The United Tastes of America

What exactly is American cuisine? I found myself pondering this question after the most unlikely of prompts — a political conversation.

The context was the dismantling of Confederate statues in the south — a point my friendly rhetorical rival argued is the erasing of an important part of the legacy of people in that region. My counterpoint was that for people of African American heritage, these monuments were painful symbols of slavery. And, by the way, were also celebrating men who were technically guilty of treason against the United States. “You can’t equate it with baseball and apple pie,” I said.

Which got me thinking: “How American is apple pie, anyway?”

When I looked “apple pie” up on Wikipedia, it said: “Origin: England.” Or course, the French would likely argue that. The broader point being that there were no apples in the New World when the pilgrims arrived. Nor were there any much earlier when the first people to set foot in North America crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age.

The British brought apples. That is, when they immigrated to North America. The French probably brought them when they immigrated, too. And they probably argued about who made the better crust for their apple pie. (I would likely favor the French, but that’s neither here nor there.) Before the European migrants, there was no apple pie in North America. There was corn and “natives” — who, as we have already established, had themselves migrated here.

Let us not forget that Marco Polo brought the noodle to China. Or, wait… did he bring the noodle back from China??

Apple pie, photo courtesy Betty Crocker

When I was a kid, we didn’t go out for “American” food. There were five restaurants we frequented in our 1970s suburban Los Angeles neighborhood — Sierra’s, a dark labyrinth of vinyl booths and enormous platters of rice, beans and enchiladas or rellenos or whatever main you ordered; Papa Tony’s, your classic red-checker-tableclothed spaghetti-and-meatballs joint; Twin Dragon, what we would later understand to be “Cantonese” style regional cuisine but what back then was just Chinese; Joy of Tempura, where I learned to use delicate chopsticks and developed an early love for bonsai trees and raw fish; and Papillon, a jewel box that served snails and where my parents liked to delight the waitstaff by having the 6-year-old me order the Pouilly-Fuissé. Cooking and serving and bussing in each of those restaurants were happy Mexican, Chinese, French, Japanese and Italian people who came to America or were born to parents who did, bringing their traditions as they crossed the desert or the sea following the American dream.

Cecilia Chiang, pioneer of the famous San Francisco restaurant, The Mandarin, recently turned 90. She may be one of the most American chefs of all. She was born to a wealthy Chinese family, escaped the Japanese occupation in 1942 by walking for six months, fled Mao after that, and wound up in San Francisco in 1960, where with no experience she opened a Northern Chinese restaurant, betting Americans would be open to exploring authentic Chinese flavors beyond egg foo young and chop suey. Likewise, Wolfgang Puck, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions. A Carinthian kid with a dream of a different kind of pizza — a uniquely Austrian/California/Italian mash-up only possible in Hollywood.

Growing up in Los Angeles, a burrito was American food. A few decades ago, my friend, Saul, came across the border in the trunk of a car. He got a job bussing tables at a deli, where he met a jewish waitress whom he eventually married. He got into construction, earned his contractors license, built a house and became a citizen. A few years back, he travelled back for a visit to his family’s village in Jalisco, where he grew up in a small house with ten siblings and no plumbing.

“What would you do when you had to go to the bathroom?” I asked.

“We’d go out in the field,” he said.

“What about toilet paper?”

“We’d find the smoothest rock we could find.”

He came back with a large wedge of cheese for me — queso cotija his mom had made from unpasteurized milk from the family cow. It was one of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever had, and I guarded over it like it was gold. My American friend Saul, and his mom’s Mexican cheese.

The best apple pie I ever had was at a street festival in the northern Japanese city of Aomori, which is known for its apples. Apples originated in Asia, don’t you know. How did they get to England and France? I don’t know, maybe… migrants??

And that, my friends, is about as American as apple pie.

When we think about immigration, we might think not of walls but rather of fences — the low kind we lean our elbow on as we talk to our neighbor next door whom, upon finding we have much humanity in common with, we invite over for a glass of our family wine or to sit at our table for a slice of whatever apple pie is our tradition. And toast to the fact that we all started out someplace else. And brought our food to America with us.

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The Japan Series: An Ode to Ika

I always figured I could make a successful business helping the Japanese correct the English on their packaging and signage. That intuition was only reinforced on our recent trip to Japan, who’s sensational and rather wacky culinary culture I shall explore in a series of posts beginning with this one.

Squid cracker package

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #1: A good way to keep your kids from eating the rice crackers you brought back from Japan: Choose squid flavored. More