How Immigration Around The World Has Changed Our Food

immigration food

As a child, holidays often meant eating a mash-up of foods cooked with the hope of staying connected to our heritage. My grandmother, born in Britain, met my grandfather, a first-generation Italian American, while he was stationed in her hometown and immigrated her to the United States, just like his parents had done as children.

It was easy to trace certain recipes — the biscuits, pasta, and biscotti — back to their roots. The funny thing about eating with my family, however, was that by the time I came along, everything had transformed into these recipes that were as heavily influenced by American cuisine as they were by my family’s immigrant past. We made traditional Italian wedding cookies each Christmas right alongside chocolate chip cookies sliced from a plastic-wrapped tube. We ate eggplant, breaded and fried, but smothered it in a red sauce made with ground hamburger.

Foodways refers to how food, culture, and history are all wrapped up in each other. If my family’s holiday meals told the story of two cultures transplanted into a brand new world, then it is easy to wonder what stories other dishes have to tell. Here’s how immigration around the world has changed the way we eat here in the United States.

What is “American” food?

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First things, first. Before we can talk about how immigrants changed our food, we have to be honest about American food.

Even though we typically think of burgers, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese as quintessential, American foods, the truth is that it is pretty much impossible to define since most of America is a melting pot of immigrant culture. We’d have to go way, way back to get a clear idea of what the original Americans ate.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, the rest of the world was introduced to the staple foods of Native Americans.

As pointed out by The Journal of Ethnic Foods, the indigenous peoples of North America had a very nutritious diet full of foods much of the world wasn’t using in their everyday cuisine. Among their everyday cuisine were beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and even maple syrup. Some of these foods or varieties of these foods were new to the rest of the world.

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The indigenous people of the Americas relied heavily on foods native to the regions where they lived, but made changes over time.

By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, the Native Americans had been patiently cultivating produce for quite some time. Not only were they planting and harvesting foods that were native to their region, but they were also making improvements. This was done through practices of selecting seeds from the best plants to be replanted the following year, along with some hybridization.

The Columbian Exchange and Global Cuisine

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Columbus came for the spices, but created global changes to cuisines with Native American staples.

The new immigrants, Columbus and his crew, didn’t just adopt Native American staples as part of their diet — they began trading them around the world. Soon, peppers would become a part of cuisines that had never used peppers before, like Vietnamese pho and Indian curries. It is hard to imagine Italian food without tomatoes, but it wasn’t until the Columbian Exchange that they became an essential part of their cuisine.

There has been a lot of good that resulted from the Columbian Exchange, but there was some bad, too.

By now, most Americans understand that Columbus and his presence in the Americas was awful for so many innocent people. This included the practice of trading native produce all over the world. All of this trading meant that it wasn’t just food being moved all over the world — pathogens and bacteria were traveling too. The Washington Post points out how 80% of Native Americans were killed by Old World diseases.

The Slave Trade and African Cuisine in America

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Africans weren’t immigrants. They were violently taken from their home country during the slave trade.

Africans heavily influenced American cuisine as they clung to a culture they were taken from against their will. As pointed out by The National Geographic, the red pea is native to Africa, and was brought here during the slave trade and planted by slaves. From this pea, Hoppin’ John was made, which is a dish made of peas and rice.

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Even though okra is often thought of as traditional, southern food, this vegetable is native to Africa.

According to Food Reference, okra was likely first grown in Ethiopia. In addition to eating the pod cooked, seeds were often ground to be used in place of coffee. Like the red pea, okra became a part of American cuisine only after it was brought here during the slave trade. Now, it makes a regular appearance in southern dishes like gumbo.

Immigration During the 19th Century

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Between 1815 and 1865, European immigrants began making their way to the United States.

Many of the immigrants during this time were from Ireland. Irish immigrants were driven to the United States by famine. Today, we think of corned beef and cabbage as a traditional Irish meal, but it’s actually an Americanized version of a dish that is traditional Irish food — bacon and cabbage.

The Irish Pub is a fixture of Irish culture and community.

In Ireland, the pub is a gathering place for drinking and visiting with family and friends. In the United States, the Irish Pub became a way to hold on to the culture they left behind and connect with their new support system: other Irish Americans. According to The New York Times, pubs really took off in the mid-1800s and immigrants from Ireland would make a pub one of their first stops. It wasn’t just beer sold there, either — pubs also operated as banks, grocery stores, and lodging.

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German families were drawn to the United States by the prospect of owning a farm in the midwest.

During the mid-1800s, Germans were another large group of immigrants who made their way to the United States. Many of these families wanted to buy farms and found themselves in the midwest in locations like Milwaukee. It is estimated that as many as 5 million Germans immigrated to the States during this time.

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German dining heavily relied on potatoes, but introduced some creative, new foods to American cuisine.

While German food is accurately thought of as including a lot of potatoes, this isn’t their only contribution to American food. They also introduced sauerkraut, a fermented food made from cabbage. German frankfurters were the first “hot dogs” of the United States. Who sold the first hot dog in a bun is heavily debated, with credit going to either a German immigrant who owned a pushcart or a German baker.

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The promise of wealth drove Chinese immigrants to San Francisco in the 19th century.

As many Americans were heading west for the Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants made their journey here for the same reason. A lot of immigrants at this time were living as farmers, struggling to get by, in China at the time. The hope was that, by moving here, they would become wealthy and could return to China to share the wealth.

Chinese restaurants stood out as a shining example of hospitality.

According to Time, Americans weren’t great at the restaurant thing in the 1800s. The establishments weren’t clean and they just weren’t really taking off. When Chinese immigrants arrived, they brought a long history of hospitality with them. Their communities became well-known for clean, inexpensive, and good food.

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Despite racist pushback from Americans, Chinese dining thrived.

Compared to European immigrants during this particular point in American history, the Chinese faced excessive criticism and racism. Food was often at the center of this criticism, with the media suggesting they ate rats. New immigrants from China were banned in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, but Chinese dining was already a part of American culture.

Chop Suey was a new favorite among young Americans in the early 1900s, but it isn’t exactly Chinese.

We were amused to learn that one of the most popular “Chinese” dishes was Chop Suey, which wasn’t served at all in China. Instead, this was just a new dish created for Chinese immigrants, specifically for American diners made from a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

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Chinese dining was heavily influenced by American preference into the 1970s, when a new interest in their culture was ignited.

In the 1970s, a presidential visit to China seemed to increase interest in authentic Chinese cuisine. At this time, Chinese restaurants experienced another major boom. Today, there are more Chinese restaurants, with varying authenticity of course, than there are more popular fast food restaurants in the United States.

Immigration from 1880 to the 1920s.

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In the late 19th century, regulation of immigration changes from a state responsibility to a federal process with Ellis Island as the official immigration station.

During this time, the United States experienced a new wave of European immigrants. Many Italians made their way to Ellis Island during this time, along with an estimated 2 million Jews escaping religious persecution between 1880 and 1920. In 1907 alone, 1.3 million people made legal entry into the United States.

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Italian American cuisine changed rapidly as immigrants assimilated to America.

Most of the new immigrants from Italy came from regions struggling in poverty. Their diets were nothing like what we associate with Italian cooking today. They ate a lot of home-grown vegetables and a lot of grains, with little access to meat and no red sauce. Being in America meant access to meat and adjusting to what was available in grocery stores.

While Italian food was heavily influenced by their new, American home, it was a response to what was available, and it wasn’t all bad.

When we think of a culture of food being changed when immigrants arrive in a new place, this is often a negative experience of a group of people trying to assimilate in a world that is pushing back against their culture. This wasn’t entirely the case with the changes to Italian cuisine — instead, First We Feast points out that some of these changes were in celebration of access to large portions of meat for the first time.

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Garlic was criticized at first, but Italian food went mainstream in the mid-1900s.

At first, Americans were pretty closed-minded about garlic and other traditional Italian flavors. With time, it became more widely accepted and celebrated in the mainstream. In 1938, Chef Boyardee was founded with an Italian American immigrant. Later in this century, red sauce would become a popular part of Italian American eating.

Latinx Immigration

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An early influx of Latinx American citizens wasn’t because of immigration, but because of the Mexican-American War.

In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, the United States gained 55% of Mexican territory. Many Latinxs remained in the United States at this time, and discrimination and violence against this population began. Immigration from Central America began to increase as companies, like Southern Pacific Railroad, illegally recruited contract workers as cheap labor.

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Close proximity to their home country gave Mexican Americans access to favorite ingredients.

Unlike many other immigrants, Latinx immigrants were able to hang on to a lot of their food culture with access to ingredients grown in Central America. Mexican groceries were fairly common in areas of the United States that had large populations of Latinxs.

America was introduced to a whole world of cooking with meat, spices, and root vegetables.

Mexican cooking relied heavily on spicy peppers and chilies, along with meat. The tortilla was eaten with meat, plain, or filled with cheese. The salsa we eat today is just one example of the many different kinds of spicy sauces used in traditional Mexican cooking. Beans, prepared mashed and fried, were introduced to American culture as well.

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Despite decades of discrimination and anti-immigration sentiment, Mexican food is well-loved.

The unfortunate dynamic in America is that many have embraced Mexican food more than they have embraced the people of Central America. Today, anti-immigration sentiment is still widespread, but salsa outsold ketchup in 2013. Tortillas are sold in larger quantities than hot dog buns. Rice, a staple of Latinx cooking is now a popular side dish in the United States.

Do you know the history of the food you eat? How has your heritage influenced American diets?

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