Immigration is a fraught issue in the United States, as it now is throughout much of the world. Opponents of immigration want to barricade the borders. Supporters consider the problem from the immigrants’ perspective—their right to a better life—or from the point of view of American employers, who contend that we need immigrant labor to keep the economy running efficiently. But the crucial element missing from this public discussion is an acknowledgement of the cultural contribution of immigrants, which is something quite apart from their labor. I’m thinking right now about food.
An important component of cultural diversity is culinary variety, which has helped to create the rich American food culture we enjoy today. We need only acknowledge the mainstreaming of bagels, gyros, tacos, and sushi to recognize how we have embraced these once-foreign foods that are now part of the American culinary vernacular. Unlike the rigid codification of classical French cuisine, or the long history of aristocratic Chinese dishes, American culinary culture has been openly enriched by successive waves of newcomers without losing its identity. Some critics claim that this state of affairs means that there is, in effect, no true American cuisine. I see it differently—that the glory of American cuisine lies in its regional and ethnic diversity, its openness to experimentation and change. And that’s where the immigrant populations come in. We need to celebrate the diversity they bring, which would be lost if we closed our borders. Simply put, immigrants keep American culture from going stale.
A recent visit to Toronto reminded me of the importance of immigration in promoting culinary vitality. Cloistered in a hotel conference room for hours on end, I endured five grueling days of meetings, the only escape being our blissfully free evenings when we could explore the city and eat. Toronto boasts large immigrant populations from all over the world, and the city’s restaurants reflect its various communities, including African, Asian, Caribbean, European, Latin, Middle Eastern, North American, and South Asian. The first night I enjoyed six different kinds of northern Chinese dumplings at the hole-in-the-wall Mother’s Dumplings, including shredded pork and radish wrapped in delicate corn flour dough and pork with pickled cabbage in whole-wheat wrappers. The next night, at Vanipha Lanna, I savored food from Thailand’s Lanna region, where many Laotians have settled: sweet sticky rice and laab gai of minced grilled chicken flavored with herbs and a chili-lime dressing. At the Middle Eastern Tabule I indulged in labni several ways: as an appetizer mixed with garlic, za’atar, and olive oil, served with tender loaves of fresh pita, and as a shimmering custard for dessert, mixed with sugar and a little cornstarch, then flavored with rose water and sprinkled with pistachios. South Indian, Hong Kong Chinese, and New Canadian meals rounded out my stay. In spite of all the work, I returned from my trip energized by the vigor of the restaurant scene.
It’s a commonplace that food keeps traditions alive. What we perhaps think about less often is the way in which food also communicates outward, beyond one’s home and community, to bring others in. Much has been written (not least in these pages) about the dangers of culinary tourism, in which well-heeled diners move from food culture to food culture in a sort of culinary competition, boasting about their latest great food finds but missing the essence of the culture that underlies the food. We need to guard against this attitude even as we make sure to patronize these restaurants and recognize how much they contribute to our lives. Even without a perfect understanding of a nation’s culture, we come a step closer to it by visiting its restaurants. The best of them cause us to reflect beyond our habits and enable us to partake in a shared table that transcends the boundaries of our own comfortable (and comforting) foods. And even the worst of them expands us.
It’s no surprise that the us cities best known for their food (New York, San Francisco, Chicago) are all cities of immigrants. Along with new ingredients, immigrants bring new sensibilities, which eventually percolate onto the larger American palate. Unfamiliar food habits become part of the ongoing revolution in American eating as they’re put to new and exciting use by innovative chefs. This is one of the important ways in which cuisine evolves.
So in our debates about immigration, let’s not forget that the immigrants contribute more than just labor to our national economy. Their presence both literally and figuratively enriches our lives. We would be much poorer without them.