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The Influence of the Americanization Process on Immigrant Cusine and Culture

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The Influence of the Americanization Process on Immigrant Cuisine and Culture

Thomas J Smith

Sullivan University


American Cuisine has benefited from an infusion of cultural influences. Primary among these is the indigenous cuisines of its various immigrant groups. This melding of cuisine and culture has resulted in a diverse and vibrant cuisine, taking from the host culture, transposing it, and incorporating its essence into the whole. This melding, however can lead to the loss of culture, as it pertains to the host culture. As the identities of these groups are incorporated into the adopted culture, the original can get watered down, if not lost completely. The loss of this culture would be tragic. One saving grace to this situation would be that as the host cuisine becomes part of the mainstream experience, the desire for the flavor profiles that define the host cuisine become desired; leading the new aficionados on a quest to experience the authentic cuisine, thus exposing it to a whole new audience, preserving the culture in an enduring fashion.

The Influence of the Americanization Process on Immigrant Cuisine and Culture

Eça de Queiroz, the great Portuguese realist writer stated that: "The character of a people can be deduced simply from its way of roasting meat. A beefsteak prepared in Portugal, in France and in England, may give a better clue to the intellectual differences among these peoples than does the study of their literature" (Kolpas, 1982, p.131). This sentiment can be expanded to apply to a culture's cuisine as a whole. If this assertion is true, what happens when the culture is transplanted beyond its original borders? Will the culture be impacted by its new environment? Will the culture impact the one it comes in contact with? If this happens, does the culture retain its individuality or is it emulsified into a new entity? For a microcosm of this effect, one only has to look at the history of immigration to the United States, and the impact this immigration has had on both the indigenous cuisine of America and the reciprocal effect on the immigrant culture.

Food in America is a passion. This country has elevated the art of gastronomy to a pinnacle seldom seen in the annals of human history. While other countries can boast a longer culinary history, and a more narrowly defined cuisine, America's position in the culinary world is supported by their unapologetic lack of these constraints. American cuisine has been influenced by a great many things. Primary among the influences has been the introduction of immigrant cultures into the "Great American Melting Pot" resulting in an eclectic cuisine unique in the world for its diversity and surprising homogeneity. The "Melting Pot" metaphor is appropriate, as the immigrants of different nationalities retained their cultural characters' and yet blended together to become a single people. As such, dining in the United States demands knowledge of all the worlds' cuisines (Kolpas, 1982, p.165).

This homogeneity is not, however, without its drawbacks. As a cuisine becomes "Americanized" it runs a real risk of losing its uniqueness, and cultural significance. This significance is a big part of the cultural identity of an immigrant community, who often express their heritage in their food. Various peoples have been coerced by financial viability with "bastardizing" their cuisine to make it palatable to the American public in general. This problem is demonstrated by a quote from Yidi Wu, an Ithaca College sophomore from China, who quite vocally expressed her disdain "This is not Chinese Food," as she pushed her dumplings away which she received at a Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown, Washington D.C. (Simone, 2009) She is not alone in her apprehension concerning the Americanization of a native cuisine. When immigrants come to the United States, they bring with them a wealth of culinary tradition and flavors. Many definitive dishes are watered down or even re-invented to meet the general American public's taste sensibilities.

A comprehensive look at American Cuisine can not be effective, if there is not first, a study of the indigenous populations and their influence on the cuisine of the land. Some anthropologists would argue that the Native American tribes were indeed the first immigrants to the new world. However, in order to completely ascertain the subsequent impact, a baseline of their cuisine needs to be established in order to truly ascertain the influence exerted by subsequent waves of immigrant cultures upon the "Native Cuisine."

The cuisine of the pre-Columbian Native American tribes was most profoundly influenced by the indigenous flora and fauna of the regions in which they lived. While a certain amount of trade amongst the various populations was fairly common, the ingredients readily found in their own "backyard" had the greatest impact. The tribes of the Eastern woodlands subsisted on what they called the "three sisters" corn, beans and squash. These three were processed and mingled to give us the forerunners of such dishes as cornbread, grits, hominy, and succotash; they also made wide use of wild grains, fruits and berries, primarily blueberries and cranberries. Fish and wild game were major sources of protein. Cod was plentiful in the northeast, as were clams, mussels, oysters and other shellfish. The shellfish were so highly prized, that their shells were used as currency. Freshwater fish were taken from the local lakes and streams. Wild turkeys, venison, ducks, geese, rabbits, opossum, squirrels, frogs and turtles, among a host of others were taken from the woods and meadows where they made their home. These animals not only provided food, but contributed clothing, shelter, and tools as well.

The first groups of natives in America to come in contact with Europeans were those of the Caribbean and gulf coast. Primarily hunters and gathers, they also made use of the fruits of the land. The limited cultivation of crops was focused around corn, beans and squash as were their northern neighbors; however they also added cassava, yams, pineapples and peppers to the mix. Barbacoa, the predecessor of today's barbeque was to be found in this region, as were blends of spices that have led to traditional Jerks.

The final coastal region of importance in Native American cuisine was the Pacific Northwest. In this region, Native Americans used salmon and other seafood, wild mushrooms, and berries. Like their Eastern cousins, they also



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