For centuries, Native Americans enjoyed the bounty of the land. When unexpected and ill-prepared company came calling in the 1600’s, these same original inhabitants extended a helping hand. The taste buds and empty stomachs of the first colonists to North America readily learned to appreciate “foreign cuisine”. Turkey and squash, rabbit and corn, and venison and fish filled their larders and kept them going. As the years passed, new groups of British colonists arrived, along with the traditional English fare. Virginia and Pennsylvania, and what would some day become New England, were established under the invigorating power of Shepherd’s Pie, along with hot tea to wash it down.
Africans, free and not, were brought to our shores, the destination and fate of too many already decided for them. They welcomed yams, black eyed peas, and okra in their pots, foods that were familiar to them before their worlds turned upside down.
More and more ships brought more and more colonists to America, a great many coming as indentured servants. The vast, unspoiled land offered many opportunities not available elsewhere. German, Scottish, and Irish newcomers disembarked in Philadelphia and found their ways to the Western Frontier, the South, or the Appalachians. With the Germans came hearty bratwurst, goulash, sauerkraut, and pumpernickel bread. Haggis and Neeps, Bannock, and Scotch Broth heartened the Scots. Irish Stew, Corned Beef and Cabbage, and soda bread fortified the Irish, who were confronted with intense and sometimes violent discrimination.
In the mid 1800’s, many Mexicans within California and New Mexico were given citizenship as the result of a treaty. Their traditional Pozole, and Stuffed Poblanos were now included on this vast array of delicacies. The lure of the California Gold Rush brought Chinese from across the ocean. They came with high hopes, but faced unexpected and unfair challenges. Their dreams didn’t pan out, but their contribution of stir fry, spring rolls and rice is still enjoyed throughout our land.
New York’s famous Ellis Island was established by the end of the 1800’s, and Scandinavians and Italians were among the first to process through. With the country opening up, the Scandinavians made their way to the Midwest, and the Italians settled in larger cities, bringing with them a smorgasbord of Swedish Meatballs, Dumplings, Smoked Eel, Gnocchi, and Fettuccine Alfredo.
Coming up on the close of the 1800’s, the population continued to expand. Southern and Eastern Europeans, as well as Middle Easterners found homes in Michigan and the Midwest. Zesty Pierogi, Kielbasa, Blintzes, Kabobs, and Gyros were added to the spread.
Large numbers of refugees from South East Asia and Latin America immigrated here throughout the 1900’s. Sushi, Pad Thai, Red Na, Lemon Grass, Fish Stew, and Burritos, Tacos, and Tamales remind them of home.
From coast to coast, the USA is replete with good things. Foods from across the world are available almost day or night. The spirits of those who brought those foods, that left ancestral homes and gathered here, within our borders, are the spirit of our nation. Just as the diversity of flavors and textures enhances the menu, so the diversity of culture and manner enhances our society.
In the past, our country has been called a melting pot, but a “melting pot” would blend every flavor together until they all become indistinguishable from one another. I have also heard it said that, in reality, the United States is like a “tossed salad”, but a tossed salad has a variety of foods mixed together, which always retain their original form and flavor, never capable of contributing to the betterment of the whole.
Rather than striving to become a melting pot, where all heritage becomes so diluted it loses its significance, rather than denying every effort to establish meaningful connections, bristling at every inadvertent bumped shoulder, consider one more analogy.
Ingredients for a pot of stew are simmered together as the flavors blend. Each part gains softer edges and loses its hardness, but never its integrity or its identity. So, too, my vision for our country. From sea to shining sea, cultures from every part of the world need to live peaceably, side by side. Each one gives a bit of itself to his neighbor, while at the same time, cherishing and honoring its own old world traditions. Their flavors meld a bit, but don’t overpower each other.
Heritage has ever been cherished, and rightly so. A country of diverse cultural heritage has many assets at its disposal. We would be wise to nurture that diversity.
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