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Of Migrants and Meanings

Italians and Their Food Businesses in Brussels, 1876–1914


Olivier de Maret

The circulation of goods, ideas, and people has shaped a common European food culture. But practical questions pertaining to this process remain unanswered. How and why do changes in food habits occur and what are their implications? What are the social and cultural processes involved between hosts and migrants and how do they play out in the face of economic and political imperatives? This book addresses these questions through the combined study of food and migration in the past.
By building on studies in the fields of anthropology, geography, history, and sociology, the present monograph analyzes the public foodways of Italian migrants in Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century as a way of exploring how migrants used the business of food to construct meaning and articulate sentiments of belonging. It describes and discusses Italian neighborhoods, migratory patterns, occupations, and food businesses (i.e. cafés, restaurants, shops, and peddling activities) by applying quantitative and qualitative methods of interpretation to archival, business, journalistic, and photographic sources. The study bridges a gap in the historiography of Italian food and migration by providing a Western European counterpoint to Italian experiences in North and South America and a thorough discussion of the forging of Italianness outside of Italy at a crucial time in that nation’s history. This book ultimately underlines the creative and innovative role migrants play in the social and cultural processes that shape human societies.
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Chapter 1: Introduction




1.1.   Framing the Study

In the year 1888, a peculiar yet recurring event took place in the Belgian capital. The liberal newspaper Le Soir informed its readers of

Un curieux et pittoresque spectacle, rue Royale, vendredi soir. Les Italiens et Italiennes, fort nombreux à Schaerbeek, où ils exercent la profession de modèles, musiciens ambulants ou mouleurs, se rendaient en corps à l’église Ste-Marie. C’est de tradition chez eux de porter en pompe, à cette époque, à la madone, des chandeliers ou autres cadeaux plus ou moins riches. Comme tous les ans, ce cortège avait attiré à Ste-Marie une foule assez considérable et curieuse d’assister au défilé de ces costumes bariolés, aux couleurs tranchantes, seyant si bien aux types, fort beaux parfois, de cette colonie qui se conserve ici pure de toute alliance étrangère.1

This description underlines the visibility of Italian migrants in the late nineteenth century, not only – as is well known – in the Americas, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Switzerland, but also in Brussels.2 The colorful religious processions, distinct popular professions, and localized Italian neighborhood noted by the Belgian journalist were likewise observed in other places of Italian migration at the time.3 ← 17 | 18 →

For centuries already, Italians had been migrating in search of seasonal work and commercial ventures.4 However, these migratory trends became more acute between 1861 – when the country was politically unified – and World War I as a consequence of...

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