for my family
To my mother growing up, spaghetti with marinara sauce was boiled ramen noodles smothered in generous amounts of ketchup. Salad was iceberg lettuce topped with a boiled egg and dressed with mayonnaise. As the child of Chinese immigrants, she considered these (amongst others) pillars of American food, “a treat that [she] would get only once in a blue moon.” When I asked her to define what American food is, she explained to me that when she was young, “anything outside of [her] own cultural food (Chinese) [she] considered to be American food.” Burgers, hot dogs, french fries, tuna casserole, spaghetti, sub sandwiches, and meatloaf topped her list. Meatloaf in particular seemed to hold a special place in her memory. Her eyes smiled as if she had been transported back in time, smelling and savoring the quirky dishes that detailed her childhood. But as we talked further, trying to dissect the ambiguous definition of American food, she and I realized that this definition is far from established. Rather, the idea of American food is one of fluidity, depending on one’s own individual identity, as shaped by their environment, as well as the larger, ever-changing identity of the American nation.
My mother was born in America, in the small seaside town of Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1964. Her parents immigrated from Guangdong, China in the 1950s with the hopes of greater economic opportunity in the so-called “land of plenty.” Resultantly, her relationship with American food became inextricably tied to her identity as an American citizen (or lack thereof). She explains that when she was young, though she was born in this country, she would never describe her identity as American:
“First and foremost, I considered myself Chinese. We were the only Chinese family in a small, all-white town and everything around me re-enforced that I was Chinese– that I was different. Even though at school I could be eating a tuna fish sandwich or a bologna sandwich, I was still considered ‘other’ and the actions of my classmates would reflect that.”
Experiences of discrimination in her youth disconnected my mother from her American identity. Understanding that she was perceived as different by society, she gradually cared less about “being American” and assimilating, instead focusing on “keeping to herself” and being unnoticeable, so as not to be made fun of. Reflecting the ways that she experienced ostracization at school, my mother felt that she existed on the periphery of American culture, as represented by her relationship with American food. She describes her childhood as instead being within the bubble of Chinese culture. This bubble, as shaped by her parents, would control her interactions and relationship with American food. The rarity with which she was given the chance to “eat anything but rice” made eating American food a sacred experience, however, concurrently, such infrequency merely served as a reminder of her otherness. In this way, as much as food (American food, in particular) can be inclusive in bringing people together, it can be equally exclusive in separating certain individuals from the larger culture. She recounts that whenever her parents took her and her siblings for a special trip to the old fast-food chain, Burger Chef, they were never specifically asked what they wanted to eat. Rather, her father would leave them in the car while he went to order, returning with identical meals for all four children to eat on the drive home. Her interactions with American culture were controlled. But such control was not a product of excessively strict parents. It was a matter of access. My grandparents struggled financially, making ends meet by running a local laundromat. Speaking minimal English further separated them from the dominant, white (and largely affluent) American society in their neighborhood. These dynamics influenced every part of their lives, as my mother explained how she craved Kraft American Singles and packaged Oscar Mayer bologna because it was all that she was exposed to outside of traditional Chinese meals– her parents were intimidated by having to use English to communicate their orders at deli counters. Consequently, a lack of access merely exacerbated such exclusivity perpetuated by American food culture.
While uniquely her own, my mother’s experiences growing up in an immigrant family in the United States and her subsequent relationship with American food is not unlike that of other groups. Hasia R. Diner, in mapping the foodways of 20th century Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants to America, explains that “how people experienced hunger…had everything to do with who they were, where they came from, and where they went.” As it relates to American food, immigrants share a common outsider status that initially places them on the outskirts of American society. However, from this initial phase, it is one’s unique immigrant identity and their new environment that shapes their relationship with this society. And as the flow of immigrants to this nation constantly redefines what it means to be an American citizen, they subsequently redefine American food. Diner illustrates how for Italian immigrants, their refusal to lose their “Italianness” would ironically catalyze the evolution of an Italian-American food culture based on a fusion of iconic Italian foods with American foods to create “a distinctive way of life in America.” For African American migrants, their African heritage mixed with their experiences of being forced into slavery influenced the core ingredients and stylings of what would come to be known as Soul Food, now a “commonplace in American cities.” For my mother, her parents’ Chinese immigrant identity and their socioeconomic status in American society would influence conceptions of American food for their four children and many grandchildren to come. Thus, whether it is on a macro or micro scale, immigrant identities are constantly challenging definitions of Americanness and American food, each in a distinct manner. What perhaps remains as a unifier amongst these varied experiences is that despite being largely discriminated against by American society, Italian Americans’, African Americans’, Chinese Americans’, and others’ contributions to the expanding American identity is undeniably significant.
Nevertheless, my mother’s relationship with American food changed as she transitioned into adulthood. The expanded freedoms and independence that came with growing-up signified greater access to the American foods she had only occasionally enjoyed in her youth. As explained by Diner, “the transition to adulthood involve[s] the right to partake of certain foods and to give up others.” As her identity shifted over time, building a career, getting married and becoming a mother of two biracial children, she explains how her definition of American food has broadened. New responsibilities forced her to reassess her interactions with American food, now focusing on providing health and nutrition for a family, rather than indulgence for herself. Beyond the classic hamburger and hotdog, “the idea of American food is less specific and constantly changing,” she notes. Such changes parallel that of the American population, as according to a Pew Research Center study, from the 1960s (the years of my mother’s childhood) to 2010, the percentage of Americans identifying as Black, Hispanic, Asian, or “other” increased from 15 to 36 percent of the population. As new immigrants and thus new cultures and foodways contribute to the American melting pot, many speak of the rise of “New American” fusion food. Historians pinpoint the 1980s as the cuisine’s year of origin with Apartment Life magazine’s publishing of the book The New American Cuisine in 1981. However, beginning with the first immigrants to America, followed by the forced migration of African slaves, the voluntary immigration of the Italians, Irish and Jewish in the early 20th century, that of my grandparents in the 1950s and more, the idea of “New American” food has always existed, merely being remolded, refined, and re-innovated with each subsequent generation.
American food is and will forever be fusion food. Its definition is fluid and changes not only for individuals of different identities, but transforms as those individuals’ own identities develop over time. It is as much spaghetti with marina sauce as it is ramen noodles with ketchup. American food is both inclusive and exclusive, allowing for some to feel unified with American society and others to feel disconnected from it. Such relationships with American food are determined by varying degrees of access, as ethnicity, language, and class collectively impact the types and quality of American foods we can obtain. For my mother, as she established her own independence and built a successful life for herself, her perception of and relationship with American food evolved alongside her maturing identity. Nevertheless, what remains constant and at the core of defining American food is one ingredient: the immigrant identity.
 Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 1.
 Ibid., 81.
 Tracy N. Poe, “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915-1947,” American Studies International 37, no.1, (February 1999): 5.
 Diner, Hungering for America, 5.
 Danielle Restuccia, “A Study On The Changing Racial Makeup Of ‘The Next America’,” The Huffington Post, last updated June 23, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/13/changing-racial-makeup-_n_5142462.html.
 Megan Giller, “New American Food is Un-American,” Slate, June 29, 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2015/06/new_american_food_is_un_american_derivative_and_bland.html.
Image 1 Credit: Solina Powell
Image 1 Details: My grandparents and their four children at their laundromat, circa 1968. Back row (from left to right): my grandfather, my mother’s eldest sister, my grandmother. Front row (from left to right): my mother’s younger brother, my mother’s second eldest sister, my mother.
Image 2 Credit: Solina Powell
Image 2 Details: My mother eating popcorn at age 2, circa 1966.