“Could You Not Turn Your Back on This Hunger Country?”: Food in the Migration Process of German Emigrants, 1816-1856

Abstract: This article is concerned with the role that food played in all stages of the migration process of German immigrants to the United States between 1816 and 1856. Extracting information from letters, travel journals, and memoirs, I suggest that lack of food was a great motivation to consider emigration from Germany. Moreover, it was a central topic while the emigrants crossed the Atlantic on sailboats—a journey that often turned out to be a struggle for survival. In the United States, however, food was plentiful. I examine the ways in which German immigrants described this abundance to their relatives at home and how they utilized food and the food industry to establish their identity in the United States. In a larger sense, this paper seeks to relativize the importance of religious and political motivations for emigration and to point out that the desire to have access to food was instead at the center. It is, furthermore, an effort to describe the beginnings of the food culture of the largest distinct ethnic group of the United States: German Americans.

When thousands of Germans left their homes to cross the Atlantic between 1816 and 1856 with very little prospect of ever returning, few sought greater religious or political freedom. The common perception that Europeans ‘voted with their feet,’ i.e., that they signaled their political discontent and desire for democracy by leaving, is an appealing yet somewhat romanticized myth. In the past few decades, historians have been working to dismantle it. One of the main tendencies in this scholarship is to put forth more economic explanations (cf. Hoerder, Labor; Daniels; Friedman). Immigrants came to the United States to find jobs and earn a living, from which overpopulation in Europe hindered them. In this paper, I will argue along the same lines but add to the equation a commonly overlooked variable: food.

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