What people eat, when, and with whom–their “foodways”–are largely determined by their cultures. As circumstances allowed, immigrant groups brought their food preferences and eating customs with them to the United States, allowing them to maintain a sense of identity and cohesion.
What Americans think of as “their” food is an amalgam of numerous culinary traditions. Particular foodstuffs, recipes, methods of preparation, and styles of presentation have been contributed to the mixture by dozens of ethnic groups, but few of the “ways” survived intact. Interactions with a new environment and with an alien and often hostile culture produced a synthesis of old and new, a synthesis that changed as one generation replaced another.
Until relations turned antagonistic,
The diet of New Englanders was plain, featuring cod and corned (preserved) beef. Popular dishes included succotash (a mixture of beans and corn) and baked beans prepared with salt pork and maple syrup. The English also learned from
A reflection of the growing popularity of diverse immigrant foods, this West Coast restaurant chain offers noodle dishes prepared with recipes based on American, Italian, Cuban, Thai, and other Asian cuisines.
English settlers in the warmer southern colonies enjoyed a richer diet than those in the north, eating more pork than beef and in some cases adopting the foods eaten by their slaves. Wealthy landowners also depended upon slaves and servants to prepare their food, often in buildings separate from the living quarters. Like the residents of New York (but unlike those of New England), southerners celebrated Christmas as a day of feasting and merrymaking.
A wave of
Many delicatessens were run by Jews and specialized in kosher food, one of the first being that established by H. Schulz in Brooklyn in 1882. Such “delis” proved popular with non-Jews as well, and they sprang up in many communities, large and small. In time, the kosher food trade grew so large that dozens of
Along with Germans,
Thanks to enterprising immigrant restaurateurs, a distinctive Italian American cuisine soon arose. Authentic Italian pizza had begun as a flat piece of bread sprinkled with salt and flavored with a little oil, but the more elaborate product familiar to most Americans originated in the
Mexican food has become so pervasive throughout the United States that Mexican food shops and restaurants can be found in every state. These women are making authentic tamales in a store in Detroit’s Mexican Town.
The staples of the Mexican immigrant diet were tortillas and beans. The former, flat pieces of bread made from corn or wheat, were eaten plain, rolled and filled with cheese or spiced meat to make enchiladas, folded and fried crisp as tacos to hold similar fillings, and so on. Beans were boiled, then often crushed and fried in fat. Mexican cooking made use of chili peppers of varying hotness as well as salsas (sauces) made from chilies and spices such as cumin. Mexican Americans used what were regarded as less desirable cuts of meat in stews and versions of the spicy Spanish sausages known as chorizos. Chile–a stew made from beef or pork cooked slowly with chilies and tomatoes–evolved numerous regional variations in the Southwest and became a staple of the American diet.
Mexican immigrants (as well as those from Central America) prepared tamales–corn dough packed around a meat or cheese filling, wrapped in corn husks, and steamed–for consumption at Christmas. As was the case with other aspects of food preparation, the time-consuming process of preparing the tamales fell to women.
African American foodstuffs came to include many ingredients that had been introduced into the South by European or American traders. Some foods, such as rice and black-eyed peas, came directly or indirectly from Africa itself. Okra was also of African origin, and it became a key ingredient in the meat and vegetable stew enjoyed by both African Americans and
African Americans adopted corn for bread and grits and cooked native catfish and such small game as opossum, raccoon, and squirrel. Cuts of meat such as oxtails, hog jowls, and tripe that were discarded or deemed less than desirable by their masters were also widely used. Dandelions and the tops of beets, turnips, and other vegetables were boiled as greens, and the cooking liquid (rich in vitamins and minerals) esteemed as “pot likker.” During the 1960’s, the resulting complex cuisine became known as
Unlike slaves, Africans migrating voluntarily to the United States during the twentieth century usually found an infrastructure in place that allowed them to buy foodstuffs and prepared foods similar to what they had known in their native countries.
Although slaves generally adopted Christianity and observed such Christian holidays as Christmas, a distinctly African American celebration,
Due to growing
Chinese Americans developed a new cuisine for non-Chinese diners. Inexpensive dishes such as chow mein were created by immigrant Chinese cooks, but despite, or perhaps because of, their inauthentic nature, they proved to be popular with non-Chinese diners. At the same time, many Chinese restaurants continued to supply authentic dishes to their ethnic customers. What Americans think of as the traditional conclusion to a Chinese meal, the
Like Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples, Arabs ate a diet based on grains, olive oil, cheese, and vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant. Mutton and beef were the favored meats and were often grilled as shish kebabs or mixed with cracked wheat to become kibbe (meatballs). Eggplants were often cooked and mashed with oil to become baba ghanoush, while chickpeas underwent the same process with lemon juice to become hummus; both spreads were served with khubz, flat breads known as pita in the United States. Meals often began with appetizers called meze.
Initially, Christian Arabs celebrated Christmas on January 7, eating mamoul and sweet ka’ak (cookies and pastries stuffed with dates, walnuts, or pistachios). During Lent, Christian Arabs abstained from consuming eggs, meat, and dairy products. Easter called for a large, rich meal, often featuring ham as the main course.
Muslims observed Ramadan during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, a period that for most adherents involved avoiding food, drink, and tobacco from sunrise to sunset. The meal that broke the fast was also regarded as important, although here, as was the case with many other immigrant groups, regional differences were maintained in the New World. To break their fast,
Counihan, Carole, ed. Food in the USA: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of essays, several of which deal with immigrant foodways, their evolution, and their impact on American cuisine. Diner, Hasia R. Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Readable survey of the foodways carried to America by three important groups of European immigrants. Photographs, extensive notes. Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Includes chapters on immigrant foodways, ethnic entrepreneurs, and ethnic cookbooks. List of sources, extensive notes. Hall, Robert L. “Food Crops, Medicinal Plants, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” In African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture, edited by Anne L. Bower. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Analysis of the specific food and medicinal plants brought to the southern American colonies by enslaved African Americans. Extensive bibliographical notes. Keller, Linda, and Kay Mussell, eds. Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. Essays discussing general aspects of immigrant foodways as well as those of several specific groups. Illustrations, tables, bibliography.