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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 6: Conclusion




Contrary to most studies of food and migration, I have explored little of what migrants actually ate at home. Rather, a focus on the public aspects of Italian foodways in Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century has revealed the multiple, complex, and intriguing ways in which Italian migrants used food and business. In the long-term undertaking that is socio-cultural adaptation, migrants employ the business of food not only to prosper economically but also for purposes of self-representation and collective bonding. In untangling these Italian representations in Brussels between 1876 and 1914, I identified two crucial processes that created meaning: the first involved adapting food, businesses, and practices, the second constructing identities. Because Italian food entrepreneurs used both these processes to produce new meanings for their experiences and effect social change, this study ultimately provides concrete and practical evidence of the innovative forces migrants embody and the creative powers they possess.

As they adapted to Brussels, Italian food entrepreneurs innovated. In a public foodscape dominated by Belgian and French actors – and to a lesser extent English, German, and Dutch ones –, the structuring and expansion of a group of foreigners coming from a distant, non-neighboring country like Italy was a revolution in itself. Although Italy had previously been associated with elite culture, food entrepreneurs sprang from a larger group of modest Italian migrants who were involved in artistic, artisanal, and commercial activities and settled in Brussels at the turn of the...

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