When it comes to the American food and
culture, it is for good reason that Israel Zangwill's term "Melting
Pot" for the name of a play in 1908 still serves as an apt description of
the United States today. The United States is a nation of immigrants, each
ethnic group retaining customs, festivals and food traditions with great
pride and yet with a stamp that is unmistakably American.
Huge areas of fertile land, abundant natural resources, and some of the
world's most advanced technology, marketing and transportation systems
combine to give the United States one of the highest living standards in
the world. Immigrants to America were dazzled by the space, opportunities,
freedoms and diversity of things around them. Their glowing letters sent
home spoke more of "you can get anything here!" than of the hard struggle
to get ahead in a new land and often with a new language.
Though a visitor to the U.S. may conclude that the country's staple foods
are hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries, washed down with soft drinks
and topped off with ice cream, a more careful examination reveals regional
as well as ethnic specialties.
The first generation of European immigrants had little time for Old World
traditions. Making a living, creating a home and raising a family were the
realities of everyday life. Food was whatever was available and affordable
to fill an empty stomach. But as they became established, the newcomers
found solace in grouping together in neighborhoods where the familiar
languages, customs, and compatriots gave them strength for whatever the
future might hold. It was good to share a glass of homemade wine, a pint
of beer, or a schnapps. It was comforting to smell the familiar scents of
cooking and baking and, even better, to drown a day's hard work in a homey
soup or familiar stew. Adapting available foods to familiar recipes helped
a little to make them feel at home.
But long before all the others, Aboriginal peoples, whose ancestors had
probably crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years before the European
had even heard of America, made their way southward in the great
continent, founding villages and developing languages and social systems
and adapting to the land in unique and often ingenious ways.
It was from the Indians that the earliest pioneers learned how to prepare
such staples as corn, tomatoes, squash, peanuts, pumpkin, tobacco,
turkeys, wild rice, pumpkins and squash, and even to tap wild maple trees
for sweet maple syrup. In order to avoid cooking on the sabbath, the
Puritans adopted the Indian clambake technique and used it to make
slow-simmered beans cooked in the Indian way (today called New England
baked beans) using a sealed bean pot buried overnight in a pit of embers.
In its modified version - slow-baked overnight in the oven - it is enjoyed
to this day.
As the pioneers settled into the land, they adapted the ethnic foods they
brought with them to the new and different produce that was so plentiful.
Ethnic foods melded into regional specialties, and although few writers
dare to define the exact borders of these regions, distinctive ways of
preparing, cooking, combining, seasoning, and even serving foods do exist.
Still another powerful influence came to America through the Atlantic
slave trade from West African countries to the New World. The West African
slaves adapted many New World foods to their own basic methods of frying,
stewing, and preparing sauces for enhancing simple food. They introduced
many flavorful, healthy varieties of greens to the European diet. They
added grilled meats, wrapped foods in cabbage leaves (instead of banana
leaves) for roasting in fires, and turned many of their own classic dishes
like rice and black-eyed peas into Southern traditions like Hoppin' John.
The use of a baffling array of peppers, spices, roots, tubers, and greens,
and the skillful metamorphosis of every part of the pig or chicken into
delectable morsels of food are all now imbedded not only in America's
cuisine, but also in the cuisines of many Caribbean countries and Brazil.