Mid-June, at our Airbnb hacienda in Merida, Mexico, we ran into a friendly Parisian couple, a few years younger than us, who were spending several weeks traveling through the peninsula. They graciously invited us to the patio for some drinks; we brought along tamales we’d snagged from a street vendor. Our new French friends had never seen tamales before. They didn’t much care for them.
I believe the French have one of the most illustrious culinary cultures in the world, though as Carolyn pointed out, “The French do have a great appreciation for food…mostly their own.”
I grew up in Portage Park, on the northwest side, and I started eating tamales around the time I entered kindergarten. My dad used to bring them home from work (he had some Puerto Rican associates who periodically gave a bag to him), and my mom used to buy Derby beef tamales in sauce, which came in a glass jar. Tamales, to me, seem about as American as apple pie.
Growing up, Chinese food (mostly chop suey) was always readily available, as was Italian (mostly pizza). Now, the landscape of American dining has evolved and dozens of world cultures are setting the table for us with huge selections of food from all over the world. When it’s time to eat, there’s no longer just Chinese, but Szechuan, Hunanese, and Hong Kong-style; no longer just Italian, but Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Tuscan. It’s a great time to be an eater of food in the USA, the world’s preeminent food country.
We’ve traveled through a number of countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia, and few of those international cities have anything like the incredible range of culinary offerings available in American cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Seattle. All these U.S. cities, and many more across the country, offer a huge range of foods from China, Japan, France, Italy, select African countries, many Mediterranean countries including Egypt, Syria and Israel, and Latin American countries including Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Chile.
The strength of American food culture is traceable to the immigrants who help make our country’s food offerings intensely diverse, as well as to the incredible good fortune we have to live in a relatively wealthy part of the world that has abundant natural resources (like water) and which has instituted widespread farming only in the past 400 years or so (compare that to the farming in parts of Europe, where the land has been used and sometimes abused many times over for millennia).
Italian food, like pizza, is now so engrained in American culture that we tend not to think of it as ethnic: it’s just us. The pan pizza you might find at Lou Malnati’s, for instance, is Italian-influenced, though you’re not likely to find anything like it in Italy. Pan and deep dish pizza are ours; we’ve made it our own. Just as millions of immigrants have acclimated to our country, we’ve made their food our own, and we’ve helped it evolve.
We had an Italian student stay with us for a while, and she ate a strictly Italian-type diet. When confronted with foods from other cultures (e.g., Mexican, Thai), she’d demur and say “We don’t eat that.” I’m not judging anyone who knows what they like and are reluctant to move far from the foods of their heritage, but as an American, I feel like all cultures and foods are open to me, and I’m hungry for all of it…and I feel very, very fortunate to live in a country where foods from so many cultures are close at hand, ready to be enjoyed…and celebrated.
Bon Appetit! Happy Fourth of July!
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