Italian immigrants in Brussels

Italian immigrants in Brussels, their meeting-places and the construction of identity linked to food and foodways, roughly from 1880 to 1935 (preliminary title).

Olivier de Maret

In the vast realm of food studies, the relationship between food and migrants offers a privileged and rewarding angle of approach to study the evolution and transformation of foodways. Through migration, food (including drink), its practices, representations and meanings, are re-molded through an adaptive process characterized by a dynamic and variable relation that retains traditional elements and integrates innovations of the culinary sphere. In the case of migrant communities, unrelenting traces of foodways from the country of origin are known to survive in some form long after other central elements that constituted a primal identity, such as language and religion, have vanished. Often, successive generations then maintain a link with their mythical migrant heritage through an emphasis on shared food memories and customs that, in turn, function as strong identity markers. As numerous wide- ranging studies suggest, along with providing physical sustenance food assumes a great many forms of socio-cultural representations and meanings. Migrating food habits have already been thoroughly investigated, both on the generic and specific levels, and the adaptive mechanisms and outcomes are well known. The aim of this study is to move beyond these issues and focus on migrant's relationship to food from a work-related perspective that highlights the professional choices and strategies they implemented in catering to the population of a European capital city before the Second World War. It takes a socio-cultural historical approach with a geographic twist that concentrates on migrant-owned places where food and drink are offered ('food-places') and the physical and mental spaces, as well as the products and foodways, in and through which identities are constructed and displayed. It concentrates on the Italians in Brussels from 1880 to 1935 and builds on national and international studies of Italian migrants and food. Very little is known of the first significant communities of Italians in Brussels (and Belgium) and the food culture they brought, offered, adapted and later transformed into a landmark of the Brussels (and Belgian) eating-out scenery. They give us a glimpse of a central aspect of the businesses and shops these people set up from the get-go that provided anchorage to successive migrants. In order to shed light on these issues, this study uses archival material from the City of Brussels' Police Archives (1880-1930), Italian newspapers published for and by Italians in Brussels and the businesses and industries almanacs. Finally, it addresses issues of national Italian identity (Italianità) and draws inspiration from what is known as the 'spatial turn' in history (i.e. a renewed geographic concern with space and place).