The Times They Are A’Changin
In her book, We Are What We Eat, Donna R. Gabaccia, a Professor of History at the University of Minnesota writes, “the American penchant to experiment with foods, to combine and mix the foods of many cultural traditions into blended gumbos or stews, and to create “smorgasbords” is scarcely new but is rather a recurring theme in our history as eaters”.1 Gabaccia recognizes that America is and has always been a nation of immigrants and a nation of multicultural eaters. Our history is rife with stories of imported tastes from foreign lands, most notably Europe. Consider the bagel from Eastern Europe, pizza from Italy and even apple pie, which as it turns out is from England.2 If you are really curious about apple pie, check out this 14th century English recipe for how to make “Tartys in Applis”.3
My point is simple, American is not and has never been a homogenous nation–neither in our ethnic makeup nor our foodways. Of course, America’s ethnic population today looks much different than it did a hundred years ago–we are more diverse than ever before in our history. This interactive map, published in the New York Times in 2009 is an excellent visualization of this diversity. Most notably, America’s immigrant population began to dramatically increase during the 1970’s. This dramatic increase coincided with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the exclusion of Asian and African immigrants from the U.S. and opened the door for millions of Latin American immigrants. This chart, from the Migration Policy Institute shows the number of immigrants and immigrants as percentage of the U.S. population from 1850 to 2011–it clearly shows an increase since 1970 in both the absolute number of immigrants and immigrants as a percentage of the population.
Minnesota is not unlike the rest of the United States. In the past 20 years, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities in particular, have undergone an ethnic transformation (MNCompass.org’s population trends page is a excellent resource for visualizing this transformation). According the Minneapolis Foundation, “during the 1990’s the state’s foreign-born population increased by over 130% compared to a 57% nationwide increase over the same period”.4 Further, they argue that Minnesota’s immigrant population is unusually diverse: “Between 1982 and 2008 over one million immigrants representing 182 nations passed through Minnesota, seeking either temporary or permanent homes. Approximately one-third have remained in our state”.5 A key contributor to Minnesota’s ethnic diversity is its status as a designated refugee resettlement area and the number of refugee resettlement agencies that work in the state, including The Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service, The Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society and The Church World Service. In 2011, approximately 10% of Twin Cities residents were foreign born, with Asian immigrants making up about 40% of that population but Mexican, Laotian and East African immigrants representing the largest immigrant communities by country of origin.
More importantly, according to the Minneapolis Foundation, “Immigrant-owned businesses in Minnesota employ approximately 21,000 workers and generate sales and receipts of $2.2 billion”.6 What all of these numbers mean is that with the steady increase in immigrant population since the 1970’s, America’s ethnic food scene has exploded with restaurants and grocery stores which cater to immigrants and Americans alike. According to Iowa State University’s Agricultural Marketing Research Center, “sales of U.S. ethnic foods, including fresh produce, are estimated to reach $2.7 billion in 2015.” While it is nearly impossible to count the number of ethnic food establishments currently open in the Twin Cities it is clear from a simple drive around the city that global cuisine is abundant. From University Avenue in St. Paul and the newly created Little Mekong District to Lake Street’s Mercado Central and Cedar-Riverside’s Blue Nile Restaurant, there is plenty of ethnic food to eat in this city.
Who and what is behind all of these fact and figures, and what do these numbers say about the Twin Cities, Minnesota and the United States? Is America’s willingness to embrace diversity a sign of changing times or unique American cultural characteristic evolved from our history? For Gabaccia, the answer lies in the pure pleasure of food:
“in a bountiful society where fears of cultural difference nevertheless persist, food remains the least controversial, the most typical and reliable, and the cheapest of all the ways to find pleasure in life. Millions of ordinary Americans–not just robber barons, bohemians, or yuppies–have chosen its enjoyments, and with it culinary pluralism and gustatory cosmopolitanism. As eaters, Americans have long embraced identities that are rooted in interactions and affiliations with other Americans of widely diverse backgrounds. The foods we eat commemorate a long history of peaceful cultural interaction; our multi-ethnic eating daily proclaims our satisfied sense of affiliation with one another. The marketplace, and its consumer culture, may be a slim thread on which to build cross-cultural understanding. But given the depth of American fears about cultural diversity, it is better to have that thread than not.”7
1Gabaccia, Donna R. 1998. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press.
2Smith, Andrew F., ed. 2004. Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. New York, NY:Oxford University Press.
3Stafford, Edward Lord. 1390. The Forme of Cury, a Roll of Ancient English Cookery.
4Greg Owen, Jessica Meyerson, and Christa Otteson. 2010. A New Age of Immigrants: Making Immigration Work for Minnesota. Saint Paul, MN:Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
5Greg Owen, Jessica Meyerson, and Christa Otteson. 2010. A New Age of Immigrants: Making Immigration Work for Minnesota. Saint Paul, MN:Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
6Greg Owen, Jessica Meyerson, and Christa Otteson. 2010. A New Age of Immigrants: Making Immigration Work for Minnesota. Saint Paul, MN:Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
7Gabaccia, Donna R. 1998. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press.