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We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans

by Donna R. Gabaccia

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622313,567 (3.67)None
Ghulam Bombaywala sells bagels in Houston. Demetrios dishes up pizza in Connecticut. The Wangs serve tacos in Los Angeles. How ethnicity has influenced American eating habits--and thus, the make-up and direction of the American cultural mainstream--is the story told in We Are What We Eat. It is a complex tale of ethnic mingling and borrowing, of entrepreneurship and connoisseurship, of food as a social and political symbol and weapon--and a thoroughly entertaining history of our culinary tradition of multiculturalism. The story of successive generations of Americans experimenting with their new neighbors' foods highlights the marketplace as an important arena for defining and expressing ethnic identities and relationships. We Are What We Eat follows the fortunes of dozens of enterprising immigrant cooks and grocers, street hawkers and restaurateurs who have cultivated and changed the tastes of native-born Americans from the seventeenth century to the present. It also tells of the mass corporate production of foods like spaghetti, bagels, corn chips, and salsa, obliterating their ethnic identities. The book draws a surprisingly peaceful picture of American ethnic relations, in which "Americanized" foods like Spaghetti-Os happily coexist with painstakingly pure ethnic dishes and creative hybrids. Donna Gabaccia invites us to consider: If we are what we eat, who are we? Americans' multi-ethnic eating is a constant reminder of how widespread, and mutually enjoyable, ethnic interaction has sometimes been in the United States. Amid our wrangling over immigration and tribal differences, it reveals that on a basic level, in the way we sustain life and seek pleasure, we are all multicultural.… (more)

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Gabaccia compares the food cultures of immigrant Italians, Irish, and Eastern European Jews, offering rich insights into each, as well as valuable comparisons. I have used this book numerous times in undergraduate food history courses--students are fascinated to learn that their own food has a history. Highly recommended! ( )
  waterloom | Oct 12, 2009 |
I picked up this book in hope of mitigating the intensity of reading back-to-back some very tenacious literature and historical fiction. It was a miscalculation. We Are What We Eat, though interesting in the premise, is nothing but a harangue of facts and data. Some cheese were 80 cents to $1.60 a pound. Some 60,000 people in the industry in 1910 produced some 50 million gallons of wine in California. Nationwide, consumers of inexpensive meals spend $29 million in small mom-and-pop restaurants and $23 billion in fast food chains. New Yorkers tend to patronize less on fast food because family values are emphasized more. The facts go on and on.
The book is a tantalizing (well, it really tires) treatise that examines the evolution and identity of our nation through the ethnically diverse food/cuisines Americans intake from colonial periods to the present. The account begins with the "first Americans", namely the first peoples on the continent: the Native Americans, European-Americans, and African Americans. The subgroups of the European Americans formed some of the major food manufacturers and grocery chains that influentially set the so-called American eating-habits (often too ashamed to be known as American cuisine). From there, the book is a tale of mixing and borrowing and intermingling within the recipes and tastes of different cultural groups, between entrepreneurship and connoisseurship.

The book certainly aims higher than it actually manages. While the author substantially focuses on the origins and thus the fortunes of the enterprising immigrant cooks and grocers, the book fails to discuss and pinpoint the crossing between food and culture. Such deficiency is especially salient in the chapter titled "Nouvelle Creole", in which the Asian influence of dining was mentioned in passing over two pages. The establishment of Benihana (which I do not consider an authentic Japanese restaurant) was mentioned and nothing specific from Chinese cooking was discussed at all. And what about Malaysian cuisine that shaped the dining industry in New York? And the Puerto Rican?

The bottomline of the book is really the acceptance or rejection of ethnic foods in America, instead of an objective, fine-balanced, and compendious account on the impact food has on the American culture. While the book discusses in gush details some of the major (especially the well-known ones from the East Coast) food products and brand names that shape the national identity, it completely ignores the minority cuisines and tastes. ( )
  mattviews | Feb 28, 2006 |
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