Today is Independence Day. Like all holidays (or holy days), it arrives with a ceremonial requirement for what to eat. Hot dogs are called for, usually on stale white buns, and various kinds of pie, but especially apple. Corn shows up. Hamburgers too. You know the drill.
But are these really American foods? Not really: apple pie is English, and hot dogs German. Corn was cultivated by Mesoamericans long before the founding fathers were born — or Christopher Columbus for that matter. Hamburgers are American, but too recent to deserve formal veneration. So what does American food mean? Does it exist? Is it worth celebrating? I say it is.
The U.S. is a country defined by abundance and endless possibilities. It was conceived as a futurist utopia, and saw itself as having a cosmic claim to virgin land and endless phalanxes of beef animals darkening the boundless plain. Ultimately, this futurist utopia was impossible because every day new people, new ideas, new ethnicities, all with their own weird ways of eating, entered into it, hogging resources and obstinately refusing to stop being who they were. That was, and is, America’s glory and its curse. Our politics have not always been democratic, but our foodways have. For over three centuries, we have eaten ravenously, copiously, outrageously, irrationally, and often. In southern inns, on groaning boards filled with ham, veal, mutton, corn pudding, biscuits, sausages, and pies; in slave quarters and Choctaw villages, sofky (Indian polenta) and field peas and stewed innards simmered endlessly; in northern cities, in opulent restaurants with waiters bearing turtle soup and canvasback ducks and roasted lobsters and oysters cascading endlessly; in the west, where rivers teemed with trout, and the forests with deer and doves and wild turkeys and hare; in Chicago stock houses and Kansas wheat fields and the cranberry bogs and blackberry brambles of New England, and their fluted, crusted, ornate pies. It all was dropped into the great melting pot, along with anything else that came along, from empanadas to sushi. And it was eaten.
It is this arching, expansive omnivorous spirit that America has always had, and which has never failed it. Progressive prigs who want everyone to eat raw food and artisanal sandwiches don’t understand that they are just one of many competing foodways; their panini may go into the pot, but so will Pop-Tarts and tweezer food and tortas. American food is polyglot and problematic, multivaried, confused, stained with a thousand national sins. But it is our own. And we should be proud of it. I have celebrated the hamburger as one of our great gifts to the world, but so is Sriracha sauce. Most people think of it as a Vietnamese condiment, but it, too, was invented here in America, with the goal of marketing it to a diverse population and getting rich along the way.
That is why the melting pot works as American metaphor. It entered our lexicon in 1908 when Israel Zangwill, a British Jew of Russian descent brought to the U.S. stage his wildly idealistic, romantic play, “The Melting Pot.” Its protagonist at one point says of America, “There she lies, the great Melting Pot — listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points east] — the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething!”
America continues to seethe and stir. It never settles; the differences are never effaced; there is too much heat underneath it, and too many feeder streams, all with their own hot sauce recipes and insatiable desire for combo meals served with ice-cold sodas. And the resulting mixture continues to change the way the rest of the world eats, year after year. Food, more than a vague and ambiguous democracy, may yet be the truest expression of who we are, and why we, as a country, matter.