Cultural Awareness Through Food

When you arrive at even the smallest of towns in America, you will often be surprised at the restaurant choices that are available. Of course, you will not be surprised when you see a diner or a restaurant with a menu primarily consisting of comfort food. What may surprise you is the availability of Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants. American appetites (if not attitudes) have become quite international. How that came about is a tale of how we have evolved as a culture.

Mayukh Sen in his book Taste Makers explores how seven women immigrants helped expand the culinary experiences of most Americans. Chao Yang Buwei helped us discover the joys of stir fry. She was a doctor by training but gave up her profession to come to America with her husband. She turned to cooking to overcome her boredom. A friend convinced her to write a cookbook featuring Chinese dishes. Her book wasn’t the first Chinese cookbook, but she refused to Americanize Chinese cooking.

Elena Zelayeta opened a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco during the Great Depression. She was born in Mexico but came to America at a young age. She was employed in illegal arms trading but lost her job. She became enthusiastic about cooking for her American husband. Her husband soon turned their living room into a restaurant. Her husband became insecure about her success and she kicked him out of their home when she found out about his affairs. Two months from giving birth to her second child, she learned she was going blind. After a bout with depression, Elena’s career took off. She wrote several cookbooks. She taught cooking classes and opened a frozen food business. In the process, she helped all of us enjoy Mexican cuisine.

Marcella (Polini) Hazan was seven years old when she suffered a serious injury requiring multiple surgeries. The result of the surgeries was that her hand never fully recovered. Marcella was not comfortable in the kitchen at the time. When she married and moved to America, she was appalled by American appetites, especially the fondness for ketchup. She discovered cooking talents she never knew she had. She started holding Italian cooking classes in her kitchen. She came to the attention of Craig Claiborne, the food editor of the New York Times and that led to a cookbook contract. The rest of the story is manifested in Americans’ love of Italian food.

These three women and the others: Madeleine Kamman (French), Julie Sahni (Indian), Najmieh Batmanglij (Iranian), and Norma Shirley (Jamaican) have changed American tastes. More importantly, they have added an appreciation of the value of international cultural experiences.

Each of these stories also represents personal struggles and a resilience that has benefitted America in general and most of us. Hidden heroes often use personal difficulties to spark their ability to benefit society.

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            “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” –  Julia Child

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