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Edible History

Our melting pot runneth over

He was not an academic historian, but the great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin knew what he was talking about in 1825 when he proclaimed, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” I wonder what he would say if he could survey the modern U.S. palate.

Americans are in the midst of a bitter political battle over immigration and a seemingly insoluble struggle about who should be allowed into this country, consumed by arguments about walls, fences, and quotas. But when it comes to eating, we are something else. Whatever our cultural differences, our tastes represent the incredibly varied menu of a nation built by people who came from somewhere else. Arizona may establish laws to track illegal im-migrants or build electrified fences. But try to legislate salsa, chili, nachos, fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas, tamales, burritos, guacamole, tacos, or tortillas out of American supermarkets and you’d have a riot. The spices may be Anglo-ized a bit, but the ubiquitous chains of Chili’s, Maria’s Taqueria, and Chipotle restaurants speak to the yearning for food that appeals to whatever the American palate wants, no matter where it comes from.

This extraordinary rainbow of tastes started when the first “strangers” arrived with their poverty and their cuisine. For the hated Irish Catholics who poured into Protestant America from the 1840s, dreams of boiled potatoes, cabbage, and bacon joints fueled their memories of the Old Country. Here they favored beef, which was cheaper and kept well if cured with salt pellets the size of corn kernels. Today, on St. Patrick’s Day, you would be hard pressed to find a market without a huge shamrock and plenty of vacuum-packed corned beef bought by hyphenated Americans of all colors, ethnicities, and faiths, even Protestants.

American Jews are not the only people who like bagels and lox or spicy pastrami sandwiches on rye from a kosher-style delicatessen. You can find kosher-style, half-sour pickles in the cold foods department of every metropolitan supermarket, coexisting peacefully with the couscous, hummus, and baba ghanoush.

Then there is the traditional Sunday evening gustatory decision when someone in the family asks, “Where shall we eat? Bamboo Garden or Olive Garden?”

Who would have imagined that those first Chinese laborers, brought to the West in the mid-nineteenth century to build railroads, would leave a legacy of 40,000 Chinese restaurants from coast to coast, in every city, town, and hamlet? Who cares if most of China wouldn’t recognize this cuisine? For Americans, it’s Chinese! Most Americans wouldn’t even know (or care) that from 1882 to 1943 the Chinese were barred from immigrating to these shores.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a tsunami of poor people from southern Italy poured in, bringing poor people’s food: pasta in all shapes and sizes, pomodori for red tomato sauce, and flatbread for a simple meal called pizza. How many thousands of Italian restaurants and pizzerias are there in the United States? Don't ask.

What Americans eat provides historians with context and memory. Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard Street (2010) examines the lives of five immigrant families who occupied one New York tenement between 1863 and 1935. That five-story brick structure is now the home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It was a world of squalor, where Irish, Jews, and Italians took turns living with poverty. The women cooked, and out of their imagination came the beginnings of an American cuisine. Hasia Diner chronicles the same American ghetto over a longer period in Hungering for America (2001); the inhabitants abandoned an old world where hunger was a way of life, and found a new world where tables sagged under the weight of abundance. Donna Gabaccia’s We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (1998) makes an all-inclusive journey of ethnic and immigrant history, from Asia to the shtetl.

One last word on American taste, in Tufts’ own neighborhood. When I arrived here forty-seven years ago, the local confluences of streets were destinations for no one. Today, UTNE Reader has designated Davis Square “one of the fifteen hippest squares in America,” and the smaller Teele Square is not far behind. More than forty restaurants range from East and South Asian (and their many fusions) to exotics such as Tibetan and Balkan to exceptional Italian to arguably the best barbecue in Greater Boston, at Redbones, where the culture and cuisine of black American slaves teaches us how to take the masters' unwanted cuts of meat and turn them into an American taste tradition.

Eat, enjoy, and learn.

In his forty-seven years at Tufts, SOL GITTLEMAN has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and Biblical literature and is a former provost of the university. He now serves as the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor.

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