The history of the United States of America is a rich tapestry woven of threads from cultures from around the world. When one considers what might be distinctly American, one quickly realizes that it is impossible to find a static definition. To be distinctly American is to be a conglomerate of many different cultures. Each American has a unique set of cultural influences that have shaped such things as their speech, interests, diets, and beliefs. Therefore asking what is American results in a very dynamic answer. To find this answer, food is a great place to start. Donna Gabaccia writes in her book, We Are What We Eat, “As eaters, Americans reject uniformity or adherence to a single cultural experience.” (pg. 231)
A few weeks ago I kept a food diary and recorded everything I consumed for an entire week. At first glance, it may seem as though I have a typical adult American diet. I frequently ate chicken and potato chips and drank milk and soda pop. However, when I took a deeper look at the week-long snapshot of my diet, I came away with some profound realizations about why I eat what I do. Although there are many conclusions I could make about my eating habits, I realized two things. The first is that my past experiences, including my interactions with other cultures, have had a significant influence on what I eat today. Secondly, those experiences form a rich history that can be used as a metaphor for how American culture has become.
Most people, whether they recognize it or not, have a reason for eating what they do. Perhaps they were fed a particular food when they were a small child and have kept it as a part of their adult diet. Maybe they started eating a foreign cuisine regularly after they visited another country and tried it for the first time. I know that there are foods I eat because I ate them as a kid and ones that I eat because I interacted with a new culture.
I ate sweet and sour chicken twice over the course of my week long food diary. It is a dish that my mother cooked for my family on a regular basis when I lived at home. Even though I live on my own now, I still have the dish quite often because I grew fond of it growing up. Likewise I ate granola bars almost every day not just because they are a convenient snack, but because my parents would pack them in my school lunch box. Many of the foods I eat frequently as an adult, I ate as a boy.
I don’t consume very many distinctly ethnic foods (Chinese, Thai, Italian, etc.), but I do eat quite a bit of Mexican food. Throughout the week I had a couple of burritos, quesadillas, and even an empanada. Growing up, my family did not eat much in the way of Mexican cuisine. We would occasionally go to a local Mexican restaurant and my mom would make tacos every once and a while, but I still would rarely eat it. When I was in high school I worked at Chipotle Mexican Grill in my hometown. Throughout the four years I worked there, I was usually the only Caucasian on staff at my store. The rest of the crew was made up of Mexican immigrants which soon became my first significant exposure to another culture. My colleagues didn’t really care for the food on restaurant’s menu as it wasn’t particularly authentic to their culture. Instead, they often brought in their own ingredients like mole, eggs, and chorizo to make things like chorizo con huevos. I would try these ethnic foods and eventually learned to cook them myself. Now I’m living on my own and still cook Mexican dishes on a regular basis thanks to the people I worked with in high school.
Each person has their own unique set of experiences that have shaped what they eat and, more importantly, who they are as an individual. My experience working in a Mexican restaurant in high school is just one part of a collection of experiences that form a rich and descriptive history about me. Other experiences like my trip to Haiti or my time spent in the southern United States have all affected what I eat and who I am. Just as my identity has been influenced other cultural experiences, so too America’s identity has been developed as a result of cultural experience. We Are What We Eat, talks about how past events, specifically the incorporation of new cultures, has shaped American eating. She writes, “Americans have long embraced identities that are rooted in interaction and affiliation with other Americans of widely diverse backgrounds.” (pg. 231)
Each American has their own set of identity-forming experiences that involve interaction with others. American society as a whole is no different. Gabaccia’s book provides countless examples of how different cultures have influence American food ways. Everything from the introduction of pie-making by the English immigrants in New England (pg. 28) to chow mien and fried rice by the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco (pg. 102) had an influence on American culture. The United States isn’t so much one homogeneous culture, but a convergence of experiences and interactions with other backgrounds that forms a rich history. Therefore an individual’s cross-cultural influences serve as a representative metaphor for defining America.
Ultimately food is only one way to begin examining what is distinctly American, but through a simple analysis of what I ate in a week’s time, I’ve concluded that it is a good starting point. My past experiences, especially those with other cultures, have certainly had a significant impact on who I am. Furthermore, those experiences form my personal history which can be used to describe my identity. Likewise American history is a rich collection of experiences with other cultures. Diets can be used to describe those histories. Gabaccia writes, “Eating habits like these suggest tolerance and curiosity, and a willingness to digest, and to make part of one’s individual identity, the multi-ethnic dishes [an observer] deplored.” (pg. 9) Much like identity changes from one person to the next, American identity changes wherever one looks.