Features, On-Campus Profiles

Through Global Eats, Marilynn Johnson Documents Boston’s Historical Immigrant-Owned Restaurants

Unrequited love, betrayal, and the earthy smell of Russian cuisine hang in the air as seven restaurant-goers lift their glasses—Prohibition has just ended, and so has the night’s theatrical production of One Sunday Afternoon. The cast members of this show celebrate their efforts as they dine at Russian Bear Restaurant on Newbury Street, owned by L.B. Mandova, a refugee from St. Petersburg, Russia.

This scene occurred nearly 90 years ago, and Boston College history professor Marilynn Johnson recently publicized it, courtesy of the Boston Herald-Traveler Photo Morgue collection in the Boston Public Library. The photo headlines the webpage of Global Eats, a digital humanities project run by Johnson. 

Global Eats documents immigration history in the Greater Boston area through the lens of various restaurants’ origins. The project records who owned immigrant restaurants, where they were located, where the owners were originally from, and why these immigrants came to Boston. 

“This work is important because it’s easy to forget that we are in a city with such historical importance,” said Lila Zarrella, BC ’22, who worked alongside Johnson on the Global Eats project. “You see a Paul Revere statue or his house in the North End—you have these figures, but it’s also important to remember other people, the immigrants who have paved the way for Boston today.”

Johnson said that the project’s mission is to tell the stories of immigrants and educate the public about who they are, what they contribute to our society, what their backstories are, and what struggles they have faced. 

“There’s a tendency in American society at large to think, especially among Euro-Americans, ‘Well my ancestors, they worked hard and they struggled and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,’ but then to be very negative about immigration today,” Johnson said. 

Through Global Eats, Johnson also hopes to move the discussion of immigration forward by drawing comparisons between immigrants of the past to those of today. 

“This website is a way to try and bring the experiences of the older groups and newer groups together,” Johnson said. “They’re not identical. There’s definitely some differences, of race in particular, but there’s also a lot of similarities. If we can get people to understand the similarities of their struggles and hostility that newcomers face, hopefully, we can move the discussion forward.”

Global Eats is only one component of a larger project Johnson has worked on for several years. Her book The New Bostonians: How Immigrants Have Transformed the Metro Area since the 1960s, published in 2015, examines post-1960s Boston immigrants along with changes in immigration law. Johnson first established the website Global Boston as an accompanying bibliography for this book, and it soon grew to encompass further immigration research.

Since there are approximately 19 pages on different immigrant groups, Johnson said that genealogists, K-12 teachers, professors, historians, and all those in policy fields studying immigrants can benefit from Global Boston. According to Johnson, the information from these pages can be applied to many different fields of study. 

“I wanted to put vital information from the book onto this website to make it available in a way for different kinds of people and different kinds of purposes,” Johnson said.

The most recent addition to the broader Global Boston website is the Global Eats project, Johnson said. She said that researching immigrant-owned restaurants and studying the cultural transactions facilitated by food are things she has always been interested in. 

Compared to her book, Johnson said Global Eats allows her to look farther into the past. The webpage’s research starts in the 1890s and jumps forward 30 years into the future when immigrant-owned restaurants boomed in the 1920s. 

“It’s not just looking at a restaurant, which is cool, but there are more layers there if you choose to see them,” said Meghan McCoy, GMCAS ’30, a graduate student contributor of Global Eats. “It shows communities’ history, how communities have evolved in Boston, and how other communities have been impacted, whether it be by racism, classism, or various ethnic-discriminatory practices.” 

Global Eats was created with the assistance of undergraduate and graduate students at BC in the 2021 course, Street Life: Urban Space and Popular Culture. The class was a way for Johnson to source data and use digital humanities tools such as ArcGIS Online—an interactive web-mapping software—to conceptualize data in ways the public could understand. 

This project allowed students to collaborate with each other and with Johnson, she said. Undergraduates researched restaurant owners’ ancestry through the BC libraries to find which restaurant owners were foreign-born. Graduate students acted as leaders for small research groups and cleaned up the data that undergraduate students accumulated. 

“I didn’t know if it was gonna work, frankly, when we tried it,” Johnson said. “When we had the first presentation, just before Thanksgiving, they showed the first maps, and we were like ‘Wow, we’ve got results!’”

Global Eats was an opportunity for history students to generate new knowledge and dig up information on those who have no historical scholarship—resurfacing average people’s history, Johnson said. Johnson’s students collected data using tax records, city directories, licensing records, and more. 

“Working in digital humanities is harder than writing a traditional article or scholarly essay—it requires an incredible amount of knowledge,” McCoy said. “Digital humanities projects have a really fabulous way of communicating and translating information in highly engaging ways.”

Johnson also said she looked into the Boston Licensing Board—the agency that gives liquor and food licenses to service industries. At the back of every annual report, Johnson said it lists where each license holder was born and their countries of origin. 

“It was a goldmine,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t cover all restaurants because some were very small and did not serve liquor, but there were thousands of restaurants listed over 30 years. That’s where we found what were the most numerous groups.” 

Zarrella, who has done additional research and editing on the Global Eats project, conducted work outside of class alongside Johnson at the City of Boston Archives. She said they did this to find the names and origins of restaurant owners who were more difficult to find. 

“We were sitting with the books in front of us, and I was finding these names we couldn’t find anywhere else, and that was really cool,” Zarrella said. “I remember when we left, my hands were dirty. I was like, ‘I have 100-year-old grime on my hands!’ and that was really exciting.”

The Global Eats project is not over, Johnson said. She said she plans to get more students involved by having them go out, interview people, and write stories about “legendary” immigrant-owned restaurants.

“Learning about food within immigrant communities is not just learning about recipes—it’s learning about the entire generational history,” McCoy said.  “To care about someone’s history is to care about the person—it’s just simply to care. The more caring that we can all do, whatever avenue that’s coming from, the better off we’ll all be.”

Correction (Nov. 6, 2023 4:38 p.m.): This article was corrected from a previous version to clarify that Johnson and Zarrella worked at the City of Boston Archives, not the Jamaica Plain Historical Society’s archives. 

November 5, 2023