migration sometimes dawned only slowly; they recognized what they had lost only after arriving in America and trying to settle into a new life. Berta Serina Kingestad, who had been eager to emigrate, gradually realized what she had left behind. In 1889, three years after coming to America, she wrote to her family back in Norway:
When I think back to the time I went about in Bjørvag getting myself ready to leave for America . . . I can never forget what was said: “Yes, Berta, now you must say farewell to B]0rvag for the last time.” Oh, I didn’t believe then that it would be for the last time, and I don’t dare believe it now, but perhaps it will be so. I can still see Mother and Malta as they walked away along the shore, and I surely never realized how precious Mother was and how much she meant to me as right in that moment when I saw her for the last time, and it was the same when I parted with Anna and Father in Stavanger. Oh, that parting, how hard it was, and it is not erased by the first tears, no, they return again and again. I think about it more than ever before, now that I am alone so much. (Kingestad 39)
For Kingestad and many other immigrants, the full significance of parting was temporarily masked by the apparent ease and relative affordability of travel at the turn of the century.
The commercialization of travel, however, also made it possible for significant numbers of immigrants to satisfy their longing for their families and homelands. Between 1870 and 1914, perhaps a third or more of those who came to the United States eventually went back to their native lands (Nugent 35, 156). Alan Kraut suggests that the average rate of return during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was twenty to thirty percent (16-17). Such a pattern distinguished this generation of immigrants from earlier ones, who had had fewer opportunities to return home. Indeed, the rates of reverse emigration showed a general increase throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Nugent 157). Many immigrants went back to their homelands for good, permanently resettling there. Others made only short trips home.
Some, like Caren Lundgren, who emigrated from Sweden in 1921, were able to return home for visits relatively soon after migrating. Lundgren recalled how homesick she was in America: “When I wrote home, I had to be so careful about getting tears on the paper.” Her homesickness was at least temporarily allayed by trips home. She recalled: “I went back to Sweden in 1926, 1930. I went back several times” (Lundgren 342-43). Others, like Carla Martinelli, who in 1913, emigrated from the small village of Pietragalla in Northern Italy, had to wait years to return to her home and her mother: “I wrote mama all the time, though. After I came here I wanted to go back. I wanted to see my mamma mia, and, in 1948, I went to Italy. I went back. To visit. For the last time” (Martinelli 63-64). While the lure of easy travel caused some to leave their homelands precipitously, without fully understanding what they were leaving behind, the rise of large-scale, commercial, trans-oceanic transportation also allowed the homesick with enough resources and freedom to return somewhat more easily than earlier generations of migrants.
For the great number of those who longed for homelands left behind but never returned to them, the emerging consumer society offered other comforts. With faster and cheaper overseas shipping and rail transport, and with breakthroughs in refrigeration, it became possible to bring more of the amenities of home-even the perishable ones-to a new location (McIntosh 92). Sentimental symbols and mementoes of the old world, as well as the familiar, if sometimes mundane, items of daily life, could be more quickly and easily imported into the United States from abroad than in previous decades.
Entrepreneurial immigrants often were the first to pay attention to the market opportunities that homesickness presented. They found there was a substantial profit to be made by selling the sights and tastes of home to their fellow immigrants who hungered for them. For instance, Fritiof Colling, a Swedish artist, made his living off of homesickness. Immigrants commissioned him to return to Sweden to paint pictures of their childhood homes. Colling traveled to Sweden at least eight times between 1885 and 1902 to create his paintings, probably producing hundreds of them. Historian Mary Swanson notes that other artists saw a lucrative market in the homesick as well. She describes G. A. Johnson of Winburne, Pennsylvania, who “advertised that he would take ‘En Fotografisk Resa Genom Sveriges Bygder’ “ (a photographic journey through Sweden’s sections). One dollar bought a postcard of the patron’s childhood home or nearby scenery; six cards cost two dollars, and a stereograph view, three dollars. The advertisement instructed the would-be consumer to give his landskap (township), län (county), socken (parish), jernväg (railway line), as well as the name of the home (Swedish cottages normally had names) and neighbors” (Swanson 76-87).
While such paintings were available to a relatively small number of immigrants, many more entrepreneurs found a profitable market in filling the stomachs of their homesick compatriots. In the diaries and letters they left behind, foreign immigrants made it clear that next to their families and their family homes, they longed most for the foods of their homelands. From a neurological perspective, their often acute yearnings for familiar foods make sense, for olfaction is the sense with the most direct route to the cortex, the area of the brain that controls consciousness and memory. Neuroscientists M. F. Bear, B. W. Connors, and M. A. Paradiso explain: “This anatomy makes olfaction unique. All other sensory systems first pass through the thalamus before projecting to the cerebral cortex. Among other things, the olfactory arrangement gives an unusually direct and widespread influence on the parts of the forebrain that have roles in emotion, motivation, and certain kinds of memory” (275). Food smells and tastes, therefore, can excite emotion and memory in a more powerful way than other reminders of home. And there is plentiful evidence that at the turn of the century, memories of food and home were often linked in immigrants’ minds.
What specific foods did homesick immigrants desire? A number of scholars have examined the food habits of immigrants, but none have looked specifically at how homesickness shaped their tastes. Historian Hasia Diner, for instance, has maintained that many immigrants reveled in their abilities to buy luxury foods that had been out of reach to them in the old world, and considered such items important symbols of status and prosperity. She argues that, as a result, many of the foods that immigrants sought out in America were not the daily foods of home but the holiday dishes that had so often been expensive-and therefore only rarely eaten-in their homelands. Items like meat, deemed a luxury in their native lands, were far more easily acquired in America, and therefore eagerly purchased.
Yet there is substantial evidence that immigrants’ longings for foods of the old world were decisively shaped not only or primarily by a desire for luxury foods. Homesick immigrants often yearned not for rich meals but for the simpler daily fare they had eaten in their native lands, for these carried the strongest memories of home and family. Because of the difficulty of acquiring them in the United States, they regarded what would have been mundane everyday dishes in their homelands as special treats to be savored and treasured. As the narrator in a novel about Danish immigrants observed: “Where can a banished Dane be found who at the sight of a piece of black rye bread doesn’t recall countless memories? Of home and childhood. Happy childhood! When this heavy bread was everyday food. But out here in exile it was a delicacy, food fit for a king” (qtd. in Skardal 249).
Such a sentiment was shared by actual immigrants, as well. For instance, Ida Lindgren, a homesick Swedish immigrant living in Kansas, wrote to her mother in 1870: “Do you know what I miss here most in the way of food? Really good sour-sweet rye bread and a glass of fruit drink, for such things do not exist here” (Lindgren 144). In 1886, Berta Kingestad, recently arrived in America, had a similar complaint. She wrote to her sister in Norway that although her stomach was quite full in America, she still hungered for the foods of home: “You have probably gotten in the new potatoes by now. I often wish I were at home and could sit at the table with you and eat those delicious fresh potatoes and fish. Here they eat only pork, and I cannot stand to eat the wheat bread that they use … I have not suffered for lack of food, as I am allowed to fry pancakes for myself.” Over the next few years, Berta continued to long for Norwegian foods, writing of her yearnings for a holiday treat in 1893: “How I wish I were close enough to go home and have Christmas in Bjørvag and taste your delicious Christmas porridge. What I wouldn’t give, Mother, for a few spoonfuls of that porridge and a little of your good pickled pork” (Kingestad 29-30, 53). The often simple repasts they had enjoyed in their childhood homes were what many homesick immigrants yearned for and remembered.
Some immigrants, particularly those in urban areas, could more easily satisfy their hunger for the foods of home than could Kingestad, because they were able to purchase familiar dishes from a range of businesses that were springing up in many an immigrant district. Marcus Ravage, who left Romania for America, described the foods available in his neighborhood in New York: “As I had come from Vaslui, it was my lot to settle in that odd bit of world which I have referred to as Little Rumania [sic] … Even as far back as 1900 this Little Rumania was beginning to assume a character of its own. Already it had more restaurants than the Russian quarter-establishments with signs in English and Rumanian, and platters of liver paste, chopped eggplant, and other distinctive edibles in the windows. On Rivington Street and on Alien Street the Rumanian delicatessen-store was making its appearance, with its goose-pastrama [sic] and kegs of ripe olives and tubs of salted vine-leaves (which, when wrapped around ground meat, make a most delicious dish), and the moon-shaped cash caval cheese made of sheep’s milk …” (Ravage 88).
Little Romania-with its smorgasbord of tasty foods-was similar to countless other ethnic enclaves. Many immigrants settled in such neighborhoods in order to maintain social ties with their countrymen and to gain access to the tastes and sounds of home. Jules Zanger has noted that:
For the immigrant, surrounded by alien sights and voices, familiar food and drink were one reassuring dimension of his new life, offering continuity in an otherwise bewildering world … For the immigrant coming home from his workday in alien America, the smells of familiar cooking that greeted him were links to his past that comforted him … Food tastes created the necessity of establishing ethnic clusters. Where three or four German immigrant families lived, it became possible to open a German bakery, which in turn attracted more German families into the neighborhood. These made it possible to open a German butcher shop, a German delicatessen. An ethnic food community had emerged that would become the locus for more and more immigrants with similar tastes. (61-63)
While not everyone who sought out foods from their native lands was homesick, and many preserved old-world culinary habits for other reasons, the tastes of home proved profoundly comforting to those who missed their families and their former lives.
In immigrant communities at the turn of the century, entrepreneurial newcomers frequently opened restaurants, hoping to drum up a trade among their homesick countrymen. Oftentimes it was single men who had come without wives, mothers, or daughters to cook for them, who frequented such places, trying to satisfy their hungers for homeland and home cooking. Thomas Burgess, in his 1913 volume, Greeks in America, described a Greek restaurant that opened its doors in 1885 “in the lower East-side of New York, on Roosevelt Street. It was a poor, forlorn affair; yet to the lonely immigrant it meant comradeship and a breath of home. This the peddlers made their rendezvous. Here they found the cooking of home, and here they could discuss their present interests and the affairs of the fatherland” (26). Other ethnic groups also established restaurants: by the 1930s there were, for instance, 10,000 Italian restaurants in New York City catering to immigrants’ tastes (Gabaccia 81).
Those who wanted to cook the traditional dishes of home for themselves at first were stymied by their lack of access to the necessary ingredients. In consequence, a number of immigrants started their own food businesses, many of which imported goods from overseas. Alan Kraut has suggested that “the food industry was the lever by which many immigrants pried open the door of American opportunity” (Kraut 98-99). Hasia Diner concurs, pointing out that “many Italian immigrants constructed stable family economies by feeding other Italians.” She recounts the story of Angelo Merlino who settled in Seattle at the end of the nineteenth century. According to one report, Merlino “became so homesick for his native food, that he wrote to relatives in Italy, asking for cheese, pasta and olive oil. Later, while still a miner, young Merlino began to import cheese and oil in bulk.” Diner notes that, “soon he was bringing in shiploads of it, and he opened a store in 1900” (65). In 1921, sociologists Robert Park and Herbert Miller reported on other Italian import businesses, this time in Chicago: “Now and then some Cinisarian takes his chances in the business world. He writes to his relatives in Cinisi, has oil, wine, and figs, lemons, nuts, etc., sent to him, and then he goes from house to house. He does not enter in a business way, but goes to visit some family, talks about Cinisi, then informs them that he has received some produce from the hometown. And sure enough, the people will say, ‘You will let us get some, eh?’ ‘Of course. Tell your relatives. I can get all you want.’ In this way the business man makes his sales” (149).
Rather than relying on their relatives overseas for merchandise, some immigrant entrepreneurs went back and forth between the old country and the new themselves, devising ways to import desirable food stuffs for eager consumers in America, while others attempted to manufacture traditional, old-world foods in America. In 1938, the Federal Writers Project offered this description of Italian businesses in New York: “A number of former pushcart peddlers became prosperous in the foodstuffs industry and trade. Italians now rank among our foremost manufacturers of cheese. They have their own farms where they raise cattle and goats from whose milk they make the various cheeses long known in the home country. With but few exceptions their trade is with their compatriots resident here.” The report noted, “Many firms, in addition to importing Italian delicatessen, prepare on their own premises typical Italian delicacies such as pigs’ feet and special Milanese sausage. Other wholesale firms either import or manufacture various brands of macaroni, ravioli, and olive oil. The articles of Italian origin include also dried ham and bologna, tuna fish, anchovies, tomatoes, peas, and other vegetables and fruits in cans” (Italians of New York 73).
Collectively, such businesses brought an impressive quantity of imported foods to America. For instance, Donna Gabaccia reports that, “Italians in California created a strong market for Mediterranean products: in 1879 the state imported 4 million gallons of wine; 140,000 cases of sparkling wine; 500,000 gallons of brandy; 1,500 tons of figs, and 300,000 gallons of olive oil” (67).
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were countless ethnic grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants selling such goods and slaking immigrants’ hunger for the foods of home. A study from the 1930s showed that New York boasted around 10,000 Italian grocery stores and 10,000 Jewish ones (Gabaccia 75). In the Sicilian neighborhood in Chicago that Park and Miller studied, “there was no food for sale that was not distinctly foreign; it was impossible to buy butter, American cheese, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, green corn, etc., but in season artichokes, cactus fruit (fichi d’India), pomegranates, cocozella, and various herbs and greens never sold in other parts of town were plentiful” (152).
While Italians were the largest immigrant group during this time and among the most well-studied, their patterns of food importation and manufacture were not unique. In a Hungarian neighborhood in New York that Professor Edward Steiner studied at the turn of the century, “Nearly every second house advertises “SorBor” or “Palenka” for sale-the wine, beer, and whiskey to which the Magyar is devoted . . .. Little Hungary has but a small domain in New York; it ends abruptly with more restaurants in which gulyas, the favorite stew of the Magyar, lures the appetite” (242-43). Steiner noted that Greek immigrants were equally hungry for their native foods: “They are not exceeded even by the Chinese in that loyalty to native food which I call the patriotism of the stomach, and a Greek grocery store is filled from one end to the other with food from the classic isles. There are dried vegetables whose present form does not betray their natural shape, but which taste luscious, because the flavour of the native soil clings to them; fish, dried, pickled and preserved in some form, and cheese made from the milk of goats whose horns butted broken classic vases instead of modern tin cans” (290).
Non-European immigrant communities displayed much the same pattern in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In California, the Chinese community imported millions of pounds of rice each year; the Japanese imported thousands of pounds of red pickled plums; and the Mexicans supported a lively trade in imported green chiles (Gabaccia 67).
These consumer patterns had implications not just for the homesick, but for merchants as well. As a result of their reliance on local ethnic grocers which sold imported foods from their homelands, immigrant communities were much slower to admit chain stores into their neighborhoods because they offered only “American” food rather than Greek or Italian or Polish delicacies to which they were accustomed (Cohen 109-19). The corporations that owned the chain markets did not yet realize the profits to be made by catering to the homesick, but ethnic entrepreneurs, who often experienced the emotion themselves, certainly did.
These entrepreneurs were most likely to set up shop in urban areas, and for that reason, the fruits of the consumer economy were most available and visible in American cities. For those immigrants who lived in rural areas beyond the market’s reach and away from the ethnic enclaves, satisfying a hunger for familiar foods was more difficult. In an 1871 letter to her sister, Ida Lindgren noted that, “We have now gotten more or less used to wheat bread with all kinds of food, with both boiled and fried pork and yellow peas, indeed with everything, though I often think about good rye bread and really good sour-sweet bread, which is my delight” (Lindgren 151). Unfortunately, in the small town of Manhattan, Kansas, it was hard to find such bread or the ingredients to make it. Likewise, Marcus Ravage, when he traveled from his Romanian neighborhood in New York to the Midwest, felt acutely his displacement; a potent symbol of it was his inability to get the foods to which he was accustomed. After living in Little Romania for six years, he left to attend college in Missouri. There, far from fellow immigrants, he found few foods that satisfied him: “I suffered unendurably from hunger. It took me three years to get used to American cookery. At the club everything tasted flat. I missed the pickles and the fragrant soups and the highly seasoned fried things and the rich pastries made with sweet cheese that I had been brought up on” (225).
Urban ethnic enclaves offered immigrants the cushion of the familiar, for the numerous grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants provided the opportunity to purchase a taste of home. Those dispersed across the American countryside, however, often had a more difficult time, for the global consumer economy had not yet fully penetrated rural America. Even when there was a significant number of immigrants living in the same rural area, they often lived too far from ports and railroad lines to have easy access to the imported goods of the old world. Rural diets, therefore, contained fewer ingredients from outside the region (McIntosh 83-84, 91-92), and members of those immigrant groups like Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes, who were more likely to settle in the country, found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to obtaining the foods of home. In contrast, Jews of all nationalities, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Chinese were among the immigrants most likely to settle in urban areas (Kraut 63-65). There they had greater access to consumer institutions that sold imported foods, redolent with the scents of home. While they no doubt felt homesickness, it was at least partially assuaged at the local grocery store or bakery. The new world did not seem quite as alien as it might have otherwise.
It was these immigrants, arriving at the turn of the century and settling in cities, who first could taste the fruits of a global consumer economy: their emotional experience differed from that of earlier generations who, because of slower ships and more expensive freight rates, could not as easily acquire the foods of the old world in the new. It also set them apart from immigrants in rural areas who lived beyond the reach of the global consumer economy.
The ability to import the goods of home relatively easily, then, was a feature of immigrant culture and social life that emerged only in the late nineteenth century. It became a pattern that would be commonplace for succeeding generations of immigrants who looked to the consumer economy to provide them with a connection to home.
The Hunger for Home Today
Throughout the twentieth century, as new waves of immigrants have come to America, they too have hungered for home, and sometimes sought to satisfy this hunger with food. There are some significant differences between modern immigrants and those of a century ago. They hail from different places, and they now have access to a greater range of goods than ever before.
While the number of immigrants to the United States dropped substantially between 1930 and 1950 because of immigration quotas, the rate of immigration increased gradually during the 1950s and 1960s, and grew dramatically beginning in the 1970s. By 1997, an estimated 9.7% of the population was foreign born (Gibson and Lennon). Latin Americans and Asians have made up a significant portion of these immigrants. Consequently, in the last half century, Mexican, Cuban, El Salvadorean, Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese neighborhoods have sprung up, and with them, a host of commercial institutions that cater to immigrants.
In these neighborhoods, small ethnic grocery stores and food suppliers have opened their doors, and offer immigrants a taste of home. A Bengali woman, long settled in the United States, remarked on how the number of Indian food merchants in her city had increased over two decades. As her community became established in the United States, more immigrants opened businesses and it became easier to find familiar items from India: “Twenty years ago, many things were not available; now almost everything, including fish from Bangladesh, is available in big cities. Also many Indian restaurants and catering services that are available now have changed my experience with food” (Ray 83). While such stores and restaurants cater to different groups than those at the turn of the century did, they fulfill much the same purpose. They offer immigrants both the ingredients of familiar dishes and a connection to home.
Contemporary immigrants also enjoy certain options that earlier generations did not, for major corporations have begun to recognize the profit to be found among the homesick. In contrast to the chain stores of the 1920s and 1930s, which offered only “American” food, immigrants today may find some familiar grocery items on the shelves of larger chain supermarkets. Mexican beans and tortillas, Indian spices, and Chinese plum sauces now are marketed widely across the United States. Often small, ethnic-food importing companies have been bought out by large multinationals with far-flung distribution centers and sophisticated marketing strategies. Hormel, for instance, recently purchased both Indian and Mexican food companies in order to reach new markets (“Hormel Venture” 9; “Hormel Deal” 5). Such companies sell their goods largely through supermarkets, which, while they have not replaced ethnic grocers, have begun to carve a niche for themselves. Donna Gabaccia notes that these supermarkets often try to reach out to immigrants “who live or shop outside of their ethnic community” (166).
Yet while chain stores have begun to carry more imported foods than they did in earlier years, they do so somewhat unevenly. Stores with the widest array of imported foods are generally located in metropolitan areas rather than in rural locales. Mexican immigrants living in small towns in Kansas may find it as difficult to obtain traditional staples of their diets as did Ida Lindgren who longed for fruit soup and good rye bread over a century ago.
In addition to finding the foods of home in small ethnic grocery stores and larger chain markets, immigrants in urban areas have been able to visit chain restaurants from their homelands that have spread to the United States. For instance, in July 2005, a much-loved Guatemalan chain, Polio Campero, opened its doors in Chicago. On its first day of business, two hundred people lined up to buy fried chicken with a distinctive crust. Most were Guatemalans hungry for chicken, but also hungry for something else. A Chicago Tribune reporter explained that “Patrons … waxed poetic about the juiciness and crispness of the chicken. But they also spoke of their childhoods in Guatemala, when a trip to Polio Campero was seen as a gesture of love by their parents. They spoke of celebrating birthdays there, taking first dates for dinner. Regina Garcia, who moved to Chicago from Guatemala City, recalled how her entire family would go there after Sunday mass, a chance to linger for hours in conversation. She was in the first group that arrived shortly after dawn Friday. ‘This is something very special,’ she said. ‘It’s part of all of our childhoods. It’s a piece of our homeland.’“ According to the Trihune, Juan Jose Gutierrez, the CEO of Campero USA, “said the company benefits here from a built-in customer loyalty, tied to the sentimentality of immigrants far from home.” Gutierrez made the connection between homesickness and his brand clear, remarking that “Campero appeals to nostalgia” (Avila 1). Polio Campero has opened two hundred franchises in eight countries. The Chicago branch is expected to take in four million dollars per year (“The People Behind Polio Campero” 29). Merchants, large and small, recognizing a profit in homesickness, have worked to capitalize on it.
There is an irony here. Americans often brush away the signs of homesickness, seeing the emotion as ill-suited to a capitalist market that depends on mobility and a largely interchangeable workforce. Modern industrial economies assume that workers are rational, uniform, and fungible, rather than emotional, particular, and tied to a place. Yet over the last century, small ethnic businesses and later, large multinational food producers and processors, have recognized and capitalized on the deeply particular longings for the familiar that so many displaced people carry with them. While some parts of the global capitalist economy require individuals seeking profit to accept placelessness and uprooting as a fact of life, many a modern marketing plan recognizes that this is an emotional impossibility, and also recognizes the profit that is to be made in catering to those who long for lost roots and a restored sense of home. The familiar-whether it be Guatemalan chicken, Jamaican breadfruit, a Thai spice, or a variety of Greek olive-can temporarily assuage homesickness and provide a sense of well-being and security to migrants far from home. It can also provide an income for the grocer or restauranteur who retails them. And in some ways, the salves to homesickness offered by the consumer economy also allow for the continued smooth operation of a global, mobile labor market. For while migrations have increased in numbers and in distance, immigrants have found new ways to assuage their homesickness with the fruits of the consumer revolution.
Yet the consumer solution to homesickness is not perfect, for even when immigrants can get the foods they long for in America, many have found them somehow wanting. They may satisfy the immediate longing for familiar tastes, but the larger, underlying hunger for home that they represent does not necessarily abate. The experience of Marcus Ravage illustrates this powerfully. In 1920, after spending two decades in America, Ravage finally returned to Romania for a visit. By then his mother and father had died, yet he still longed to see his childhood home. One of his first acts upon arriving in his native land was to look for a good meal. While he had eaten foods from his homeland in the Little Romania neighborhood in New York, these had not fulfilled his deeper hunger. He wrote: “And then another craving seized me, a real hunger this time. It had been gnawing me all these twenty years, until I had nearly thought it appeased by starvation. I was traveling five thousand miles to get a real meal, a meal of the kind that I had been brought up on and which was not to be had beyond the confines of my native place. And lest you should think me a worldling and a glutton, let me tell you: I know of nothing more undilutedly spiritual than to sit down at table in the village where you were born and taste again the morsels mother cooked for you when you were a boy. It is not carnal food at all, any more than the bread and wine of the Sacrament are food. It is pure piety” (299).
Despite the fact that for much of his time in America, Ravage had been able to buy the eggplant dishes, the pastries, the cheeses that were his native fare, they had not satisfied his real hunger-for his family, his house, his town. Having the familiar foods of home in America was, in the end, not enough. Olive oil, macaroni, and Polio Campero may temporarily assuage the deep-rooted hungers of immigrants living far from family, but only temporarily. The underlying and enduring longing for reunion and return-of which such foods are potent symbols and reminders remained strong for Ravage, and for modern immigrants as well.
Consumerism seems to have provided only a partial remedy for homesickness. Since the late nineteenth century, many of the consumer goods of other countries have been available to shoppers in America. Such items serve to connect foreign immigrants to remembered family scenes overseas. Imported foods offer to the homesick migrant a taste of the familiar. The ease of travel, the possibility of return which a global consumer economy offers, also give the illusion that distances are smaller and that the world is more easily-and less painfully-traversed. In such a modern world, where planes-carrying people and cargo from afar-can cross the world in a day, homesickness may seem even more outdated and inappropriate than in previous decades. Yet recent studies show that while it goes largely unnoticed, it is widespread among modern immigrants (Baier and Welch; Aroian; Fullilove; Fisher). As they attempt to fit into America, the homesick feel some pressure to deny their feelings and to show no visible signs of homesickness, but they nevertheless still feel it; for, in the end, easy travel, inexpensive communication, and a global trade in goods serve to obscure, but not to erase, the fact of distance.