The definition of American food needs to be rethought. When asked what American food is, most people would answer with basic, meat-centric creations such as hamburgers, hot dogs, cheesesteaks, and meat loaf. Many Americans might also accept cultural ownership over European-inspired foods such as the French fusion of chefs like Daniel Boulud and Dominique Ansel. But are Americans willing to claim foods invented by historically oppressed ethnic groups as our national cuisine? Perhaps burrito bowls, spaghetti and meatballs, and sesame chicken sound less American to you than the Cronut. Yet foreign foods reinvented and hybridized by American immigrant groups are the backbone of American cuisine, and it’s time we start recognizing them as such. American and European chefs receive critical praise for their fusions of foods from various cultures, but in reality, the true paragon of American cuisine is the reinvented and hybridized foods that have been prepared by immigrants for over a century.
The influence of migration to the United States on American culinary tradition is undeniable. Without immigrants, American food as we know it could not exist. Levanya Ramanathan asserts that it was immigrants who popularized restaurants in America in the first place. German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants were able to offer the growing American middle class affordable and “exotic” dining experiences by offering their own American takes on the cuisines of their homelands.[i] In a country as diverse as America where culinary traditions vary so wildly by region and so heavily influenced by migration, it is difficult to pinpoint any sort of defining flavors, ingredients, or preparation styles of American food as a whole. Instead, different cuisines come together to create new hybridized culinary styles. Ramanathan points out quite crucially that continuous global influence is the only constant in American food.[ii] Thus, paradoxically, American food must be defined by its variety and the influence it absorbs from other culinary traditions.
The othering of certain foreign foods is a significant roadblock in a path towards accepting reinvented immigrant foods as the substance of American cuisine. A major contributor to this phenomenon is the language we use to describe immigrant foods. Ramanathan, for example, proposes that the word “ethnic” should be taken out of our food vocabulary, as it used “selectively, to cuisine that seems the most foreign, often cooked with people with the brownest skin.”[iii] Not only does the term promote prejudice against certain food cultures, but it also incorrectly others certain cuisines as un-American. “Ethnic” food, as many people perceive it, is not actually ethnic anymore at all. Immigrant foods have been reinvented and hybridized in an American context to create foods that reflect their heritage, but are no longer geographically tied to the homeland traditions they were inspired by. These immigrant foods have become so integrated and important in America due to constant migration that these “ethnic” foods have become the spotlight of American cuisine.
As foreign-inspired foods do become integrated into American culture, they are often either reinvented by immigrants to suit American tastes, or hybridized to yield foods that are new altogether as a result of the American “melting pot.” In her article “Mixing Foods, Mixing Cultures: Archaeological Perspectives,” anthropologist Mary C. Beaudry describes the anthropological process of creolization. She argues that because of the strong link between food and cultural identity, diet is incredibly important to one’s comfort and well being while migrating away from one’s homeland, and intense cravings for culturally preferred foods is a huge factor in homesickness. Despite this, people are always influenced by the cultural groups they intermingle with, as well as what’s geographically available to them.[iv] It is for this reason that we end up with reinvented and hybridized cooking styles, such as Louisiana creole (as she highlights in her article), Tex-Mex, and American Chinese.
Donna Gabaccia highlights the particular importance of hybridized and reinvented immigrant foods in the culinary history of America in the introduction to her book, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. She suggests that “the American penchant to experiment with foods, to combine and mix the foods of many cultural traditions into blended gumbos or stews, and to create “smorgasbords” is scarcely new but is rather a recurring theme in our history as eaters.”[v] Even the most basic of American cuisine is a result of creolization that took place when the first European colonists arrived and began to mix with Native Americans. It’s no secret that California rolls and fortune cookies are foods are American foods reinvented by Japanese immigrants based on real Japanese food. Tasty treats such as pastrami egg rolls and sisig burritos, however, demonstrate how American food can become hybridized beyond a simple reinterpretation when two immigrant groups come into cultural contact with one another. Creolization in American cuisine represent not just the vibrant diversity of American culture as a whole, but the resilience and willingness to adapt that oppressed ethnic groups in the United States have demonstrated over the course of American history.
It is important to note that hybridized cuisine is different from the “fusion” cuisine popularized by haute American chefs. Although “fusion cuisines” took America by storm in in the late 20th century,[vi] culinary traditions have been blended, reinvented, and hybridized by American immigrants long before Wolfgang Puck was putting sashimi on pizza. While “fusion” foods pay little regard to the origins of the foreign foods they incorporate, hybridized cuisines either develop unintentionally as a result of cultural contact, or are artfully crafted to celebrate their immigrant origins and introduce these foods to other Americans. This is emphasized by Chef Chris Shepherd of Houston’s Underbelly, who is featured in Ramanathan’s article. His food, which he calls “New American Creole,” recognizes the diverse cuisines that can be found in a city like Houston, where significant Vietnamese, Korean, African American, and Latin American communities can be found.[vii] Chefs like Chris Shepherd are, in a way, reclaiming culinary traditions that have been appropriated without due credit. This process is an important step in accepting diverse culinary traditions as American.
As the adage goes, America is a melting pot, and its cuisine is no different. In the era of globalization, American food will only continue to diversify and become richer in foreign influence. Foods that have been reinvented and hybridized by American immigrant groups are the true heart of American cuisine. Through exploring the history of American cuisine and altering the language we use to discuss American food, perhaps the true shapers of the American tradition—immigrants from everywhere in the world, and not just the light-skinned ones—will gain the recognition that they deserve.
[i] Levanya Remanthan, “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,’” The Washington Post, July 21, 2015.
[iv] Mary C. Beaudry, “Mixing food, mixing cultures: archaeological perspectives,” Arhcaeological Review from Cambridge (28:1), 2013. 287-299.
[v] Donna R. Gabaccia. “Introduction,” We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Harvard University Press, 2000. 3.
[vi] Levanya Remanthan, “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,’” The Washington Post, July 21, 2015.
Featured Image: “Miya’s Sushi: “The Best Sushi South of the Mason Dixon Line,” an Americana sushi roll created by Chef Bun Lai inspired by Southern cuisine and its Native American, African and European roots.” By Mickeycomix – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10586294