Ethnic Cuisines

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Ethnic Cuisines

"Ethnic food" has been used colloquially for a wide variety of foodstuffs, virtually any that can be identified in the public mind with a foreign source or a American minority group. In the narrower ethnographic meaning, which will be employed here, however, it pertains only to food prepared or consumed by members of an ethnic group as a manifestation of its ethnicity. Thus it would not be an appropriate term for most foreign food eaten in a foreign land, fusion food as prepared by some innovative chef, Italian food as prepared by Greek restaurateurs, sushi prepared by a non-Japanese American housewife, or food purchased from Taco Bell or Pizza Hut, though it is sometimes extended to all these. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut universally accepted definition. In the end ethnic food is food that members of an ethnic group consider their own and that others attribute to them.

Most social scientists agree that the ethnic group is a social category defined by any one of a variety of criteria, including country of origin, physical features such as skin color, ancestoral language, religion, or some combination of these. Ultimately ethnicity is a matter of identityrecognition of the social distinction by both members of the group and outsiders. Although ethnicity has to do with social not cultural categories, members of each group inevitably participate in a subculture that is more or less different from that of those outside the group. Food and foodways (by which is meant that entire complex of ideas and behaviors associated with food) is a particularly important component of these cultural differences.

Cultural Adaptations

Ethnic foodways, like other American foodways, are in constant flux. Changes in immigrant foodways are part of a larger process of social and cultural change.

The process by which immigrants become ethnic Americans is long, gradual, and complex. One can think of this as ethnogenesis or the creation of a new social group. Along with the development of a new ethnic group is a parallel development of a new subculture, including new foodways, that both symbolizes the group's uniqueness to its members and marks off its social boundaries. The new subculture is created in the American context, altered to a greater or lesser degree from what was known in the homeland. Polish Americans (and any other ethnic group can be substituted here) are not the same as Polish in Poland, and Polish American culture is different from the culture(s) found in Poland. Neither do Polish Americans belong to some culture somewhere between American and Polish, as might be surmised from the overly simplistic models of acculturation that have so often dominated thinking on the subject. Ethnicity exists only in specific contexts where one sort of people (Us) is brought into regular and intimate contact with people of other sorts (Them).

It is impossible to re-create exactly in America the foods of one's homeland, no matter where that might have been. Ingredients as basic as flour are different in the United States, yielding different results. Many ingredients are unobtainable here. The white cheese (beli sir) of Bosnia that Bosnian refugees require for one of their most common dishes, sirnjaca (a sort of cheese pie), is not available in the United States. Many Bosnians say sirnjaca is the food they miss most. They cannot even make cheese or the many other milk products that were an important part of their diet in Bosnia, because unpasteurized milk is unobtainable in the United States.

The same is true of the equipment and implements of cooking. The national dish of Bosnia, Bosanski lonac, is a stew of combined meats and vegetables slow cooked in a special earthenware pot. The special pot is so much a part of the dish that it is named after it; lonac means pot in Serbo-Croatian. These are used for no other purpose and are often treasured heirlooms. One Bosnian American housewife related that hers was a gift from her father, who had given each of his daughters one he had brought back from a distant market where they were sold. She had been forced to abandon hers when she fled Bosnia. One might cook a similar combination of meats and vegetables in an aluminum stew pot, but it is not the same.

But these sorts of problems get worked out, just as they do for other aspects of life. Adjustments are made. Substitutions are found. One accepts that some favorite foods of one's homeland can now exist only as fond memories. It is this process of adjustment, the culinary dimension of an immigrant becoming an ethnic American, that is of significance here.

The process by which immigrants become ethnic begins as soon as they board the boats and planes that carry them to the New World. The incentives are somewhat different for refugees than for willing immigrants, but the process remains pretty much the same. No group of emigrants from any country represents a cross section of that country's population. They are always drawn from some regions more than others, some social strata more than others, and some communities more than others. Since each of these groups possesses a recognizable subculture (including distinctive foods and foodways), it is logical that immigrant communities cannot replicate exactly their old national culture in the New World. If most of the Italians who settle in a particular community are from Calabria, then Italian cooking in that community will surely reflect the regional cuisine of Calabria, at least in the earlier phases.

Out of immigrant culture develops an ethnic culture that differs from it in significant ways. There are several primary sources on which this developing subculture draws. The first is the culture of the homeland. One aspect of the process is an amalgamation of the local, regional, and class-related subcultures that are represented in the new community. These processes have both a public and a private face, and it may well be that they work faster in the public. In the Detroit area, Lebanese, Yemeni, and Chaldean restaurants are rapidly developing a common Arab-American menu at the same time that housewives of these same groups continue to cook distinctive national cuisines. Even though the proprietors and cooks of many Mexican restaurants have come directly from Mexico, their menus feature the same standardized combination plates of the stereotypic "Mexican" restaurant derived primarily from Texas-Mexican cuisine. This is so even when a significant proportion of their customers are also recent arrivals from Mexico. Some regional recipes or cooking techniques may be preserved as family traditions, but in general the community will reach some consensus.

A second source in the creation of an ethnic culture is the culture of mainstream America, such as it is experienced by immigrants and ethnics. An important part of the accommodation process is finding ingredients in the United States to substitute for those from the homeland that are no longer available. Hmong find aluminum foil an acceptable substitute for banana leaf when wrapping food. Serbian American cooks, like other Balkan immigrants, attempt to replicate the white cheese so important in their cuisine with some combination of cottage cheese, feta, sour cream, or cream cheese. Different combinations may be used for different purposes, but nothing tastes quite right. Other substitutions are for the sake of convenience. Norwegian Americans making lefse may replace freshly peeled potatoes with dried potato flakes, especially when cooking in quantity. Many Asian Indians quickly replace labor-intensive flatbreads with store-bought white bread. Still other changes have to do with higher standards of living. Dark flour may be replaced by white flour, considered desirable but less affordable in the Old Country. Meat becomes much more prevalent in the diet of most immigrant groups.


The third sourcetoo often overlookedis the cultures of other immigrant and ethnic groups encountered in the United States. Most often immigrants settling in multi-ethnic environments will move into neighborhoods and will work in occupations associated with earlier immigrant groups. Finns, Croatians, and Italians who went to northern Michigan to work in the iron and copper mines replaced Cornishmen, some of whom became their foremen and bosses. These earlier immigrants from Cornwall became their model for American culture, and the Cornish national dish, pasty, was soon adopted by all. New Yemeni immigrants in Detroit, Michigan, moved into houses vacated by Poles, Romanians, and Lebanese who were ready to move uptown or to the suburbs. Their foreman at the auto plant is likely to have been hired from one of these previous waves of immigrants. These people of different ethnic cultures establish models of American life for the new immigrant. The Mexican immigrant who is hired to work in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant is surely affected by that experience. And when he or she takes home extra food to share with members of his or her family, they too will be affected.

The creation of ethnic culture from these various sources takes place within the particular constraints of minority life: the homesickness, the prejudice, the sense of being different, the urge to assimilate or to resist assimilation, the need to recreate the Old World in the New or to reject all possible reminders of the life that was. All these factors shape the specific form taken by the new culture. Many have come to call this process "creolization" after the term for a similar linguistic process, both of which refer to the creation of a new cultural configuration out of parts of several other preexisting cultures. Creolization may be regarded as the defining characteristic of ethnic food.

One can observe creolization in any aspect of ethnic culture, but it is particularly significant in food and food-ways. There are a number of reasons for this. First, cooking and eating are expressive behaviors relatively easy to observe and, most important, heavily laden with symbolic meaning. A particular dish can evoke memories of home, family, better times, one's own place in the world. Familiar food is very much the natural way of things. In a sense, for an immigrant all the food of one's homeland is "comfort food." African Americans outside the South may pointedly eat soul food as an expression of who they are. A single dish may become the most important expression of ethnic identity, symbolizing the group and signaling to other members this common bond and by extention others, thereby reinforcing an individual's own sense of belonging. Crawfish among Cajuns and kielbasa among Polish Americans of preWorld War II immigration serve as examples. Because cuisine is especially responsive to new environments, where some ingredients are unavailable, and because new social settings bring new ways of eating and cooking, foodways are especially quick to adapt and change. At the same time, however, perhaps no aspect of culture is so resistant to change, so tenaciously held. After all, eating is a daily reaffirmation of who you are. Generations after the loss of their mother tongues, ethnic Americans are still likely to be cooking and eating some version of the family's "mother cuisine," even though it may be significantly changed from food in their homelands.

The social structure of an American ethnic group is often reflected in its foodways. Some groups were ethnic minorities in the nations from which they came to the United States. Examples include Jews and Roma from eastern Europe, Hmong from Vietnam, Germans from Russia. Such groups usually develop distinct communities in the United States with foodways that are distinctive, albeit usually closely related to those of others who came from the same country. Ethnic groups are often nested, one identity subsumed within another. A person might be Sephardi in the company of Ashkenazim and Jewish when with a group of Gentiles. A Hmong might be so categorized when with other Vietnamese and Vietnamese when with other Americans. All such social differences are replicated by differences in cuisine, and these take on great symbolic importance.

Foodways serve to demonstrate ethnic community in more instrumental ways as well. Eating together at an ethnic picnic or banquet is a manifestation of group solidarity. Borrowing a start of yogurt in the Armenian-American community or for viili (another soured milk product) among Finnish Americans is an expression of the network of relationships that constitutes community. Receiving needed ingredients from relatives or friends still living in one's homeland demonstrates the link to homeland that is another aspect of the ethnic community. These might be foodstuffs unavailable here, at least in the locale where the recipient resides. Similar social relationships may be enacted when foodstuffs are sent between different American communities, as when Arab Americans in Detroit's large community send basic ingredients to relatives living in northern Michigan, where the Arab-American community is small and even the basics are unavailable.

Often foodstuffs are sent from abroad, not because the item is unavailable in the United States but because the item from one's homeland is thought to be superior in quality. Most Lebanese Americans, for example, prefer spices and kishik (dried yogurt) from Lebanon. In some cases the item sent from abroad is not even considered superior but is laden with symbolic meaning. An Austrian American who receives annually a box of walnuts from home knows that they do not taste better than American walnuts and that sending them costs more then buying them in the United States. But they come from the tree in the family homestead where he or she grew up, and no American walnut really suffices.


Diffusion is rarely a one-way street. Just as members of an ethnic group are influenced in their foodways by those they live among, members of the majority population (including members of other ethnic groups) adopt ethnic foods, usually changing them in the process. Most often this involves commercialization, often initiated by ethnic entrepreneurs from within the community itself. As the process proceeds, changes in the foodstuff often transform it into something far different from the original; pizza, yogurt, and bagels come to mind.

Ethnic food has existed in America since colonists first encountered the exotic foods of local Native Americans and vice versa. But as a field of study, ethnic food attracted little interest until just prior to World War II. Most earlier commentary on ethnic food had to do with hastening its demise in the interest of assimilation. Some of the earliest work on the subject was done by Margaret Mead and her colleagues at the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits during the early 1940s. Their goal was to develop profiles of cultural food preferences in the United States in an attempt to better shape national policy to fit particular local situations. At first they planned to exclude ethnic food from their studies, but soon, most likely under impetus of the new world war, they began to include study of what was then called "the food habits" of "foreign background groups in the U.S." By the time the committee was disbanded in 1942, it had produced a series of mimeographed memoranda on ethnic food.

The Federal Writers Project (19351943) generated further study of ethnic foodways as one part of its studies of regional cultures. America Eats, more specifically devoted to foodways, was a spinoff. The goal was to publish a book by that title comprising a comprehensive account of the history and ethnography of culinary traditions in the United States. Although it was to be regionally organized, research inevitably included ethnic foodways. A tentative table of contents included such items as Minnesota's lutefisk dinners, Mexican backyard barbecues, and North Dakota's Scandinavian picnics. Due to increasing concern with the war effort, the project was abandoned in 1942, and little of the research was ever published.

Nearly all of the work on ethnic cuisines up to this period was descriptive in nature and applied in purpose. One of the first analytic papers on the intersection of food and ethnicity was by John Bennett, Harvey Smith, and Herbert Passin in 1942, "Food and Culture in Southern Illinois," in which they demonstrate how diet is shaped by culture in a region shared by Germans, African Americans, and old-stock Americans.

The revitalization of ethnicity in the United States initiated by the African-American civil rights movement and further stimulated by activities surrounding the bicentennial brought ethnicity to the fore of American consciousness, both within and outside ethnic communities. As a multicultural model of America developed and ethnic pride was manifested, retention of traditional food-ways came to be regarded as a positive rather than a negative attribute. Ethnic food was further popularized during the explosion of interest in food during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and the general search for new and exotic foods. This surge of interest was felt at both the popular and scholarly levels. Ethnic food continues to be a frequent and important research topic for folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and culinary historians.

See also Combination of Proteins; Foodways; Icon Foods; National Cuisines, Idea of.


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William G. Lockwood