Rite Before Christmas

Assimilation challenges tradition in South Philadelphia’s Italian-American population.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 29, 2008

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The mass migration of peasant families from Southern Italy began in the 1880s and lasted through the mid-1920s. By then, 4 million Italians had emigrated to the U.S., the largest immigrant group in the country at the time. Now there are 15.7 million Italian-Americans in the U.S. and 140,000 in Philadelphia.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Italian-Americans are more likely than any other group of European descent to identify with their homeland. This conclusion is the only way the Bureau can explain how, despite a lack of significant immigration from Italy in recent years, more and more people identify themselves as Italian on census questionnaires. Italian-Americans have made a lifestyle of retaining their culture, which is part of the reason they’re insistently caricatured on film and TV.

Among anthropologists who study food and ethnicity, Italian-Americans are famous for best protecting food rituals, perhaps most intensely outside of cultures like Judaism and Islam that have strict dietary regulations.

Buying ready-made fish dishes is a sign of the distance some Italian- Americans are traveling away from those rituals—a loss, according to Richard Stockton College of New Jersey anthropologist Joseph Rubenstein, who specializes in ethnicity and food culture.

“With modern life, the allure of restaurant culture and changing tastes, at some point the traditional foodstuffs, especially when deemed odd or strange, is really going to be the final cut from the old country,” says Rubenstein.

Indeed, as fewer families cook together, an increasing number of South Philadelphia restaurants offer Feast menus for Christmas Eve. Ralph’s restaurant, the oldest family-run Italian restaurant in the country, has been serving the Feast on Christmas Eve for about 10 years. Mamma Maria’s has been serving it for 17 years, but Mike, a reservationist there, says its popularity has spiked in recent years.

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