My German-American friend Nadia Hassani has started an online community of food writers who celebrate “the diversity of the foods that we eat every day.” From cioppino to sauerkraut to tacos to ramen to hoppin’ John, our favorite American dishes originated somewhere else. Write about that, says Nadia. Tell your readers you support diversity.
As a child in California I loved to eat fruits, cookies, ham, steak, ice cream, sourdough bread, and potatoes. Other foods repelled me. I’d stare for hours at the cold mess on my plate until I’d sneaked it all, bit by bit, to the beagle under the table.
I emerged as an adult, happily, with a fresh appetite and adventurous spirit. My adult eating habits and preferences developed under the influence of ethnic foods. A sansei roommate, a Cantonese-American cooking teacher, Indian restaurants, Italian-American winemakers, and cookbooks by immigrants from around the world—all these helped teach me to eat. While still in my teens I figured out that the best restaurants (at least, the best I could afford) were run by people fresh off the boat or plane and cooking mainly for their countrymen and -women. Most exciting of all to me were the ethnic groceries—Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese. The Japanese produce sellers in Berkeley. The Portuguese markets in Somerville, Massachusetts, where we bought chouriço and the greenest, fruitiest olive oil. The Armenian shops in Watertown, with their bulgur and fresh lavash. Boston’s North End, with its cannoli, torrone, fresh ravioli, and semolina bread. Here in Oregon, the Polish sausage maker in Tigard, the Korean supermarket H-Mart, and the Russian/Romanian/Ukrainian markets with their thick sausages, smoked mackerel, and Canadian sour cream. As a gardener, I searched for seeds of Japanese eggplants, Spanish peppers, Russian tomatoes, and Chinese greens. From the foods we grew and the influence of countless immigrant cooks, my family and I developed our own hodgepodge cuisine.
And so perhaps you can forgive me for thinking, during the Syrian refugee crisis, of flatbread, shawarma, kibbeh, falafel, and baklava. How odd to live in a place called Lebanon where nobody appreciates these foods! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few Syrian families move into our little town? Think what they could do with the local lamb!
On a community website for Lebanon, Oregon, people express their excitement when a new fast-food restaurant opens. They lament that the town lacks a steak house. As a once picky eater, I can’t fault anyone for wanting to eat solely from the same short menu for fifty years or more. And I don’t believe in open borders; an overdose of immigration causes social upset, especially when the natives are finding it ever harder to make a living.
But for me, immigrants in the neighborhood offer adventures in eating—and in shopping, in language, in stories, in music. Immigrant butchers, bakers, cooks, and grocers remind us to value quality over predictability, and community over convenience—because good food and community are ever intertwined. So I say to the world, give us your tired, your poor, and sprinkle them generously across this land. And then let them feed us.