Sitting at the kitchen table to begin Skyping with my grandmother, Carolyn, she seemed confident as to where an interview about American food should begin. I thought she would talk about how she has incorporated food into her diet from her time living abroad, now considering that food American. I was a bit in shock when her first words were, “well, I grew up in the Midwest.” She shrugged, as if that explained everything. “Except for the ‘Five Sweet Spices of China’ that some missionaries brought to our house one day, I didn’t know anything but American food.”
Living in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois as a child, Carolyn learned how to eat a diet consisting mostly of meat and potatoes. Her mother convinced her to eat vegetables too, crafting a scene of green bean trees around a sour apple sauce lake in a land of slimy mashed potatoes. Later, Carolyn discovered more fruits and vegetables, like crisp apples and asparagus, as she moved to Washington state.
Though Carolyn never mentioned it directly, I believe that she also learned new tastes and opinions about these foods over time. Speaking about her childhood, she visibly grimaced when talking about the grease and fried chicken she grew up eating. She described the foods as “rich,” which seemed to be a negative word in her mind, because she immediately followed with “there was no skim milk.” It was a sign that, despite all the fat in what she ate then, something was lacking then from what she now thinks is “good food.” Still, Midwestern food is what she considers today to be “American.” American just isn’t the best.
After marrying my grandfather, the foods Carolyn ate changed drastically. He was working in international public health, which meant that they were living in places with distinctly “non-American” foods for many years. They first lived in Puerto Rico, followed by India and China. For each location, Carolyn commented on how difficult it was to access certain foods compared to in the continental United States. Central Puerto Rico was extremely remote and impoverished, so the only place she could buy food was a small store. Carolyn contrasted this to her childhood, where there were many options for food. Between stores, her father’s garden, her uncle’s farm, and (later, in Washington) her family’s orchard, there was a sense of variety in America. This sense further separated her ideas of Midwestern, American food and the new foods she was discovering abroad. In China, all fruits but tomatoes were extremely difficult to access, which gave Carolyn the same feeling that food overseas was different than back home. In India, local food was available at the village market, and she learned to eat new foods like eggplant, corn flour, and yogurt. She would occasionally try to cook American foods she was used to, like her mother’s stew, but would substitute ingredients like soybeans due to access and cultural rules about eating beef. This type of substitution due to access reminded me of an article by Poe, where blacks in Chicago created soul food from African recipes and American ingredients.3 By using an American recipe and Indian ingredients, Carolyn thought this food was neither American nor Indian, but something in between.
While abroad, Carolyn learned new techniques as well, which she never experienced in America. When she helped the village women in India cook dinner, they taught her how to make a flat bread out of corn meal by patting the dough. This reminded me of an article by Moreno, where two women learned how to make tortillas in Mexico.1 However, those women intended to resell the recipes and often took intimate knowledge without consent (by looking through windows). With Carolyn, however, a piece of culture was shared as a gift, as my grandmother lived in the community for many years.
Later, Carolyn learned about the Ornish diet from a doctor in another Indian village. It “emphasize[s] real foods as they’re found in nature rather than processed foods.”2 She commented on its use of little oil and whole grains and how the doctor had described it as healthy. While in India, she followed the diet for several years, trying to minimize her risk of health problems. However, as she learned that she had Celiac disease and moved into a retirement community (which limited vegetarian options) in America, she stopped strictly following the diet. Perhaps the inability to follow this diet, which she considered beneficial to her health and which she associated with India, allowed her to make further generalizations and associations between the unhealthiness of “American” food and the healthiness of “non-American” foods. This further separated the two categories as she formed stronger opinions.
Returning to the United States, Carolyn took back recipes and methods that she had learned abroad and incorporated them into her own cooking. She makes Indian food but substitutes corn tortillas for chapatis because of her Celiac disease. Going out to restaurants, she will often look for authentic Chinese food. Otherwise, she will resort to making her own dumplings at home that she was taught to create by a chef abroad. However, she considers these foods “separate cuisines,” despite being an American cooking them in America. (Still, she does consider Puerto Rican food American, because Puerto Rico is an American territory). Carolyn thinks that American food is “influenced by immigrant populations,” and she explained that she’s started to think of Mexican food as American food as she’s aged because some of her grandchildren are Latino (though, perhaps notably, she still refers to Mexican food as “Mexican”). Still, possibly due to her childhood surrounded by “traditional American food” and the introduction of other cuisines largely while personally in their country of origin, Carolyn thinks American food adds up to “hamburgers, cheese, and potatoes.” However, throughout Carolyn’s life learning to eat in different ways in different places, she’s found that food being American doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the healthiest or the tastiest or the best. She’s made the distinction that, unlike the women in the Moreno article, it’s better to attribute good qualities to something foreign than take something foreign and good and label it as one’s own.1
Image Credit: Jess Sawrey, “In-N-Out Burger cheeseburger and fries,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:In-N-Out_Burger_cheeseburger_and_fries.jpg
1. Moreno, Carolina. “Portland Burrito Cart Closes After Owners Are Accused Of Cultural Appropriation.” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/portland-burrito-cart-closes-after-owners-are-accused-of-cultural-appropriation_us_5926ef7ee4b062f96a348181 (accessed February 26, 2018).
2. “Nutrition.” Ornish Lifestyle Medicine. https://www.ornish.com/proven-program/nutrition/ (accessed February 26, 2018).
3. Poe, Tracy N. “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915-1947.” American Studies International, Vol. 37, No. 1 (February 1999): p. 10.