The United States and the food melting pot

The United States and the food melting pot

September 13, 2018

The United States and the food melting pot

How many food traditions meet in the United States? The presence of different ethnic groups, climates and local products generates a cultural wealth with great potential in terms of food sustainability and nutritional choices.

What is the national dish of the United States? When it comes to traditional foods, an Italian, French, German, Greek, Chinese or Japanese dish may easily come to mind, probably due to the globalization that has brought restaurants serving national specialties to all major cities. And what about the United States? Some foods have become real American icons, such as the hamburger, but since the USA is the world's greatest cultural melting pot, it can be very difficult to define real American food and its essential characteristics: an unusual situation, which also impacts the environmental sustainability of the American diet and the relationship between food and nutrition.

Cultural food: one country, many cuisines

The United States are the result of hundreds of migratory waves of people who arrived in the New World over time. They are the world's greatest melting pot. The term was first used in 1908, when British dramatist Israel Zangwill, of Russian Jewish ancestry, wrote the play of the same name, The Melting Pot. And since cultural food is of great importance to people's identity, cultural differences are closely reflected in (and, in fact, are the cause of) the diversity of cuisine to be found on American tables. 

According to the US Census Bureau, more than a third of residents in the USA (more than 100 million people) belong to a minority. Hispanics are the largest group (more than 15 per cent of the population), followed by Afro-Americans and Asians. 

In 2050, according to the Bureau's estimates, all the minorities added together will constitute the majority, accounting for 54 per cent of the population of the United States. The Hispanics will triple and the Asians double in number. 

The various groups often vary quite markedly in language, culture, religion, education and, of course, diet, and this factor has considerable impact on food sustainability and nutritional choices. Given such wealth, it should not be difficult to find a way of contaminating the various food cultures with each other, in search of a sustainable diet and thus a balance which is better for the planet and also better for health.

From Asia to Africa, by way of the Mediterranean

What is the relationship between food and nutrition in the different parts of the world? What is the relationship between food and health? The Hispanic population, for example, eat large amounts of carbohydrates (which experts also believe to be the origin of the obesity epidemic causing concerns for the health of people of South American origin), and especially corn and rice. They eat plenty of plant proteins, such as beans, but their meat consumption is also high, with the risk of excessive protein intake. Some diets, such as the Mexican diet, are particularly rich in fats since they include a lot of fried foods. However, they also include vegetables: fruit and vegetables are included in the composition of dishes, which, all the same, may be lacking in leaf vegetables.

The US Census Bureau's definition of Asian includes people of widely varying origin, from Vietnam to China, India, Pakistan and Japan. Each Asian country has its own cultural food and its own cooking methods, but many of them involve only rapid heating of ingredients, which conserves the nutrients in foods intact. Another factor common to all these countries is the use of only small quantities of milk and dairy products. In most Asian cultures, the main source of protein is meat (pork, poultry) and fish. The basic carbohydrate is rice, but there are also plenty of fruit and vegetables (except in Japanese cuisine).

In the traditional Chinese diet, about 80 per cent of the calories come from grains, pulses and vegetables, and 20 per cent from animal proteins, fruit and fats. Consumption of soybeans and their derivatives, such as tofu, is high. In some cases, the Chinese diet may be deficient in calcium. 

Although they belong to the same sociological category, Asians of Indian and Pakistani origin have a completely different diet, very rich in vegetables and often actually vegetarian or vegan. The Chinese and Filipinos, some Indians, Laotians and Vietnamese eat rice, fish and vegetables.

In view of the long period of time which has passed since their forced deportation, the Afro-American population conserve virtually no traces of their original diet, but in many colored communities there is still a relationship between food and culture, with references to the traditional cuisines of the South (in which the African influence is still strong), rich in puses, beans, rice, potatoes and vegetables such as green beans, leaf vegetables and squash. The calorie count may be increased by the cooking method (frying is often used) and the addition of tasty but oily sauces and dips.

Both the two main versions of European cuisine have reached the United States: the Mediterranean diet, brought by Greeks, Italians and Turks, and that of northern and eastern Europe, which arrived first with the Pilgrim Fathers (many of whom were of German and Dutch origin) followed by the great Russian and Jewish immigrations (mainly from Russia, Germany and Poland). 

A matter of geography

With their traditional dishes, all these cuisines have helped to create the "American cuisine", which is really a melting-pot of traditions, partly affected by the local availability of farm produce, game and fish.

Therefore, the food system is important, considering that the United States' more than 9 thousand square kilometers of land includes different climates, meaning the raw materials produced also vary widely. 

In the North-East, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the cool climate and the sea provide large amounts of fish: lobster from Maine and Massachusetts and shellfish from throughout New England. The mild autumn weather is ideal for growing the apples and squash that adorn every home at Thanksgiving. 

The Midwest is known for its cheese (that of Wisconsin is particularly famous) and husbandry in general (especially buffalo). California makes wine that is exported worldwide and Hawaii supplies a rich assortment of highly prized exotic fruit. 

But the relationship between food and territory is not only the outcome of the weather: the different concentrations of the various ethnic groups also play a fundamental role. The fried chicken and sweet potatoes of the South derive from the historic presence of Afro-Americans in the area. The Creole and Cajun cuisine of Louisiana and Florida is influenced by the Spanish and French rule of the past. The ever-present hot dogs and hamburgers are of German origin, and the large Jewish community in New York led to the use of beef, instead of pork, sausages in hot dogs. Tex-Mex cuisine jointly celebrates the Texan and Mexican traditions, in a triumph of melted cheese, beans, corn nachos and avocado guacamole. 

Last but not least, the American First Nations originated the most famous of all American cooking methods: the barbecue derives directly from their culinary tradition. According to etymologists, the word comes from “barabicu”, which translates as "sacred fire pit", an excellent description of a grill placed over a pit dug into the ground.

Cultural foods and food systems will be amongst the topics to be discussed on 28 September 2018 in New York, during the BCFN Foundation International Forum on Food and Nutrition. An opportunity to discuss the implications of food sustainability in terms of the well-being of people and the planet.

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