Italian Immigrant Pantry
From 1880-1945, over two million Italians entered Argentina in search of opportunities. Many came as temporary or seasonal agricultural labourers. Others chose to stay in Argentina, bringing spouses and children or starting families in their new homeland. Whether their trip was temporary or permanent, food served as a point around which immigrants formed their ethnic identities and consumer habits. In cities like Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Cordoba, Italians, as well as immigrants from other countries, created “migrant marketplaces,” spaces characterized by connections between people and foods on the move.
Foods linked immigrants in Argentina to their pre-migration lives. Homeland ingredients, dishes, and traditions provided familiarity during the difficult journey and while adjusting to their new home. Foods like pasta, olive oil, and vermouth also served as symbols that helped create collective but changing identities and consumer practices in Argentina. Ambitious Italians jumped on this desire for familiar foods by establishing import businesses. Indeed, demand for items like olive oil and vermouth created and sustained trade between Italy and Argentina. Many Italian merchants overseeing this trade became economic and political leaders of their communities. They helped introduce Italian foods to Argentine consumers which influenced Argentine cuisine.
While Italians maintained culinary customs from back home, they also experimented. In Italy, most poor people had monotonous diets based on regional staples such as rice, corn, or wheat. In Argentina, immigrants used cheap, abundant ingredients in traditional Italian regional dishes. Thereby inventing novel, more nutritious versions of what they had eaten back home. Italian migrant food entrepreneurs used materials grown and raised in Argentina—grains, cattle, and grapes for example—to recreate Italian foods. These tipo-Italiano or “Italian style” foods cost less than imported products. Because of their low cost, they became popular among the working class, Italian or not.
Italian sellers and buyers interacted with products from Italy and Argentina in ways that shaped immigrants’ way of life, Argentine culture, and wider trade networks. This exhibit features foods from the cupboard of an average Italian immigrant family around 1920s Argentina.