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Ethnic Food and American Cuisine

America has been labeled as the melting pot of the world. This nation was found based on finding freedom in a new world. Shaped by the countless people from many countries America is one of the most diverse countries in the world. So how does this affect our life style? How does it affect our food? As America assimilates more and more food, cooking styles and cuisines into its culture it becomes more and more difficult to determine what is ethnic food. What does ethnic mean? Is it the same as authentic? And how do these words describe American cuisine?

According to dictionary.com to be ethnic is to be pertaining to or a characteristic of a people, especially a group sharing a common distinctive culture, religion, or language. It may also be referring to the origin, or classification of such groups. Another definition is being a member of a group that is a minority within a large society. It is clear that even the definition of ethnic is unclear. The definition of ethnic food narrows this classification down a little bit. Ethnic foods are products that a particular ethnic or cultural group favor, such as Mexican, Chinese or kosher foods. This definition is still very vague. Destination Eats, an online blog about food and nutrition describes ethnic food this way.

“The term “ethnic food” is ambiguous. We tend to have a good idea of the foods on either polar extremes of the line. Despite the cultural origins on many of our favorite foods, some of them are unabashedly American now—French fries, steak, and apple pie come to mind. On the other side, foods associated with exotic locales like Thai or Ethiopian are pretty clearly ethnic. Problems occur on the line as America assimilates more and more into its mainstream cuisine. Do people consider Italian food ethnic? Maybe if you were eating sweet corn agnolotti, but spaghetti with meat sauce is about as American as it gets.

More perplexing is whether soul food is considered “ethnic.” Some aspects of soul food are reflexively American like mac ‘n’ cheese or fried chicken, but what about chitterlings and pigs’ feet? Classifying soul food faces the uncomfortable question of whether being American means being white. But for many Americans, especially away from the Deep South, soul food is just as foreign as pad thai.

What about food that is undoubtedly white but just never made it big in America? Polish pierogi are just rare enough to be ethnic, but kielbasas are as common as tailgate parties. Would you therefore say that Polish food is ethnic?

Of course, there are also those who describe ethnic when they really mean authentic. And by authentic, they mean non-Americanized. I could take a friend out for Chinese food and depending on what we ordered, you could say it was both ethnic and not. Sweet and sour pork, eggrolls, and chow mein just do not seem that foreign for most of America these days. Tacos might bring to mind images of haciendas and senoritas, but burritos resonate with gas station microwaves and Taco Bells.”

As the article describes, extremes in foreign foods would most likely be agreed upon as ethnic, but the line is blurred when Americans assimilate many foods and food cultures into their dietary choices.

Many people often confuse authentic with ethnic, especially when it comes to food. Dictionary.com defines the word authentic as something not false or copied; genuine; real. Something authentic has its origin supported by unquestionable evidence; verified. Authentic is reliable and trustworthy. Therefore, unlike ethnic, which is mainly a classification for a group, authentic is a word used to describe something using facts, and unquestionable evidence.

So if ethnic food can be defined as a classification of types of food that are favored by cultural groups, then how does the cultural diversity of America affect American cuisine? In a quote for the article “Ethnic Cuisine: United States” written by Nancy Freeman, Sidney Mintz describes her view of American food.

“There is no American food. When we begin to list American foods, either we talk about regional things like lobster or shrimp Creole, or we talk about spaghetti and pizza and hot dogs…One could argue it's what makes us great. The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity.” —Sidney Mintz, Anthropologist

As Mintz points out, because of the cultural diversity of America it is difficult, if not impossible to distinguish a specific American cuisine. There are many regional foods that groups of people claim as their own. However, based on the definition of ethnic food as a classification for types of food favored by cultural groups all regional food is ethnic. Nancy Freeman goes on in her article to explain that the “two concepts essential to understanding US food are regionalism and diversity, accent on the latter. After all, Italian food differs from province to province and city to city as well. But key themes run through Italy's food from south to north simply because its people have such strong roots in the Italian soil. Not so with the US. A nation of newcomers, its food reflects its origins.” Freeman exemplifies here that although food may differ throughout other countries, there is always an underlying root that connects them all together. Since America is the “melting pot” of its people, as well as its cuisine, there is no underlying root that is common throughout the nation.

Emily, the author of the article “Ethnic Food is American Food” raises the mirrored question what is “American” food? “Hamburgers? Barbeque? New England clam chowder? CNN thinks they have it figured out in their list “America’s 50 Greatest Foods” but I think some of their choices might surprise you. In the top ten are nachos (Mexican?), Chicago-style pizza (Italian?), hot dogs (German immigrant’s invention, Polish immigrant’s iconic item?) and reuben sandwiches (Jewish/German?). Also on the list are Indian fry-bread, New Mexican flat enchiladas, and fajitas. Confused? I have an answer. I believe that ethnic food is American food.” Emily includes a CNN report that supposedly lists “America’s 50 Greatest Foods”. She questions whether any of these foods are actually American since their origins come from around the world.

As Emily has articulated her resistance to accepting these foods as “America’s” Greatest many other cultural groups often show resistance to accepting their food as not ethnic. No matter what the food or dish may be, there is always an argument proving and simultaneously disproving the classification of ethnic food. As more food is assimilated into American cuisine, more American cuisine becomes ethnic. The article goes on to say, “The “melting pot” is an American ideal. It is the image of hundreds of different ethnic groups coming together to form a nation. Why then, should our dinner pot not reflect the same thing? It is only fitting that American food is the mixture of all food brought by our immigrants. Perhaps the recipes have been tweaked a little here, but they originate from past cultures, from identities new and old, and from our ethnic nation. Ethnic food is American food.”

This encouraging American ideal explains why Americans long to assimilate almost every food culture into their diets. It is socially encouraged to be more and more inclusive. The main way people try to find common ground is through food. A meal that can be enjoyed by everyone goes a long way to building a more inclusive, accepting culture.

Ethnic food can best be described as a classification for types of food favored by cultural groups of people. This is different from authentic, which is a word used to describe food as something genuine or real. American cuisine may be classified as being only ethnic food because of the rich cultural diversity of its population.

Works Cited


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