The popular discourse about immigration has become so ugly in the US that it often seems Americans have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants; that, unless we can trace most of our ancestors to Native Americans, we — whether our relatives came over on the Mayflower or whether we just arrived last week from Nigeria, whatever the color of our skin or the religion we practice — are all immigrants.
So much for the US being a “melting pot” or “salad bowl” in which individuals of many different ethnicities and races see themselves as co-existing. The notion of e pluribus unum, “out of many, one,” seems in danger of being lost today.
Anti-immigrant policies are all the more exasperating when you think about how central immigrants are to the US. A recent study from the Fiscal Policy Institute found that 18 percent of small business owners in the US are immigrants. It is an eye-opening figure when you consider that immigrants make up 13 percent of the overall US population. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, 30 percent of growth in small businesses was thanks to immigrants.
Immigrants own restaurants, doctor’s offices, real-estate firms, groceries and truck-transportation services, notes the New York Times. How often is a Latino-owned bodega or a Chinese restaurant the sole business in a small town or urban neighborhood where nearly every other storefront is shuttered?
In honor of the fourth of July and of Americans who trace their roots to countries around the world, and in celebration of the diverse traditions that are part of American culture, here are five foods that we can thank immigrants for. They foods that most of us can find in our communities and that some (many? all?) of us may well routinely eat.
3 billion pies are sold in the US per year out of 5 billion worldwide. At least once per month, 93 percent of Americans eat at least one slice (which may, admittedly, not bear too much resemblance to what you get in Italy).
Bagels, brought to the US by immigrant Polish Jews, have become standard American breakfast food, available now in fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, the freezer case, national bagel chains and (still) delis in New York City; in flavors from salt to blueberry to French toast; slathered with anything from cookie dough cream cheese to tuna salad to plain old butter.
3. Chinese Takeout
Chinese restaurants are as ubiquitous as McDonalds and Starbucks in the US. Their menus contain a standard array of items — wonton soup, egg rolls, chow mein, kung pao chicken, cashew chicken, beef with broccoli, fried rice — that are more properly termed Chinese American (i.e., not what you’ll eat in China or what you eat in a restaurant if you can read the Chinese language menu). Fortune cookies, for instance, are an American invention.
Sushi is a $2 billion industry in the US, with American sushi consumption having increased 40 percent from 2000 – 2005.. We still have a long way to go to catch up to Japan where there are some 45,000 sushi restaurants, vs. not quite 4,000 in the US. Concerns about levels of mercury and other substances in fish remain — but there’s always the vegetarian options.
Plus tacos, tostadas, empanadas, tortilla chips, salsa, chile rellenos and all foods “Tex-Mex.” These are not the foods you’ll necessarily eat in Mexico or in other Latin American countries but, like those fortune cookies, are very much a hybrid, and highly popular, American creation.
I admit that these five foods are not, in their original versions, the healthiest. There have been efforts to make them more healthy — by taking MSG out of Chinese food, lowering sodium and fats, using different cooking oils and revising recipes to suit different diets, whether you are vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free, or if you eat halal or kosher.
A recent New York Times article mentions these quintessentially multi-ethnic variations on Mexican food: enchiladas suizas or “Swiss enchiladas,” with a dousing of béchamel sauce, and teriyaki rice bowls, an “inflammatory Japanese-Hawaiian-Cal-Mex mashup of short-grain rice, teriyaki meat, scallions and Tapatío hot sauce.”
Move over, metaphors of the “melting pot” and “salad bowl”: What says “American” better than a Korean taco, “stuffed with bulgogi and kimchi” and served up at the likes of TGI Friday?
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Photo by @cdharrison