Sicily – Where A Single Onion was Lunch

26 May

Towns like these were left nearly empty by starving peasants who left for America.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’ve been paging through a 1992 book by Jerre Mongione and Ben Morreale called, “La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience.” In it, I learned something about blacks in the American South – mainly that Sicilians in Southern Italy may have had it worse.

By the year 1930, more than 4.5 million Italians had immigrated to the United States. When that many people leave a small country, the clear indication is that life there must be unbearable.

Still, there always are mixed feelings about leaving home.

During this era of the Great Departure, when there weren’t many people left in Sicily, village children would sing this in the streets:

Give me a hundred lire

And I’m off to America

Goddamn America

And the man who thought it up.

While America hasn’t always been the best place for some, there was never any measurable movement out. A huge migration occurred when industrialization in the North attracted blacks from the South, but the victims of segregation, discrimination and lynchings didn’t flee the country in vast numbers. Back to Africa movements never caught on.

In their prologue, Mangione and Morreale quote Booker T. Washington, an influential African-American leader from 1890 to 1915, who said this after visiting Italy:

The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States in America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.

It would seem that America, by comparison, is such a land of bounty that there is something even for those at the bottom. In Italy, the trickle down may have stopped way short of the bottom.

“La Storia” said that peasants who farmed other people’s land constantly battled starvation; that there just wasn’t enough food for them. After working hard in the fields, lunch, if there was lunch, often was a piece of bread and an onion. The book says that the new Italian immigrants in America took so well to cooking because food was something new and exciting for them.

I wish readers would share their thoughts on this one. Upon reading it, it was all new to me.


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