- Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Cultureby Justin A. Nystrom
Each year, thousands of visitors travel to New Orleans to listen to jazz, to marvel at the French-inspired architecture, and to sample the city's celebrated food, from beignets to crawfish étouffée. As the former capital of French Louisiana, New Orleans retains a strong identification with French culture, French place-names, and French-Creole food. However, in Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture, Justin A. Nystrom makes a compelling case for the influence of Sicilian immigrants on the shaping of food culture in New Orleans. Food culture in the Crescent City has ranged from Sicilian corner grocery stores and restaurants to a transoceanic shipping business of Sicilian lemons that placed Sicilian immigrants at the center of a dynamic international commerce.
Nystrom maintains that Italian influence on a nascent restaurant culture in New Orleans happened so long ago that it is now almost forgotten, and he makes an important corrective to that perception with a convincing analysis that demonstrates how Sicilian immigrants and their descendants were responsible for making New Orleans a destination for food tourism. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Sicilian immigrants opened oyster saloons and gradually moved into larger-scale Italian restaurants. Several of these early Italian restaurants were the predecessors of the city's renowned dining establishments that today attract the discerning food patron.
Oyster saloons drew some of the first Sicilians into the restaurant business, many of whom were from Ustica, a small island north of Palermo. John Astredo's restaurant and leisure empire began in 1870, when his establishments featured fried, broiled, roasted, and scalloped oysters. The Tranchina family started out with a fruit stand, graduated to an oyster saloon, and eventually became proprietors of restaurants and hotels. Emile Commander opened the Palace Saloon and Restaurant in 1893, while other Sicilians operated increasingly sophisticated restaurants, making them the most highly patronized in the city. Italian eateries such as LaNasa fused the fresh bounty of the Gulf of Mexico, including pompano and oysters, with traditional Italian dishes to create a creole Italian fare that soon dominated New Orleans restaurant culture. The early restaurant business owners in the city constituted a segment of the Sicilian elite, joining the early importers and merchants who contributed to the culinary reputation of the city.
The chapter on the Sicilian trade of Mediterranean citrus is one of the finest. Nystrom provides a sophisticated analysis of an earlier migration of Sicily's merchant class to the Gulf South starting in the 1830s, when Sicily lemons began to be sold on the Mississippi River levee. A circular global trade originating in Sicily brought the founding generation of Sicilian lemon traders to New Orleans.
Nystrom does not neglect the more familiar and celebrated issues associated with Sicilians in New Orleans, such as the Italians who worked on the sugar plantations and the existence of the Black Hand and Sicilian [End Page 683]criminality. But these issues do not take center stage in his analysis of Sicilians in New Orleans.
While the author's analysis of the Sicilian restaurant and food business in New Orleans is broad and detailed, the book would benefit from a more thoughtful analysis of women's roles in these business endeavors. To his credit, Nystrom examines Lucy Ventura Von der Haar's grocery emporium in great detail, but Italian women often played significant behind-the-scenes roles in the restaurant and grocery business in America. Nystrom should also take into account another cultural tradition that demonstrates Sicilian food influence in New Orleans, the St. Joseph's Day Table, celebrated every March 19 to honor St. Joseph, who provided relief to the starving peasants during a Sicilian famine.
Nystrom has written an important book that examines the migration, Americanization, and...