Tuesday, August 16, 2011

American Ethnic

I can't explain why, but last Friday before settling in to watch the Saints game, tacos were on my mind. Mind you, I am not talking about the tacos of Post Katrina New Orleans. Not the hodgepodge of delicious tongue, chewy tripe, and gelatinous cheek folded into two corn tortillas and topped with a sprinkle of onions and cilantro served out of a trailer on Claiborne Ave. But old school, ground beef mixed with taco seasoning and served in a hard shell with sour cream, shredded cheese of dubious dairy authenticity, and ribbons of lettuce.

Where do these cravings come from? I peed on a stick, not pregnant, so it must be something else. Could it be a deep rooted connection to simpler, less adventurous version of ethnic foods. Face it, often the first introduction to another country's cuisine is in the form of something that does not really resemble their cuisine. Chinese- egg rolls, egg drop soup, boneless fried chicken; Mexican - tacos and quesadillas so overloaded with melting cheese they could give Paula Deen cause for concern; Italian- Big floppy pizzas and meatballs the size of your head. These foods are not generally the foods of any country, much less theirs. Rather they are American interpretations of ethnic dishes, which on their own can be very good.

Take for example this simple story. The immigrant waves into America (first Irish, then Central and Southern Europe, Chinese, South Asian, Latin American) have usually included a high percentage of poor people. When those people arrived and found an enclave of countrymen, they set about to preparing the dishes they were used to cooking back home. Looking around, they found meat, vegetables, dairy, and other products which may have been special event foods at home, abundant, available, and affordable. Coupled with wages they were receiving, rather than working the fields, they began adapting their cooking to reflect the bounty of America.

Now in an odd twist of fate, the "authentic" foods of their country's cuisines - the pig trotters, sheep intestines, calf brains, and wild weeds - are all the rage. But are we missing something? The cuisines that were recreated and reinvented by immigrants in America have value. Not only that but I bet an anthropologist could write a thesis about how one can track immigrant culture assimilation into the broader context of American culture by the mainstream adoption, and adaptation, of its food by other Americans.

American Ethnic food express a specific cultural tradition. A more American version of their country's traditions, but an expression nonetheless. Really at the end of the day culture is nothing more than an expression, a declaration of this is who we are, and this is what we are about. I distinctly remember a conversation with a chef in New Orleans when I asked him what he was most proud about. His answer was not the awards he has won or the restaurants he has opened. "The day I became an American Citizen," he said.

Aren't those an American Ethnic a generalized way of an immigrant culture saying, "We are American Citizens?"


Celeste said...

The marketplace is a factor: the dishes that enter our collective American consciousness are the ones that sell. Restaurants play a role in introducing non-natives to new cuisines, and they exist to make a profit. The food served at Americanized ethnic restaurants often bears only a passing resemblance to the home cooking of the new-immigrant proprietors.

Jody said...

You've just inspired me to make sloppy joes tonight.

Cie said...

Just started following ya about a week ago and loving this blog so much. Nice job!!