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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 4: Migrants




This chapter describes the Italian migrants involved in the food businesses presented in the previous chapter by focusing on occupations, backgrounds, and itineraries. It summarizes results and discusses numbers, percentages, and trends. Like Chapter 3, it provides descriptive statistical surveys, essential in order to situate and understand this group of people. I start off with a description of the overall involvement of Italians in food businesses in Brussels and search for patterns. I then investigate these patterns in more detail by analyzing the four most popular food-related occupations among Italians, i.e. waiters,1 ice cream peddlers, caterers, and shopkeepers. I illustrate each occupation and give form to the numbers presented and trends uncovered by depicting individual trajectories. A final part highlights the chapter’s main findings.

4.1.   Italians in the Brussels Foodscape

Chapters 2.3 and 2.4 demonstrated the importance of food businesses in Brussels for Italians, who were attracted by the city’s prominent political role and economic opportunities as a capital city:2 16 and 13 percent of Italians registered respectively in the city of Brussels and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode declared a food-related occupation, ranking it second in numerical importance after art-related activities. I calculated these percentages based on the sets of data used, i.e. the 2,441 files in the city of Brussels’s Foreigners’ Office (1891–1914) and the 949 and 1,423 entries – depending on the number of entries registered per individual – in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode’s Foreigners’ Registers (1876–1914). From these...

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