Ethnicity in Gloucester Massachusetts; Food and Traditions

    In every part of the world, food has become a way for cultures to preserve tradition and lifestyles. The way people cook are influenced by their lives, but the way people live also influences their cooking styles. Distinct styles emerge from different ethnic groups, and certain cooking can often be related to one or more different cultures. Some styles may be considered strictly part of one culture, and that culture and style of cooking can seem separated from every other culture and style. This idea that only certain ethnic groups cook certain foods has helped construct the idea that their are confines around styles and traditions, and contributes to the apparent heterogeneity of the food ethnic groups eat. Food has become known as a universal language, because unlike a spoken language in which someone has to be taught, everyone knows how to eat. This allows styles and types of food to be transferred among ethnicity easily, and contributes to the homogeneity of food traditions.

    These properties that either contribute to the uniformity or irregularity of food and tradition in a community, and may become especially predominant in a community that is ethnically diverse. When people with different traditions and lifestyles live in the same area, the clear lines between groups can be seen as people make an effort to preserve ways of living, and lines are blurred when groups inevitably exchange some styles. They may leave behind a part of their their own culture and adopt something new, but in doing so, they contribute to the culture of the community they now live in. Gloucester's community observes this tension between blurred and clear lines that either contribute to the separation or connection of ethnic groups and their traditions.

    When people think of ethnicity in Gloucester, it is common for those people to focus on the Sicilian or Portuguese groups, and may not realize just how diverse Gloucester really is. According to the 2010 Census, of Gloucester's population of 28,937, only 24.7% identify as Italian. The next highest ethnicity is Irish at 20.2%, then English at 16.6%, Portuguese at 9.4%, and French at 7.1%. The amount of Irish in Gloucester may surprise some, especially because it is so close to Italian. Portuguese, although sometimes thought of as a large portion, is only the fourth most common ethnicity. Using statistics to put the population of ethnic groups into perspective helps move away from the stereotypical view of Gloucester, and show that it is truly diverse.

    In his book, The Last Fish Tale, Mark Kurlansky offers an interesting perspective on one factor that might help explain why Gloucester is so ethnically diverse

    “Unlike trees, more like fish, in Gloucester people were always seen as a renewable resource. The town had always found new immigrants to replace its losses. Just as in the very early years of settlement, those who left in disputes were always quickly replaced by new arrivals who had heard that there might be opportunities in the Cape Ann fishery. As hundreds disappeared in storms, they too were replaced by fishermen from other Atlantic fisheries."

Homogeneity and Heterogeneity of Ethnic Groups

    While there are distinct lines that separate ethnic groups in a community, the fact that the groups contribute to the community means that the groups will be somewhat merged. At the very least the different styles of a community will collectively become known as the style of the community, and not only the style of the individual groups. This concept of ethnic groups being combined under one community becomes even stronger when styles and traditions of the groups are shared and spread throughout the community. This merging of styles may occur many ways, but the most relatable example may be how ethnic groups are combined through marriage and friends. If people of different ethnicity begin to share traditions, which is especially easy with food, then the influences of each ethnicity may become a part of each other. Ways of cooking or preparing food, and the combinations of certain foods can be transferred from person to person easily, especially when people are willing or looking for ways to change up their own style, which is likely to occasionally happen.
    A few years ago, I remember my Dad cutting down a large tree for my neighbor. As a way of saying thank you, my neighbor, who is Lebanese, cooked us a Lebanese style dinner. We had ground lamb that was made into a sort of meatloaf that we put in pita bread, and added a brochette to it, which was combination of tomatoes, onions, basil, and olive oil that was all mixed in a bowl. It had been the first time I had that dish, or really any dish like it, but it was an enjoyable and delicious experience. In fact, my entire family liked it so much, my Mom asked my neighbor for her recipe, and now makes it herself on occasion. My family is not Lebanese, but we integrated a Lebanese influenced dish into something we would eat whenever we felt like it. It is this sharing that can occur at the simplest times that help contribute to the homogeneity of a culture.
    A similar method of making Gloucester's polis more homogeneous by sharing recipes has been used on Gloucester's new Harbor Walk, which is a tour in Gloucester that leads tourists to places that have a granite post with information about Gloucester. One of the posts has a recipe for St. Joseph's Day Pasta, that can be seen by anyone in Gloucester. The recipe itself is not as important to the homogeneity of Gloucester as how anyone can obtain this recipe, since now a recipe that would be passed down and celebrated every year by only certain groups of people at a certain time of year (Mid March), can now be made by anyone at any time. Ethnic traditions have the potential to no longer be preserved by only one ethnic group, and it is interesting to think about how easily tradition and styles of cooking can be transferred, and contribute to a community's homogeneity.
    With this sense of uniformity among a community though, the meaning to the tradition may be lost. For example, the St. Joseph's Day pasta recipe that is cooked by a family who gathers every year to celebrate St. Joseph may know more about the meaning or significance of the holiday than someone who might make the dish just to try it. In this way, heterogeneity of ethnic groups somewhat preserves meaning for traditions. But why is there this push to preserve tradition by some, and why would be important to do so?

The Importance of Traditions

    Tradition serves as a tool to pass something down to younger family members. Elders can say, "Here, this is your heritage. I have done things this way, as have my parents and theirs. This is what I look forward to every year, and this is what helps me to connect my family to meaning in life." It is an nonphysical thing that has been connected to meaning and significance, and continues the build off the meaning and significance when the traditions are carried out every year, and memories and feelings for the tradition are added. Families may not know any way other than the traditions they were brought up in, and so the traditions play a critical role in their lives in which they connect major memories to. Looking back on these memories provides a nostalgic and sentimental feeling, and allows for the claim of identity through heritage. As Hengest Thorsson suggests in a website post about the importance of preserving tradition, without heritage as a foundation, nothing lasting can be built. Thorsson emphasizes the importance to keeping meaning in tradition, and not just doing what someone else is doing. This way, traditions will be significant, and will not simply be a pointless practice.
    Tradition connects us to our ethnicity, and allows us to understand where who we are and where we come from. It may not seem like going over a family member's house for a holiday meal would have a significant impact on ones life, but that practice allows for memories to be made and relationships between family members to grow. A sense of self can be obtained through family, and lifestyles that come with family, and can be passed down through generations with more ease and sentimental meaning than material objects. The importance of tradition is found in what the family and individual get from having the traditions. The closeness of family, the understanding of where you are from, and the identity that can be formed from tradition makes tradition and ways of life meaningful, and have the potential to add to the enjoyment, meaning, and fulfillment in one's life.