BY DESIREE ACEVEDO
The United States is a distinctively industrialized nation with growing citizen participation in the workforce. The unique characteristics of the American economy and labor market generate deep values of convenience that, in effect, mold numerous components of American society. Most notably influenced by this principle is the American food system. American food is best characterized by the values of convenience of preparation, moderate cost, and accessibility and these values are products of the fast paced and time consuming labor practices in the United States. Examining the creation of Americanized ethnic food and the success of fast food restaurants supports this unique characterization of American food. Additionally, examining female participation in the work force offers insight into the interaction between American labor practices and food practices. The first hand experiences of Mexican-American migrant, Elizabeth Acevedo, joining the workforce and integrating American culture into her family’s food practices reflects the view that American food is shaped by labor driven values.
American labor practices greatly transformed with industrialization and the faltering economy. Today’s working class citizen consistently battles low wages, extended commutes and multiple professions. These struggles promote values of convenience, affordability and accessibility that, if applied to practice, can remedy the burden of work. Transitioning from authentic ethnic cuisine to Americanized dishes reflects these values in practice. Retaining authentic ethnic cuisine in an American environment requires time and effort. As second generation Mexican-American migrant in Los Angeles, Elizabeth’s parents retained many typical Mexican traditions and values. The traditional breadwinner-homemaker model of Elizabeth’s parents afforded her family the opportunity to enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine in an American environment. Similar to the migrant ethnic groups discussed in “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago,” Elizabeth’s mother purchased imported food at Hispanic stores and markets allowing authenticity to be maintained in her dishes (Poe 1999). However, shopping specifically at Hispanic stores and paying higher prices for imported goods requires extra time and money. Additionally, Elizabeth’s mother’s sole homemaker role provided the time and dedication needed to create authentic cuisines. “From when my dad went to work at sunrise to way after he came home in the evening, my mom was in the kitchen,” Elizabeth recalled of her mother making tortillas, beans and salsa from scratch. Unfortunately, modern day workloads greatly limit the amount of time people spend preparing food. The time and money required to maintain authentic cuisine is unachievable with current work standards, requiring the modification of original foods to reflect higher convenience. Americanized ethnic dishes come to reflect the increasing demands of convenience, affordability and accessibility.
Americanized ethnic dishes are foods that imitate traditional ingredients and tastes, but incorporate the values of convenience of preparation, low cost and high accessibility. As previously explored, maintaining traditional cuisine requires great effort that is often limited by participation in the labor force. As working class citizens’ schedules tighten, shorter food preparation time and greater accessibility to low cost foods play a larger role in food choices. The Mexican dishes Elizabeth creates today are far from the authentic cuisine of her childhood. As a single mother of four, Elizabeth increasingly relies on ready-to-eat versions of Mexican food. Whereas her stay-at-home mother tended to fresh beans cooking and cooling in the kitchen for hours, Elizabeth now picks up a family-sized serving of beans, in addition to rice and meat, for dinner. This practice reflects the “pushing and tugging” between identity and convenience that working class consumers face (Balesco, 8). Elizabeth maintains her Mexican identity by choosing food staples of native roots, yet reflects her assimilation into American society through the use of low-preparation, convenience ingredients. The ethnic-inspired dishes prepared by working class citizens are American in their reflection of low preparation and high accessibility.
The intensifying need of the working class for low-preparation, cost-minimizing meals also birthed a successful fast food industry. “American food” is typically associated with hamburgers, fries, sodas and more. These foods and the restaurants share common practices of speedy service, deals and discounts, and often close proximity. These definable characteristics of fast food reflect the majority of working American’s values. Extended workdays and variable hours decrease food preparation time and stability. These issues contributed to the success of the fast food industry in the United States and the success explains the widespread association of American food with fast food. To exemplify this idea, Elizabeth recalled her experience with fast food. In the midst of a divorce, job change and extended commute, Elizabeth had “absolutely no time to cook.” In effect, she often relied on fast food as the source of dinner. The cheeseburgers and fries were far from the homemade Mexican dishes of her childhood and still very distinct from the store bought convenience dishes of today. This greater incorporation of American fast food into Elizabeth’s diet as her work conditions hardened reflects a widespread pattern in American behavior. Fast food, in its production and service, reflects convenience of preparation, low cost and widespread accessibility and thus embodies a highly American food group.
American food is most identifiable through the values of convenience, cost and accessibility it reflects. Non-American, ethnic dishes maintain a separate identity through the unique practices and values that are applied in creating the dishes. Similarly, American dishes are distinguishable in their reflection of American values and practices. As a result of intense labor practices in the United States, Americans have increasingly valued factors of convenience, affordability and accessibility. Americanized ethnic dishes developed from traditional ethnic dishes by replacing ingredients and preparation time with higher convenience practices. Additionally, American fast food was birthed from these three values and maintains great success by retaining high levels of these values in practice. These two distinctively American food groups reflect the common values and practices of the citizens in the United States, separating them from food groups reflecting other region-specific principles. In conclusion, food is identifiable as American in its reflection of the uniquely American values that have stemmed from the distinct labor practices in the United States.
Image Credit: Nicholas “I Can Do Nuggets,” https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3285/2666393308_9aab008ba4_o.jpg