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Like Most of Its People, America’s Culinary Traditions Have Immigrant Roots

Friday, February 6, 2015

In her book, The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, historian Libby O’Connell points to apple pie, that most quintessentially American of stereotypical American dishes, and notes that almost none of the main ingredients are indigenous to North America. Like the people who exploded the country’s population and changed its demographic make-up over the last four centuries, nutmeg, apples, butter, sugar and cinnamon, for example, all originated elsewhere.
In her attempt to recount “the story of American history through food,” O’Connell repeatedly touches on the theme of foreign foods introduced, embraced and, often, woven into our nation’s culinary and cultural fabric – some more so than others. Consider, for instance, the pastas we encounter at a restaurant or supermarket. If you saw a fusilli con formaggi, you are likely to consider it “Italian food.” Although pizza, lasagna and spaghetti all made their way to American shores via Italy, we are less likely to think of them as Italian or anything other than “food.”  The meatballs we tend to serve with our spaghetti are, in fact, decidedly not from the Old World. Rather, they are an American spin on a traditional Italian dish.
Then, of course, there’s macaroni and cheese. The pervasive kid’s lunch and classic side dish is so subsumed into American culture that it seems almost absurd to think of it as ever having been Italian. The Kraft Corp. and kids across the country have Thomas Jefferson to thank for the popularity of mac and cheese. He returned from his European travels with an affinity for the elbow noodle and cheese sauce. It became a staple of Monticello and his influence on the food and wine tastes of the fledgling country imprinted macaroni early on – so much so that it was referenced in the song “Yankee Doodle.”
According to O’Connell, adoption of immigrant foods takes an unusual course. Once they arrived on American soil, many immigrant groups began to exhibit a distaste for their ancestral cuisine. At the same time, however, their children and the public at large embraced the flavors and, typically, within a generation or so, such foreign foods, like Americanized Chinese cooking, became popular well beyond the demographic that introduced it to the community.
American attitudes toward immigrants themselves tend to echo the curve toward adopting foreign or exotic foods: by the time a group has been here for a generation, they tend to be assimilated into the greater population with hardly a second glance, while making important economic and cultural contributions to the communities in which they live. So, whenever we may be inclined toward a knee-jerk reaction about the notion of immigration reform, we should take a long, thoughtful look at the slice of pepperoni on our lunch plates and think about what we are doing.

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