Sophie Egan, Author of Devoured, Tells Us “The Story of Spaghetti” (SLURP!)
It’s our great honor to welcome to the blog Sophie Egan, author of Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are.
Food writer and Culinary Institute of America program director Egan takes readers on an eye-opening journey through the American food psyche, examining the connections between the values that define our national character—work, freedom, and progress—and our eating habits, the good and the bad. Devoured weaves together insights from the fields of psychology, anthropology, food science, and behavioral economics as well as myriad examples from daily life to show how the way we live shapes the way we eat. We know you’ll enjoy this post from Egan!
As someone who works professionally in food, I could happily spend all weekend scouring new recipes or strolling the aisles of my favorite grocery store as if at a museum, inspecting all the fun ingredients I might take home for a spin. But one week from today—when my book Devoured hits shelves and sites wherever books are sold—you’ll have a chance to take a step back from the day-to-day decisions of what to eat, and spend some time understanding why we eat what we eat. My book paints a portrait of the food landscape in America, exploring the surprising and often hilarious traits that unite us as a nation of eaters: whether it’s eating lunch at our desks or feasting on Super Bowl Sunday, dieting before swimsuit season or buying Doritos Locos Tacos with abandon.
I’m excited to share with you an adapted excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, “The Story of Spaghetti:”
Missoula sits at the base of a beautiful valley in Montana where five mountain ranges and three rivers converge. From 1941 to 1943, 1,400 Italian nationals and 250 Italian “aliens” were interned at Fort Missoula. While Japanese Americans were interned in far greater numbers during World War II, there were also several camps around the country that held Italian and German Americans—some of them U.S. citizens.
This particular camp was men only, and author Jerre Mangione, who toured the camp while working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, wrote that some men considered it “cruel and inhuman treatment” to be deprived of women all that time, and therefore a violation of the Geneva Convention. But the internees made the best of it: They organized Fort Missoula like a small city, complete with a hospital, bakery, tailor shop, and school. With plenty of time for recreation, they swam in the swimming pool and put on operas in the theater that were attended by many in the greater Missoula community.
A photo from that time shows some of the men huddled around a table covered with mountains of pasta, breadsticks, and meat. They hold glasses full of wine, raised in a toast. The caption reads, “Do you think this is a concentration camp?”
There in the Rocky Mountain heartland, these men relished the food that would eventually touch every corner of this country. Across the Atlantic, American GIs were getting by on Chef Boyardee—and developing quite a fondness for it. The seeds of America’s widespread love affair with Italian cuisine were being sown.
Americans would so enthusiastically adopt these internees’ native foods—which at the time were foreign enough in the United States that a reporter had to explain what “peet-za” was—that it’s now inconceivable to imagine “American cuisine” without them. Whether delis nationwide are selling panini, or the likes of The Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s are featuring pesto and arugula, or we’re making ravioli from scratch or installing pizza ovens in our backyards—Italian food is ubiquitous in America.
As a nation of immigrants, we have always been open to the cuisines of any number of countries. France had a good run for a while. Currently, we’re lapping up the fare of India, Thailand, Greece, and beyond. And Chinese and Mexican have been firmly established in American food culture for decades. These two, along with Italian, are America’s top three global cuisines (though this is much debated depending on the source).
Where did spaghetti and meatballs come from? When did everyone suddenly start eating pesto? And what is it about Italian food that has made it so exceptionally, universally adored?
Pizza and pasta are relatively cheap. The flavors of Italian food aren’t too spicy, and kids like it. But there’s much, much more to it.