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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 5: Meanings




This chapter focuses on the processes by which Italians constructed meanings for the food they sold, the businesses they operated, and the practices they developed. It analyzes the results and trends observed in Chapters 3 and 4 based on the theory, method, and techniques discussed in the first section, which complement the theoretical discussion presented in Chapter 1.1. I distinguish between two processes. The first concerns how Italians created meanings by adapting food, businesses, and practices to the Brussels context. The second focuses on how Italians used food to construct Italian identities and what Italianness represented.

5.1.   Interpreting

Italian food entrepreneurs and, as Mintz has stressed, the suppliers of food in general, possess “a vital source of power, not only because it may include some ability to bestow meaning, but also because meaning coalesces around certain relationships” such as practices.1 Meanings are thus “linked through the conditions created and presented to potential consumers by those who supply what is to be consumed.”2 Furthermore, Parasecoli describes how migrant food entrepreneurs have the power to “develop tactics that employ their culinary know-how to occupy social and economic positions in the territory of the Other by transforming the members of the host community into consumers of their products.”3 Similarly, Ferrero acknowledges ethnic food as “a means of empowerment” and “a device to establish close ties within a community,” insisting that it “may also become an agent of social change.”4...

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