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Of Migrants and Meanings

Italians and Their Food Businesses in Brussels, 1876–1914

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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 2: Italians

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CHAPTER 2

Italians

This chapter describes the background to my research. First, I present the main characteristics and trends in the development of Brussels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I then discuss the importance and role that foreigners – especially Italians – played in the conurbation, based on official statistics and secondary literature. In the third and fourth parts, I offer readers descriptive statistical analyses of the Italians who registered in the city of Brussels and the commune of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, based on original archival research.1 Finally, the chapter ends with a summary of the main features covering the presence of Italians in Brussels.

2.1.   Brussels Between Centuries

In 1830, following a revolution in which its inhabitants took a decisive part, the city of Brussels became the official capital of Belgium. In the ensuing decades, the city rapidly imposed itself as the country’s center of administration, political life, commerce, finance, specific industries, entertainment, and culture. In the second half of the nineteenth century and up until World War I, Brussels’s development was marked by a prospering economy, massive urban transformation, a surge in its population, the development of its transportation, increased internationalization, and the merging of neighboring communes into a conurbation.2 ← 47 | 48 →

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