In this this interview, Carrie Tippen
talks with Justin Nystrom
about his latest book, Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture
, published in 2018 by the University of Georgia Press as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance series Studies in Culture, People, and Place. The book was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Book Award in 2019.
Nystrom argues in Creole Italian
that the discourse about New Orleans has been narrowed to a single story and controlled by something vaguely defined as “Creole” which has “long robbed the city of the potential for a richer cultural self-image.” This view of New Orleans history and culture privileges the story of a minority of social elites, obscures the diversity of the city, and elides the existence and contributions of a great many groups, including Sicilian immigrants and their descendants. Nystrom complicates the received narratives of Sicilians in New Orleans, resisting the stereotypes that link all Italians with organized crime and instead revealing how Sicilians became an integral part of New Orleans culture and economy through their entrepreneurship, particularly in importing lemons, working on sugar plantations, selling oysters, establishing restaurants, popularizing spaghetti in America, manufacturing pasta, selling groceries, and defining New Orleans fine dining. Not merely the inventors of the famed muffuletta (which Nystrom reveals is the name for the bread, not the combination of fillings in the sandwich), Sicilians creatively use the food and food service industry to make an indelible mark on the city and the nation. Nystrom recovers a history of New Orleans through archival research and oral history interview that is becoming harder to see as the city changes. “If there’s a ghost of the city’s Sicilian past, it surely haunts the streets of the Lower French Quarter,” Nystrom writes. “Impressions of the immigrant century remain visible on the landscape if one knows where to look.”
is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Documentary and Oral History Studio at Loyola University of New Orleans. Dr. Nystrom has written extensively about the history of New Orleans and the South on topics ranging from the Civil War and Reconstruction, racial identity, labor history, foodways, and cultural history, including the 2015 New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom
(Johns Hopkins Press, 2015). He also produces documentary films, including a feature length film titled This Haus of Memories (2012). You can follow Dr. Nystrom on Twitter @JustinNystrom
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity
(University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in
Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and
Food, Culture, and Society.