Citizens of Italian descent comprise a significant percentage of South Louisiana’s total population, and have had a tremendous impact on Louisiana culture, from architectural masonry to foodways to jazz and brass band music. Italian emigrants to Louisiana typically arrived at the Port of New Orleans and quickly found work, often as plantation workers replacing the newly freed slaves. As soon as possible, they sent for the rest of the family, and children worked alongside their parents in the cane fields.
Attracted by the developing strawberry industry in Tangipahoa Parish, many frugal southern Italians eventually purchased land there, centering in Independence and extending northward into Amite and southward into Hammond. On arrival, they were met with suspicion by other European emigrants, northern Italians among them. In larger Louisiana cities, some upscale restaurants still specify that they serve “northern Italian cuisine,” to distinguish themselves from the “peasant” food of southern Italy.
Food traditions remain an important part of Italian life as well as in social gatherings and religious occasions. The variety of Italian foodways ranges from herb, fruit and vegetable gardening to the curing of meat and the making of wine, to various forms of socialization which feature food consumption. Not surprisingly, given Independence’s beginnings, many of its Italian families are involved in some aspect of food production or distribution, from growing and canning fruits and vegetables, to running produce companies or wineries, to operating grocery stores or restaurants. Italians in nearby communities also operate seafood-processing and distribution companies, and New Orleans-area Italians supply many of its restaurants with seafood and fresh produce.
Most families preserve traditional recipes, and each recipe is accompanied by the name of the contributor, and sometimes by a short narrative about the dish and its importance to the family. Great store is set on traditional recipes, especially those that can be traced to a family home in Italy. Some of the special cooking processes were brought over by a parent and passed on to their children, such as Angelo Mannino’s methods for processing home-made sausage, or John Labate’s wine-making techniques. Every family has its own recipe for such favorites as the distinctively sweet red sauce favored in Sicily and southern Italy. Many of the older ladies, and some men, continue to make their own pasta, which is often egg-based. Seafood dishes are perfected throughout the year, and can be served during Lent, as seafood is not considered meat. Each family has special dishes for festive occasions such as Christmas, Easter, saints’ days, and Thanksgiving, although a traditional pasta dish or soup may be followed with fried chicken or a baked turkey. Every cook has a preferred method and recipe, and these are discussed with great interest wherever cooks gather.
St. Joseph's Day remains one of the more important holidays observed by Italians in Louisiana. The alters are full of traditional breads and sweets, and then the St. Joseph's Day feast is enjoyed by the local community.
Many Italian foods and traditions have woven their way into life in New Orleans and Louisiana. The muffaletta is a classic sandwich of the city that owes its existence almost entirely to the Sicilian immigrants. Red Gravy is a classic tomato sauce that is enjoyed over pasta, and the Louisiana Strawberry industry continues to grow.