Sunday, April 01, 2001

Immigrants' ingredients make food 'American'

        Hispanic and Asian immigrants moved to our fair land in droves during the last decade, the 2000 Census shows. Here's my message to these new citizens:

        Welcome, fellow Americans. Now, please show us how to cook something.

        I don't mean to trivialize the problems or challenges posed by an increasingly diverse population, but in terms of food and food culture, I think this influx of immigrants is nothing but wonderful news. The more ethnically diverse our cuisine, the better. It's always been this way — just look at how food and cooking evolved in our country.

Bad start

        When the colonies were settled mostly by the British, times were hard and the food was horrible. Beef jerky and dried corn were delicacies. The Germans arrived, bringing wurst- and beer-making know-how. In the South, African-Americans introduced collard greens, black-eyed peas and other ingredients to an otherwise bland and unhealthy pork- and corn-based diet.

        During the 19th century, the fortuitous confluence of Cajuns, Creoles, American Indians and other ethnic people in New Orleans led to the birth of a blessed regional cuisine. On the West coast, the Chinese landed with their woks ready to stir-fry vegetables in their new home. And by the turn of the 20th century, Italian-Americans were getting the Northeast hooked on pizza and pasta.

        About then in Southwestern Ohio, in a more isolated but still significant development, a Macedonian immigrant stirred the spices and flavors of his homeland with available ingredients — tomatoes and ground beef — to create Cincinnati chili. Later, someone spooned the strange sauce over spaghetti — a noodle that originated in Italy.

Fusion food

        It was, and is, American fusion food, and we owe it all to ingenious immigrant cooks and their descendants.

        Today, we eat more pizza than the Italians (often topped with ingredients inspired by other cultures), and pasta rivals potatoes in popularity. Stir-fries are common on many non-Asian restaurant menus. In fact, I swear I've seen stir-fried vegetables somewhere served with pasta.

        And tortillas — that flexible flat bread first baked by Latin cooks centuries ago — are wrapped around spicy ground beef, turkey, tuna — almost every stuffing imaginable.

        Ironically, many blame this culinary diversity for our cuisine's alleged lack of identity. Is American food founded on hamburgers and fries? Or is it based on tame sweet-and-sour pork and cheesy Tex-Mex enchiladas?

        It is true modern American food is far from perfect. I certainly wouldn't offer Taco Bell or Pizza Hut as shining examples of our fusion cuisine. But more than ever, there are restaurants proudly serving authentic Mexican, Asian and other ethnic foods. And for more than a decade, chefs in this country have been using native and immigrant ingredients and techniques to create an All-American cuisine.

        As a nation, one of our attributes has been to welcome new ideas and adapt them to our resources and needs. That goes for food and cooking, too.

        So once again, I welcome my new fellow Americans.

        Southeast Asians, bring us your curries and spring rolls. Central and South Americans, bring us your empanadas and fried yucca.

        Let's eat.



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