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American Food & Culture

March 15, 2017

There’s never a day that I wake up and say to myself, ”Man, I can’t wait to fight about politics.”

That said, there is some awful stuff going on in America these days. And I’m not even talking about politics. I’m talking about hate crimes and violence towards people of South Asian descent, largely resulting from idiots who think a person with brown skin must be a Middle Eastern terrorist.

It might be laughable if it weren’t so contemptible. And deadly. Yes, there have been hate crimes in the past, but I do not recall this level of anti-immigrant sentiment ever being so loudly, proudly, and publicly proclaimed from politicians in office. Presumably, you’ve already heard about what Iowa representative Steve King recently said about the impossibility of restoring our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

I’m going to call that false on its face. Largely because I define a civilization based on its food culture, which surely isn’t shocking to anyone. And the food culture of America, and other great food cultures around the world, were indeed made great by the presence of foreign cultures.

Thank god, the food culture of America isn’t solely based on European influences. What’s American? We’ve got burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza, and barbeque. But I’d argue there really is no one American cuisine. There are distinct regional cultures, and they are fabulous.

Southern food owes a debt to Africa and the Caribbean. The Southwest has been all about Mexican culture ever since America took over Mexican territories. And even those German, French, Belgian, British, Polish, Irish, Italian, and Dutch influences of the Northeast and Midwest came from immigrants bringing over their cuisine and working it into the ingredients on hand.

But let’s not be so ethnocentric. Let’s go over the ocean and look at Europe itself. Heck, let’s look at one specific country in Europe known for its food culture. Like Italy.

Tomatoes. They are a staple of Italian culture. Right? But those reportedly came from Peru, when the Spanish ruled Naples. For the record, I have no idea if that’s historically accurate or not, but I found something that looked reasonably authentic on the Internet, so I’m going to go with it.

And pasta? The tale may be apocryphal, but it’s believed that Marco Polo brought this back from China in the 13th century.

Najmieh Batmanglij goes a step further and suggests that all of Mediterranean cooking as we know it is inextricable from Iranian culture. After all, it was modern day Iran that sat at the center of the Silk Road which connected Italy to China. Ancient Persia needs a better PR company, because the Mediterranean Diet people have been taking all the credit for the past twenty years or so.

Immigrants improve our culture. They bring tasty things. They bring other ways of looking at problems. They bring different experiences. They bring music. They help cultures grow and not stagnate. They improve economies. They make us safer. Not that safety should be a goal. Safety is a myth. But it’s true.

And then we have those crazy cultural mashups like Sushi pizza. Dave from Burger Centric is back with Dave’s Gourmet Burgers, at a new location in Schenectady. He tops burgers with his “Chef’s Touch” which is said to be some kind of Indian spiced vegetable mixture. One of these days I’m going to try it, dammit.

Personally, I’m more into cross cultural influences like Indian Chinese food, which is very much like American Chinese food, but with a slightly different flavor profile.

One thing I’m really happy about these days is the diversity of ethnic restaurants in the Capital Region. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. For a region of our size, we’re very lucky indeed. But it’s important for all of us to speak out against anti-immigrant rhetoric and to make sure that the immigrants among us feel safe and valued.

Thank you, to all of you who struggle to establish a life in America, for all that you do to make our lives more delicious and fulfilling.

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