Mrs. Robinson’s Spaghetti Mexican Style: An American Way with Pasta

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger's picture

A What is a Recipe? contribution by Melissa Gray, PhD (History, College of William & Mary)



     One and one-half lb. pork chops. Fry until brown; 2 onions sliced, salt and pepper; 1 box spaghetti broken in half, and put in dry; 1 can tomatoes; 1 square inch cheese. Bake all together 1 1/2 hours in fireless cooker.       Mrs. J. H. Robinson.[1]


I draw extensively on recipes in my research into the place of pasta in American popular culture since the late nineteenth century. This recipe for “Spaghetti Mexican Style,” featured in the Cook book of tested recipes, compiled by the Woman's Federation and privately published by the Lynnhurst Congregational Church in Lynnhurst, Minnesota, in 1920, is an example of the cooking directions that have enabled me to trace how Americans’ widespread consumption of pasta, a “foreign” food in the popular imagination, was premised on principles of hygienic eating, rather than an embrace of the ethnicity most associated with it.

The recipe for Mexican spaghetti submitted by Mrs. J.H. Robinson, while suggesting an interest in cosmopolitan tastes strong enough to imply that home cooks should recreate international flavors at home, does not suggest any particular affinity for Italian cooking. Spaghetti Mexican Style calls for “1 box spaghetti broken,” indicating that Robinson likely did not herself nor expect readers to purchase imported Italian versions, since the vast majority of packaged pasta products available in the US was from US manufacturers; most Italian immigrants purchased pasta in bulk. Producers of major US brands played on popular alarm sustained by well-publicized accounts by travelers and pure food inspectors that described filthy environments of pasta production and sales in Italy and Italian tenements in the US. American producers in response emphasized the importance of purchasing pasta produced using American wheat, largely by machines in sterile factories and conveyed to consumers in sealed boxes that protected it from dust, flies, and fingers; in other words, the healthiest pasta came from American factories. In addition to sterility, producers emphasized the hygiene of nutrition, borrowing (and at times exaggerating) the praise by food scientists like the USDA chemist Wilbur Atwater and home economists like Ellen Richards and Sarah Tyson Rorer, to argue that pasta’s chemical makeup made it a universally applicable food. Discourses of nutrition, furthered by home economist cookbooks, cooking schools, and advertising, helped to deconstruct pasta. No longer an Italian food but a staple by virtue of its proteins and carbohydrates, pasta belonged to no culture in particular, except perhaps that of the American housewife who knew enough about the principles of domestic science to appreciate its merits on scientific terms.

“Spaghetti Mexican Style” is a moment in a decades-long evolution of American housewives’ understanding of pasta. A broader survey of recipes in the 1920 cookbook by the Lynnhurst Woman’s Federation reveals that contributors did not see pasta as purely an Italian food but a versatile staple, featuring it in “Macaroni, Tomato and Cheese” (perhaps a reference to an Italian version), “Plain Chop Suey,” and “Pot Roast and Spaghetti.” Recipes featuring pasta in contemporary community cookbooks are sometimes listed as meat substitutes appropriate for Lenten meals and echoing admonitions of American pasta manufacturers eager to expand their markets by encouraging consumers to regard the food as an economical alternative to and nutritional equivalent of meat.

Finally, being a privately-compiled cookbook and, specifically, one from a Midwestern community, the Cook book of tested recipes offers a valuable perspective on recipes as primary sources in the history of nutrition, food, and health. As a publication created by a private group and not for commercial reasons, it speaks to the penetration of the message of scientific cooking among ordinary Americans. Studies on this topic often do not go beyond syntheses of advertisements and prescriptive literature, including popular, commercially mass-produced cookbooks by well-known home economists. While recipes in a community cookbook may not accurately reflect the kinds of dishes housewives actually produced in home kitchens, I use them to trace consumers’ priorities (i.e. hygienic packaging) and how they understood the uses of certain ingredients. Additionally, the geographical spread of community cookbooks available in private and digital collections has enabled me to make observations about so-called foreign foods in American culture beyond the major coastal cities that tend to dominate histories of immigrant food in the US.


[1] Lynnhurst Congregational Church, Cook book of tested recipes (Minneapolis, M.N.: [Lynnhurst 1 Congregational Church Woman’s Federation], 1920), 35; the entire cookbook is freely available through the Hathi Trust Digital Library at