Every four years the circus comes to town in America. It’s called the presidential election. And unless you’ve been passed-out drunk under a bridge, one big issue this year seems to be immigration. These days, nothing gets Americans more fired up than immigration.
But this is not going to be a post about immigration, or at least not directly. I am going to talk about the immigration—or more accurately, the migration—of food and what happens when it moves from one culture to another; how it changes and mutates.
Look at Italian food. Is there any other cuisine more closely associated with the tomato than Italian food? But the tomato is not indigenous to Italy, and for centuries Italian cuisine got along just fine without it. Tomatoes originally came from Central and South America. They didn't arrive in Italy until the mid-1500s. And, like many immigrants, they weren't exactly welcomed at first. They were considered poisonous. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of Thomas Jefferson eating a tomato in front of the local townspeople to prove they were safe to eat.
And then there’s the humble peanut, which is closely associated with African cuisine, but it tragically came to that continent because of the slave trade.
And many foods change when they migrate. The pizza and spaghetti we know so well here in America is nothing like that which can be found in its homeland. But perhaps my favorite food-migrant transformation is chicken tikka masala, which doesn’t even exist in India. How ironic that the former colonial masters of India consider chicken tikka masala the “National Dish of England.” For the record, chicken chow mein and chop suey are not real Chinese dishes either but the creations of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.
And so back to America. That nation of immigrants we’ve all heard about since first grade. I’ve mentioned pizza already, but look at all the other foods that we’ve adopted that have become “American” simply through acclamation. Hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, and burritos. We continue to bring in food immigrants every day. Asian food is the most recent member of our gastronomic firmament—Sriracha as perhaps the best example. Its founder is an immigrant from South Vietnam after the war. A small irony of history.
And so during this political season let’s not forget about the food when we talk about immigration. Most importantly—no one argues about food when it immigrates.