As more and more immigrants passed through Ellis Island, the vast mix of cultures that make up our country just got bigger and better. And that great melting pot which is at the heart of our American Experiment turned into the great cooking pot with each added national recipe, custom, and cuisine.
This beautiful amalgamation of national recipes gives us the delicious fusion dishes adapted from India, Africa, China, Italy, Mexico and so many other wonderful and strange ingredients that make up the vast American choice we enjoy today
And as this vast influx of immigrants slowly integrated into the fabric of American life, influences from every corner of the world took hold in American culture. German, Scandinavian, Russian, Serbs, Slavs, Greeks, Poles, Turks and of course Jewish cuisine, all made an imprint and the main outlet for this were national dishes.
As the American Way took hold, many opened ethnic restaurants, which allowed the American public as a whole to taste and savor defining dishes from around the world without ever leaving their own hometown. .
Now for the unique and fascinating part. As America got more diverse, and people’s palettes became more in touch with a taste of the world, adaptations and fusions became the norm and true American dishes were invented.
And an American Cuisine was born.
Although television and multimedia may have exposed well-seasoned foodies to exotic eats, there are still many citizens who are strictly S.A.D., adherents to the “Standard American Diet”. When we think of American food, burgers, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese are typical staples that come to mind. However these mundane examples also originated outside of the U.S. Hot dogs and hamburgers can be traced to German immigrants, pizza to Italy and U.S. president Thomas Jefferson discovered macaroni and cheese during his travels to France.
So even the foods that Americans favor have international roots, and we would be dishonest if we didn’t fully acknowledge how much immigrants have contributed to the American dining table.
According to published studies, Americans spent more than $3 billion last year eating ethnic food, a number that has continued to grow at 5% to 6% annually. This staggering sum and the continued growth of specific ethnic communities continues to fuel the demand for authentic international cuisine. The most significant segments of this ethnic food industry explosion include Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese. For large cities such as New York and San Francisco, the selection of ethnic food is even more extensive and it is difficult to try and stump the local chamber of commerce with a request for some ridiculously obscure food only to be told “it’s on the corner of 21st and Park.”
The term ‘ethnic food’ itself is controversial. According to author Krishnendu Ray, some Americans treat ethnic foods as inferior. “Despite complex ingredients and labor-intensive cooking methods that rival or even eclipse those associated with some of the most celebrated cuisines—think French, Spanish and Italian—we want our Indian food fast, and we want it cheap.” This prejudice toward ethnic food is associated largely with our feelings about the immigrants themselves. Historically, immigrants have been ostensibly welcomed but also excluded from society. Many immigrants who were rejected in this way turned to the food industry to make a living. and survive by selling their delicious food for cheap.
Within the last half-century, Indian communities all throughout the U.S. have expanded exponentially while Chinese, Italian, and Mexican cuisines have been popular since the first wave of immigration. What most people don’t recognize is that Indian cuisine has been part of that history this whole time. The first Indian restaurants in America were spotted in the 1900s in New York and Chicago. According to the South Asian American Digital Archive, New York Times writer Helen Bullitt Lowry made one of the first Indian restaurant reviews in 1921. She peered into the restaurant, and described:
“Grave Indian gentlemen, with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads used to come in for their curry and rice. Six short weeks—and already the restaurant is half full of tourists, eagerly peering at each other for turbans and local color.”
Lowry at the time didn’t realize that she was describing the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant located at 243 W. 42nd Street. But from one obscure restaurant review to numerous culinary enthusiasts, Indian food has grown into one of the most popular takeouts and sit down cuisines to date, with over 400 Indian restaurants in New York City alone.This tale of American food does not come without its harrowing struggle when slavery and racism raise their ugly heads.
When we think about the African influence in Southern cuisine, we cannot fail to acknowledge how the violent role of slavery forced that cultural integration. As pointed out by National Geographic, without the red pea, which is native to Africa, we wouldn’t have Hoppin John. Other foods such as okra, watermelon, black-eyed peas, and grits are all foods that originated in Africa.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, black cooks were bound to the fire 24 hours a day. Some received formal training. As a result of this forced service and suffering these African American cooks created what we today know as American Southern food, which was a mixture of European, African, and Native American cuisines.
The United States has the oldest Chinatown in the world, which is in San Francisco. The Chinese immigrants in the 19th century changed American food as we know it. Many of the men came here to pursue a chance at gold in the golden state of California, but when they didn’t strike it rich they turned to feeding the prospectors instead, opening up among the first ethnic restaurants in the nation. For the many defeated miners, it was good tasting food at a low price. According to TIME magazine, people during this time declared that “the best restaurants were kept by Chinese and the poorest and dearest by Americans.” These first Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs were the pioneers for American international food culture. As time went by the Chinese menus adapted to American tastes, and on the reverse, more Americans embraced authentic Chinese cuisine.
Today according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, there are more Chinese restaurants than Mcdonald’s in the United States.
From Spaghetti O’s to pizza, Americans cannot stop eating Italian food. Many Italians immigrated to the U.S. during the late 19th century. Without the exact ingredients of their homeland, Italian cooks were among the first to rapidly adapt as immigrants assimilated to America. No matter where the Italians settled, they created new and innovative cuisine. We wouldn’t have Philly Cheesesteaks or San Franciscan Cioppino without the Italians or the cooking methods that have made their food spectacular for hundreds of years. But the meat-based Italian-American cuisine that we know today is not how the Italian immigrants always ate. During the late 19th century, Italian immigrants mostly came from regions struggling in poverty. Their diets back in Italy primarily consisted of organic vegetables and grains, with little access to meat and no red sauce. Italian restaurants became more popular after World War II as soldiers returning from Italy craved the food they fell in love with overseas. This led Italian immigrants to adapt recipes such as spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, lasagna and manicotti, which became Italian American staples.
Mexicans have their own harrowing and complicated history with U.S. borders. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States gained 55% of Mexican territory. As more Mexicans remained in the United States, Mexican food became a daily staple of the American diet. According to CHD Expert, Mexican food is the third most popular menu type in the USA, representing 8 percent of the total national restaurant landscape. At the time of their 2014 study, Mexican food edged out the Hamburger for the third most common U.S. food.
In addition to bringing food from their native lands, immigrants have created excellent American staples. Without immigrants, we would not have jelly beans, Greek yogurt or German immigrant, Godfrey Keebler’s Keebler cookies. Peggy Cherng and her husband (a Chinese immigrant) created Panda Express, the largest Chinese food chain in the United States. Immigrants not only found ways to bring their native cuisines to the U.S., but they used their culinary influence to make American food better. Foods such as chop suey, fortune cookies, baked ziti, and mission-style burritos were all invented in the U.S. by immigrants. Mexican immigrant Richard Montañez, who worked as a janitor for Frito Lay took home some defective, un-dusted Cheetos and sprinkled some chili spices on them. After presenting it to the executives, Montanez’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos became the #1 selling product by Frito Lay and is still an American favorite today.
From southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, to the Caribbean and even the South Pacific we have enjoyed the food of people who often work the hardest. Immigrants have held the country together and usually have done it in the shadows. While supporting their families and building solidarity in ethnic communities, immigrants have created a culinary culture that has made America delicious. These are people who risked their lives and left their loved ones for the American dream and we should be more than honored to experience their food.