Foods and drinks like pasta, olive oil, wine, yerba mate served as central commodities around which immigrants formed their identities and communities as newcomers in Argentina.
This Italian Immigrant Pantry features typical items that might have appeared in the pantry of an Italian immigrant family around 1920.
Whether their sojourn was temporary or permanent, food served as a central commodity around which Italian immigrants formed their ethnic identities and consumer habits. In cities like Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Córdoba, Italians, as well as immigrants from other countries, created “migrant marketplaces,” transnational 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 a comforting sense of familiarity during the difficult transatlantic journey and early adjustment to Argentine society. Beyond offering material nourishment, foods like pasta, olive oil, wine, cheese, and rice also served as symbols through which immigrants crafted collective but changing identities and consumer practices in Argentina. Ambitious Italian merchants capitalized on this homeland desire for familiar foods by establishing lucrative import businesses. Indeed, immigrant demand for items like olive oil, vermouth, and canned tomatoes created and sustained trade routes in food products between Italy and Argentina. Many Italian merchants overseeing this trade became economic and political leaders of their communities abroad and helped introduce Italian foods to Argentine consumers in ways that influenced the evolution of Argentine cuisine.
Photo: Cortelezzi e Maccio Grande Negozio di commestibili
While Italians maintained culinary customs from back home, they also experimented with the new foods they encountered in Argentina. In Italy, most poor day laborers, peasants, and farmers had monotonous diets based on regional staples such as rice, corn, or wheat. In Argentina, immigrants eagerly incorporated a profusion of cheap, more abundant ingredients into traditional Italian regional dishes, inventing novel, more nutritious versions of what they had eaten back home. Italian migrant food entrepreneurs used raw materials grown and raised in Argentina—grains, cattle, grapes for example—to recreate Italian regional foods and drinks. These tipo-Italiano or “Italian style” foods cost less than imported products, making them popular items for working-class Italians and consumers from other ethnic and national backgrounds in Argentina. Italians’ evolving, hybrid identities as migrants are also evident in their embrace of Argentine foods and rituals, such as the asado (beef barbecue) and drinking yerba mate.
Whether imported, tipo-Italiano, or Argentine, in Argentina’s migrant marketplaces, Italian sellers and buyers interacted with products from Italy and Argentina in ways that shaped immigrants’ identities and consumer practices, Argentine consumer culture and cuisine, and wider transatlantic commodity networks.
Cover Photo: Gastronomic Emporium of Guido Zappa