It is too easy simply to say that all people on earth are immigrants from somewhere, but in the case of North America, everyone had to get here from somewhere else, and everyone brought with them their own culture, all of it eventually suffused throughout the American continent, giving us all the richest cornucopia of foods of any country on earth.
The first immigrants came at least 15,000 years ago. But it was not until Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492 that the eastern and western hemisphere collided gastronomically in a titanic event to be called the “Columbian Exchange.” The Genoese explorer had specifically been hunting for a spice route to the Orient—spices then being worth their weight in gold for Europeans who craved them—but Columbus instead found a new world with foods like potatoes, tomatoes, corn, cacao, sweet and hot peppers, beans and strawberries, all of them shipped back to Europe where people were astonished by these wholly unknown foods.
Imagine Italian food without the tomato, Irish food without the potato, Indian, Thai, and Chinese food without the chili pepper. And no chocolate anywhere but in Mexico. Now consider that the Columbian Exchange brought to America wheat, coffee beans, chickens, domesticated ducks, cattle, bees, pheasants and dozens of fruits and vegetables like artichokes, carrots, yams, eggplant, garlic, olives, lemons, apples, pears, rice and tea. Imagine the American prairie with millions of buffalo but no wheat fields waving, Ohio and New York with no apple orchards, the Hudson River once teeming with sturgeon but the Hudson Valley devoid of wineries, the Carolinas without rice paddies. Such was the radical transformation of gastronomy on both sides of the world, and it caused empires to grow and nations to go to war over American plantations.
From every immigrant culture came new foods and new ways to cook it: pigs brought by the English to the earliest colonies were now roasted as barbecue; the Germans who settled in the Midwest in the early 19th century grew hops to make beer, the Spanish grapes to make wine. Africans taken as slaves brought their yams and ground nuts, which became important crops in the South; French Huguenots who emigrated to Louisiana from Acadia in 1755 adapted their native dishes to become chile-spiked Cajun jambalaya and crawfish boils.
The streets were not paved with gold but with food markets, so the new arrivals often could spend less money for much more food in greater variety than in their home countries. Second, their practical need to adapt to their new world, coupled with a deep nostalgia that caused them to cling to the old, required using the former to satisfy the latter. Italian- or German- or Chinese-American, even Tex-Mex cuisines, were all filtered through memory but made by necessity with what was available. Hunger may have driven them to America, but the ability of the immigrants to adapt helped them prosper and feed their families in ways unimaginable before.
After the Civil War, poor Southern Italians brought the tomato back to America to produce a rich hybrid called Italian-American food; the Jews of Eastern Europe did the same, selling pastrami and knishes, latkes and bagels in delicatessens, while others ran the seltzer concessions and candy stores. Chinese workers on the western railroads of the 1860s adapted their noodle dishes to become chow mein, while the Irish made corned beef and cabbage into a significant dish, though one totally unknown back in Ireland. The Greeks created an entire diner industry of which there was no trace back in Greece. For so many immigrants, entering into the United States’ welcoming food markets was easy access to the American Dream.
American food culture was give and take, making do, diversifying, modifying, and expanding, all the while maintaining a revered connection to the way it was done back in the old country. There was no such thing as “soul food” back in Africa, but here it was full of rice and beans, fried chicken and collards, pork chops and sweet potato pie, developing the names soul food in the 1960s as a part of ethnic pride in African-American culture. The French never ate potatoes or ever saw a French-fried potato until the early 19th century, but love of the spud was ubiquitous in America. Italians could open an Italian-American menu and not recognize dishes with names like veal parmigiana, chicken tetrazzini, fettuccine Alfredo, chicken Vesuvius, hero sandwiches or Italian cheesecake, much less ever go to a New York-style Italian steakhouse that served huge baked potatoes , cocktail shrimp and five-pound Maine lobsters. No resident of Tokyo or Osaka had ever heard of negimaki or California rolls. And certainly no Mayan or Aztec had any concept of what chili con carne, chimichangas or fajitas could possibly be.
American restaurants have a history of hybridization—curry houses, chop suey parlors, pizzerias, rathskellers, Irish bars, delicatessens, cafeterias and chili parlors were all American adaptations by immigrants who may never have eaten at a restaurant back in the old country. The pizza, which originated in Naples in the 17th century, became far better known and widely sold in America by 1950 than it was in Italy until the 1980s, and the Japanese imported the idea of Benihana of Tokyo teppanyaki grills, renaming them Benihana of New York.
The tiki bar, as envisioned by “Trader Vic” Bergeron in Oakland, offered a vast menu of dishes completely made up to sound like they came from Polynesia, like crab Rangoon, bongo bongo soup, and the Mai Tai cocktail. A Greek immigrant named Thomas Andreas Carvelas perfected soft ice cream and called it Carvel. The remarkable first Horn & Hardart ‘s Automat, constructed using German machinery, opened in Philadelphia in 1902. Yogurt was popularized in the1940s by Barcelona immigrant Daniel Carasso, who created the Dannon brand, later adding fruit preserves to create the first “sundae-style yogurt.”
Drive-ins, soda fountains, the fast-food chains, the pancake houses, fish camps, ice cream parlors and barbecue joints lined the American highways, many of them done up in the shape of the food they served, like White Castle in Wichita , Randy’s Donuts and Tale o’ the Pup, both in Los Angeles.
Then, in 1939, the exhibitors at the New York World’s Fair showcased the kind of cuisine that was more like what was actually being eaten in France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Formosa, and other countries. None was so influential as the Fair’s French Pavilion restaurant, later recreated as Le Pavillon in New York by French immigrant Henri Soulé, who set the standard and template for what became French-American haute cuisine. It’s menu of frogs’ legs Provençale, consomme royale, pate encroute, and chocolate mousse were slavishly copied by all French restaurants to follow, with names like La Grenouille, La Caravelle, and Le Périgord.
Still, after World War II, the nation’s gastronomy was in real danger of turning away from its immigrant roots based on seasonal, fresh ingredients and toward mere convenience and cost effectiveness of frozen and canned food, not to mention TV Dinners. As Henri Soulé once moaned, “Some of the richest people on earth will dine here tonight [at Le Pavillon]. And for all the money on earth, I couldn’t give them the simple good things that every middle-class Frenchman can afford from time to time. Six Marennes oysters. A partridge—very, very young. some real primeurs—the first spring vegetables. A piece of Brie that is just right. . . . And some phrases des Bois.”
Yet by the 1970s, new waves of immigrants, especially from Asia, brought more and more new foods, many of which were soon planted in American farms. Overnight delivery by FedEx and DHL from everywhere made a cornucopia of wild mushrooms, fresh seafood, cheeses and extra virgin olive oil.
A little book that became a bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé (1971) and the pronouncements about the healthfulness of the so-called Mediterranean Diet that stressed eating more vegetables, grains and oils over proteins and carbohydrates had an enormous effect on the post-war baby boomers, who were soon relishing the “ethnic” foods of their own ancestors, leading to more interest and hunger for “real” Italian food, “real” Greek food, “real” Spanish food rather than the hybrid cuisines they had grown used to since the 1950s.
As a result of more than 400 years of immigrant history, America has become not just the richest gastronomy in the world—one that ravenously accepts from other food cultures while influencing them in return—but one in which all those who accepted the challenge to come here contributed to and enjoyed. With all of them—from the seafarers of Alaska and the slaves of the South, the wheat-growing Swedes of the Plains and the Vietnamese boat people of Seattle, the cannoli-makers and pastrami-briners, the folders of phyllo and the smokers of trout, the pretzel twisters and the tortilla patters, every one of them has contributed to our vast and delectable potluck of so many wonderful things.