American cuisine is a veritable smorgasbord of international cuisines. The word smorgasbord itself is Swedish, and refers to a particular kind of buffet (from the French), where food is laid out for diners to serve themselves. The traditional Scandinavian smorgasbord offers a variety of pickled and smoked fishes (think herring, gravlax), hot and cold meats (Swedish meatballs, anyone?), cheeses, salads and relishes. But the word smorgasbord has come to mean “a heterogeneous mixture” – like the population of the United States, which includes people from all over the world – and their food.
Where else would you find an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet but in America? Buffet the noun refers to both self-service dining and the piece of furniture on which such a meal is served, also known as a sideboard. Buffet the verb is what happens when pushy diners elbow their way in front of you in the buffet line. More commonly, people are buffeted by wind or waves, but the word is often used metaphorically to describe swift and contrary changes, as in the current whirlwind of attempted changes to US immigration policy. One day, people suspected of being Muslim are turned away at the border, regardless of citizenship or documentation; the next day, US courts put a stop to the illegal policy.
Without immigrants from the Middle East, regardless of their religion, we wouldn’t have hummus, falafel, pita, kebabs, yogurt, feta, pistachios, figs, dates or pomegranates, to name just a few ingredients and menu items that have become staples of the American diet.
Pasta & Noodles
Without immigrants, we also wouldn’t have pasta, which came to the United States from Italy, and to Italy from China, where noodles have been a dietary mainstay for centuries, if not millennia. Think lo mein, wanton, rice thread noodles. Noodles have also come directly to the US with immigrants from other Asian countries: Japanese udon, soba and ramen; Korean glass noodles; and cellophane noodles from Vietnam. These are just a few kinds of noodles from which a myriad of delicious dishes can be made, from soup to supper.
The American Smorgasbord
What is for supper, anyway? Tortilla soup and chicken enchiladas? Maybe fajitas? Or Red beans and rice?
Can’t be bothered to cook? Eat sushi!
Need portable food to eat on the go? Try a burrito, knish, samosa, egg roll or wrap.
Without immigrants from Central America, we wouldn’t have tortilla, let alone tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole or nachos. And without these foods, what would Americans eat during the Superbowl?
Personally, I like to try foods from places I’m unlikely to visit. That’s how I’ve come to scoop up Ethiopian doro wat (chicken stew) with injera (a sourdough flatbread made from fermented teff).
Even the food that we think of American came here with people fleeing famine (corned beef and cabbage), and religious persecution (bagels), looking for work (lasagna), and a better life: sausages from all over, dumplings of all kinds, hundreds of kinds of pastries, stews, soups, and special foods for special occasions, including that culinary contribution to American cuisine brought by those earliest of undocumented foreigners to land on these shores: Apple Pie.
To receive an Essay Every Wednesday by email, please subscribe.