“I don’t want to hear the same Eurocentric stuff. I’m bored.”
June 18, 2020 7:41 AM   Subscribe

America has the largest immigrant population in the world and yet a Eurocentric view of what American food is remains pervasive. In the new Hulu food travel docuseries, "Taste the Nation", Padma Lakshmi challenges that perspective head-on, and explores how native and immigrant food shape American food.
"What is American food? That term typically brings to mind the image of hamburgers blanketed in melted cheese, hot dogs dressed in wavy tangles of ketchup and mustard, and fragrant apple pie sealed with a flaky crust. But in a country that has the largest immigrant population in the world, isn’t that a narrow view of what constitutes as American food? Are these the only things we are actually eating?"
In honour of Juneteenth, Hulu has released, subscription-free, the episode on Gullah Geechee history & cuisine directly to Youtube.

On having a woman-led food travel series in a genre dominated by men, Padma asserts:
"People often say, ‘Oh, you’re doing your thing like Bourdain... And I’m like, ‘Well, yes, I guess I’m traveling and eating. But it stops there.’ My point of view is infused with my life experience. And I am a woman, and that affects my point of view... “I’m a mother. That affects my point of view. I’m a woman of color living in a white society her whole life. That affects my point of view. I have been subjected to beauty standards that my male colleagues don’t even know what it’s like to be subjected to. That informs my POV."

Padma not only highlights immigrant cuisine from a culinary lens, but also in such a way that foregrounds the actual POV of the people and cultures behind the cuisine.
“You know, I was getting pissed off with everybody else trying to tell the immigrant experience except the immigrant, whether it was politicians or journalists or op-ed people... I wanted to know what life was like for them. I wanted them to tell us what they thought.”
posted by mayurasana (58 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this mayurasana. I've admired Padma Lakshmi for a long time, and am really glad she's able to work on something that's so obviously something she's passionate about.

She also just did an interview for LATimes Asian Enough podcast, where she goes in-depth about her upbringing and experiences.
posted by toastyk at 8:05 AM on June 18 [8 favorites]

I've lived overseas and one of the things I really missed was the ready availability of international cuisine that can be found even in the suburbs of most American cities. When I lived in Nagoya there was one place to get even halfway good tacos, and pad thai was something that I could not find anywhere, even in a city the size of Chicago.

I've found that when I get bored or sad about the restrictions we're following during the pandemic, I find a new thing to cook or food to try. I'm Cuban and there is not a lot of representation outside of Miami or New Jersey, so I've been turning a lot to food from other cultures outside of the US. I love that my medium-sized city has at least 100 ethnic grocery stores, almost all family owned. They were built to support the immigrants living here, but they are also an accessible view into other food cultures.

We recently found a tiny grocery store a few blocks from our house that sells only Ukrainian and Russian goods (their deli counter is tops). We're supposed to be in Japan right now, but can't go because of entry restrictions from the US. However, this store has freezers near the front filled with single serve ice cream treats, just like the 7-11 that is near the apartment we usually rent in Nikko. I'm thankful that we can have just one thing that we were supposed to this summer.

So, I'm really looking forward watching this series and learning about new foods to try and the traditions behind them.
posted by Alison at 8:11 AM on June 18 [16 favorites]

As someone who moved into a location that is actually tied to the Gullah Geechee culture and had no knowledge of it before, I'm all about learning more. Doubly so for cuisine information since one of the few downsides of our moves is a bit of a dearth of ethnic food establishments.

Thanks for the post on this topic.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:27 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]

Rabbit hole leads me to this as well... huh.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah-speaker in coastal Georgia. When asked why he has little to say during hearings of the court, he told a high school student that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech, as a young man, caused him to develop the habit of listening, rather than speaking, in public.[8] Thomas's English-speaking grandfather raised him after the age of six in Savannah.*
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:31 AM on June 18 [18 favorites]

Great premise for a show since all food in the US can be classified as either made by immigrants or native populations, so she'll have plenty of material. The origins of food is really interesting, especially how many different changes it goes through. Like, there's a chili made in Cincinnati that has cloves, cinnamon, and chocolate and then poured onto of spaghetti and garnished with cheddar cheese. It is suuuuper popular, and was originally invented by a Macedonian immigrant.
posted by Stargazey at 8:32 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]

(Gullah territory, St. Helena Island, is where Julie Dash's historical fresco Daughters of the Dust is set; recently Criterion started streaming the film for free, not sure that's still the case.)
posted by progosk at 8:32 AM on June 18 [10 favorites]

One of the first things anyone with in Europe with any idea at all about the US thinks when they hear 'US food' is 'diverse'. Nobody has thought 'burgers and dogs' for decades.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:49 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]

I'd totally think burgers and hot dogs. And fried chicken.
posted by alasdair at 8:56 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]

I'm really looking forward to this show. Padma Lakshmi is quite an impressive force. She seemed to be mostly a pretty face for the first few seasons of Top Chef but she really has come into her own and now really runs that show. And she has remarkable depth of knowledge about food and culture.

Another food show that's good on the theme of immigrant contributions to American food is No Passport Required starring Marcus Samuelsson. I particularly liked the Season 1 episode about Vietnamese influence on New Orleans food. Also Chicago and Mexican cuisine, also Detroit and Middle Eastern food. Great stuff.

(PS: heading this off... please avoid spoilers for the latest season of Top Chef. Thanks!)
posted by Nelson at 8:56 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]

From The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I think: Americans eat a lot more Chinese food than apple pie.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:05 AM on June 18

Nobody has thought 'burgers and dogs' for decades.

I'd totally think burgers and hot dogs. And fried chicken.

I think GallonofAlan meant nobody thinks "just" dogs and burgers. It's dogs, burgers, and tacos and chicken & waffles and chitlins and and bbq and General Tso's chicken and 20 other things. Restaurants that advertise "American" food basically mean "burgers + everything else." Places with menus so fat it makes a nice thick "thud" when dropped on the table. I think Lakshmi, though, is playing up the "beyond burgers and fries" angle to promote her show and make it sound more exciting.
posted by Stargazey at 10:05 AM on June 18

[Here to encourage folks to refrain from arguing about the definition of “American” food and focus more on allowing space for the actual content of the links. Lots of great discussion to be had around the topic of culinary history, influence and significance within native and immigrant communities.]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 10:26 AM on June 18 [22 favorites]

The Search for General Tso touches specifically on the influence of Chinese immigration on US food and the development of Chinese-American cuisine. It's very good.

Really glad to see a show challenging the idea that there is "normal" (i.e White) American food versus "not normal" food. It's all USAmerican food. Or maybe we should be calling what we call "American" food specifically "White-American" food and give it the hyphen we attach to other USAmerican cuisines.
posted by schroedinger at 10:32 AM on June 18 [5 favorites]

😂 I like how the comments centering their own interpretations of what "eurocentric" means continue to replicate the very structural issues that Lakshmi critiques when it comes to people not actually listening to the immigrants talking about their own immigrant experiences

Anyway, I look forward to checking out the show, especially the Gullah episode! Other than "Daughters of the Dust,"* my only other associations with Gullah culture is the show Gullah Gullah Island, which was good for what it was, but doesn't reflect the kind of contemporary perspective or details that Lakshmi's new show explores.

I haven't seen any Top Chef, but I did appreciate Lakshmi's guest stint on RPDR! It'll be great seeing her as the lead in this series. I recently finished "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" and loved seeing a woman of color helm a travel/cuisine series for once. And now it won't be just the once!

(*and yes, progosk, "Daughters of the Dust" is currently still streaming subscription-free on the Criterion Channel, as part of their feature on films centered on Black Lives)
posted by rather be jorting at 10:35 AM on June 18 [16 favorites]

I love that my medium-sized city has at least 100 ethnic grocery stores, almost all family owned. They were built to support the immigrants living here, but they are also an accessible view into other food cultures.

They are also absolutely great places to shop, as base ingredients for dishes can cost 25-50% less. I buy small cans of coconut milk to control how much goes into my curries. At one local asian market, I can get that can — the same brand from Thailand — for half of what Safeway/Whole Foods/QFC/Met Market charge. Same with bamboo shoots for stir-fries. Another market sells ginger the same way. I'll get a big knob of it that lasts a couple months for half the price. That's all beyond the fact that they offer fresh herbs and veggies that I'll never find in the big chain grocers, full of flavors and aromas. America looks down on immigrants, but we really make this country awesome in lots of ways.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:22 AM on June 18 [8 favorites]

A friend of mine who was a Marine reservist serving in the Middle East had a theory that part of what defines the next set of American food trends are the wars that it fights, and how returning veterans bring back a taste for things from where they were stationed, as well as how collaborators and sympathizers with an American force will eventually immigrate to the nation. He was pointing to the rise of thai food and vietnamese food in the 80s, and was predicting that the country would develop a taste for hummus, pita, bowl food, and falafel, which ... I could see how he draws those conclusions, but that still feels like it falls into "correlation is not causation" territory. Still, it's a theory that comes to me from time to time as a new trend emerges.
posted by bl1nk at 11:23 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]

I'd also +1 any effort to have Americans understand how fortune cookies, General Tso's chicken, chili con carne nachos, poke, sushi burritos, kalbi tacos, and sweet and sour pork are as distinctly American as pulled pork and fried chicken.
posted by bl1nk at 11:35 AM on June 18 [10 favorites]

America has the largest immigrant population in the world

Yeah like 350 million. Or are you not counting the children of immigrants?
posted by heatherlogan at 11:42 AM on June 18

This is really exciting! I think constructions of authenticity and racial identity through food are really interesting! The semester I took Intro to Asian American studies in college, it was framed through the lens of food, which I think was a very fresh way to approach things—there was still a little bit of the railroads and internment camps, but mostly it was about your less traveled stuff. I learned about how a significant amount of Dunkin Donuts franchise owners are Bengali for instance, in addition to your classic fortune cookie invention story.

This was one of our main reading sources and I recommend it if you’re interested in some companion reading.
posted by arabidopsis at 12:02 PM on June 18 [5 favorites]

America has the largest immigrant population in the world

Yeah like 350 million. Or are you not counting the children of immigrants?

I don't understand this comment so I was wondering if you could expand on what you meant? I am the child of an immigrant and do not consider myself an immigrant because I was born in the U.S. I feel like being considered an immigrant by nature of my parent being an immigrant would just make me feel even further "othered" as an POC in the U.S..
posted by primalux at 12:05 PM on June 18 [9 favorites]

Nelson: She seemed to be mostly a pretty face for the first few seasons of Top Chef but she really has come into her own and now really runs that show.

I hate to see Padma Lakshmi's previous experience cast aside because of her looks. She wasn't hired to "Top Chef" just because of her face; she published an award winning cookbook in 1999, previously hosted cooking shows, and had many years of experience exploring cuisine internationally. She also speaks Italian and Spanish (in addition to Tamil and Hindi) fluently -- speaking the language is a gateway to deepen one's appreciation and understanding of a culture and its food. She further deepened her knowledge through "Top Chef", yes, but after her years of experience (including "Top Chef", more books, etc), her clout is long overdue. I'm glad she finally has the opportunity, as a woman of colour and as an immigrant, to executive produce and host a show that focuses on two of her passions -- food and activism.

heatherlogan: America has the largest immigrant population in the world

Yeah like 350 million. Or are you not counting the children of immigrants?

I don't understand what you mean. Do you think that the children of immigrants are necessarily immigrants themselves? Sometimes that may be the case but not always. For example, one may have parents who are immigrants but they themself was born in the country their parents immigrated to. This is what I meant.
posted by mayurasana at 12:06 PM on June 18 [17 favorites]

Honestly I hate the “nation of immigrants” framing. It’s weird to equate colonization & genocide of an indigenous population with moving to an existing country to become part of it or as a way to achieve some kind of opportunity. Not to mention that we don’t typically consider victims of human trafficking “immigrants” to the country they are trafficked to, and Natives still exist on Turtle Island. It’s a way of sanitizing the history of how the white population of the US actually arrived here. And applying it in this context also smacks of the perpetual foreigner stereotype imo. If you and your descendants are always immigrants (and perhaps therefore not allowed to own land or entitled to birthright citizenship), then you’re not part of the “true” culture of the country. That’s extremely counter to the thesis of this show which is all about exploring how culture changes and adapts in diaspora as it is integrated into a larger context. Or as I understand it, not having seen the show in question yet.
posted by arabidopsis at 12:13 PM on June 18 [20 favorites]

I hate to see Padma Lakshmi's previous experience cast aside because of her looks.

Thank you for filling in some details on her expertise. I still don't know enough about her; my experience is to see her do some amazing thing (like speak fluent Italian on TV) and then look her up again on Wikipedia and learn yet more about her talents and skills. She's a remarkable person. I meant my comment as a compliment but it was unfortunately backhanded.

Looking forward to her new show.
posted by Nelson at 12:24 PM on June 18

Mayurasana, thanks for highlighting this! Looking forward to watching the Juneteenth episode especially.

Nelson, to clarify, to my mind, it's not a backhanded compliment. I don't think anyone would like to be known as "mostly a pretty face." It is not a compliment to be evaluated by ones looks only. It feels dismissive and old fashioned to say the least. I would suggest not evaluating folks on their looks or assuming they are just there for their looks. It's dismissive of women of color and other minoritized folks especially. And as Mayurasana pointed out, Padma Lakshmi had a ton of experience under her belt so your comment sounds very ignorant.
posted by jj's.mama at 1:14 PM on June 18 [9 favorites]

Here's a little summary of the episodes from the Hulu description:

1. Burritos at the border. Padma eats her way through a border city.
2. All American Wiener: How pretzels, hot dogs, and hamburgers are actually of German origin.
3. Don't mind if I dosa: Padma talks to people about how they hold onto their Indian culture and pass it on.
4. The Gullah Way: Padma visits South Carolina and how people there are preserving their West African heritage.
5. What is Chop Suey anyway?: Padma visits San Francisco to interview Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans.
6. Where the Kaboob is hot: Padma visists LA to taste Persian foods.
7. The Original Americans: Padma visits Arizona to speak to Native Americans and try their food.
8. Dancing in Little Lima: Padma goes to New Jersey to try Peruvian foods.
9. The Pad Thai Gamble: Padma goes to Las Vegas and interviews Thai immigrants, many of whom married American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
10. Zen and the Art of Poke: Padma goes to Hawaii and tastes Japanese food.
posted by Stargazey at 1:35 PM on June 18 [6 favorites]

Thanks for posting this, specially the YouTube link. I read about the show and was annoyed I can't see it here. Padma Lakshmi is such an interesting person, and I feel certain a show with her as the host will be very good.
posted by mumimor at 3:15 PM on June 18 [2 favorites]

I've long thought that of all the food cultures that have developed in the States, barbecue and the smoking of what were thought of as less desirable cuts of meat, in the style that it's done is probably the closest thing to "American" food in the way that, say "French" food conjures images of rich sauces, or "Italian" food brings to mind pasta. Obviously, all of those are reductionist images of rich food cultures that go far beyond those images.

That the background of barbecue has its roots in poverty and oppression seems to me to make it even more of an important part of American food culture. Seeing the episode list above, I guess I get it, barbecue is having (and has been having) its big cultural boom, and the other episodes look fascinating, but I would love to have a good in depth look at where our ideas of barbecue came from, and the circumstances that brought it about.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:27 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]

I don't understand this comment so I was wondering if you could expand on what you meant?

Immigrant can mean someone who is foreign-born, but when people say that (almost) all Americans are immigrants, they mean almost all Americans are not Native Americans.

the history of how the white population of the US actually arrived here.

I agree that "nation of immigrants" doesn't seem like the right word to apply when a lot of people didn't come here voluntarily, and original settlors didn't really ask for permission to be here. However, most European immigrants came here post Civil War.
posted by Stargazey at 5:12 PM on June 18

Respectfully, Stargazey, focusing on the number of immigrants from Europe before or after the civil war is a distraction. European colonists were plenty able to decimate and erase huge swaths of Native American culture well before the Civil War, the fact that more Europeans immigrated after that doesn’t discount that fact. It’s also quite simplistic to look at numbers and statistics in this way, as it relies on either an uninformed or willful ignorance of other factors, including the relative population of Europe at different stages in time, the history & demographics of different waves of European immigration, the racist restrictive immigration policies that were in effect at various points in American history before the 1960s, etcetera. It also distracts from the point. When Padma Lakshmi talks about the overwhelming way that food media coverage of American food assumes a white Eurocentric default, could anyone with an understanding of statistics argue that it accurately reflects the makeup of America?

The problem that the title quote refers to is less about the number of people of European descent in America and more about the overall effect of Eurocentric biases. So much of the way American cuisine is shown in the media and the way it’s discussed and perceived both in America and outside of it is so white European centered despite the fact that this does not accurately reflect the actual demographics, history, culture, and food in America. The discussion within this thread is reflective of this issue and shows how much this show and ones like it are needed.
posted by photoelectric at 7:55 PM on June 18 [7 favorites]

I've watched the Gullah Geechee episode, thank you for linking this!

For people who like a little preview of videos - The first third features culinary historian and chef Michael Twitty (who's familiar to many Mefites from previous posts) making red rice. Then a trip on the water with father-son crabbers the Smileys; then chef B.J. Dennis cooks crab boil and then they have a meal including discussion of the language with Jessica Berry; bits with GeecheeExperience who promote and celebrate the language and culture on social media; organic farmer and educator Sara Reynolds Green on teaching kids to grow food and history; her husband chef Bill Green of the Gullah Grub restaurant with shrimp gumbo thickened with okra.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:14 PM on June 18 [2 favorites]

Watched the first two eps of this tonight and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s definitely more thoughtful than many of the food travelogue shows I’m familiar with, and it’s nicely produced and edited too. Happy to see this.
posted by hijinx at 9:23 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]

I really look foward to this series, and I hope it is renewed for multiple seasons. There's infinite ground to cover and ignorance to combat. I am forever interested in seeing how a cuisine changes through (sometimes forced) migration, invasion, and environmental influences. As I learn more about diverse culinary histories, I want to learn more about the people involved and their stories, learn recipes, and cook more foods that are new to me.

I've learned a bit about the diet of people of African descent being, historically, largely vegetable-based from food justice activist Bryant Terry through his incredibly thoughtful and comprehensive cookbooks and talks. I greatly look forward to (finishing) watching the Gullah Geechee episode to add to my education and to widen my perspective. I'm also excited to watch the episode on Navajo in Phoenix AZ -- native and indigenous cooking and stories vary greatly across regions of North America; only one region is covered in the first season, so I really do hope we get to see more. These are the two episodes I look forward to the most -- how do people whose cultures and communities have been enslaved, ripped apart, or otherwise eradicated safeguard their cultural and culinary histories?

To see how and why descendants preserve aspects of their ancestral cuisine, and what is considered homecooking is very personal to me, too. There are tons of foods I grew up with in my family's Indian kitchen that you won't find in restaurants and if not continued on by my parents, many recipes would be lost to my family by now. Some are not a big deal; my parents' early yogurt cultures are certainly lost -- I think their current culture is less than 20 years old.

I caught glimpses of one of Madhur Jaffrey's cooking shows on tv when I was a child -- I didn't realize at the time how extraordinary it was to see a woman of colour host a cooking show, and to recognize similarities between what I ate and Jaffrey's food. My mom didn't follow her recipes or her show, but Jaffrey was visible to me, a very young Canadian PoC. Little did I know it then, but her representation was meaningful to me. (Jaffrey is featured in episode 3, "Don't Mind if I Dosa".) Lakshmi's show is meaningful, too, for many other people who don't see themselves and their culinary heritage represented as acceptable (to white people) as American food, and are told, often implicitly, that their food is somehow less than.

In the Thrillist interview, Lakshmi touches upon the sensorial nature of cooking and the repeated images of hands shown in the series:
"I can see whether something is done by touching it. I can smell whether something is ready. I can hear by the rhythm of how the mustard seeds pop in oil whether they’re going to burn. And so, to me, the hands represent the human experience and intention of a soul -- whether it’s dealing with food or anything else."
I love that she shared this unifying observation. I rarely time my food, even baked goods, when cooking, instead choosing to rely on my senses. My nose knows when baked goods are ready. My eyes and fingers know how much water to add to rice, grains, or beans. Sometimes I measure ingredients. Cooking either way is a love letter to my parents, grandmothers, and ancestors, and this is shared among so many culinary heritages.
posted by mayurasana at 9:59 PM on June 18 [10 favorites]

I've only seen the Gullah episode, but given that so many of the stories about food heritage and "food ways" are almost by default stories of women-as-heritage-keepers, it's interesting to see a striking woman (Tilly tries attempts the "wonderwoman" gambit) navigating a number of men now doing that keeping work. Considering Lakshmi's general framing of this show, it feels like this aspect, the shift of the gendering in food heritage, is something she's probably quite subtly/keenly aware of. (As an aside: the crabbing team is father and son, yet they don't share a surname - is that a matrilinear thing?)

Tilly's willingness to go with the imperfection of the red rice, and also his casual remark dismissing "authenticity" as reduceable to a recipe, instead showing the honouring of a culinary tradition being more about practicing it (with what ingredients you have to hand, "what you have in the house" as Dennis puts it later), are satisfying choices for a food show. (Caveat: I'm not a habitual watcher of these, so maybe it's just par for the course?) Also very timely: weaving in the impacts of climate change and injustice in the crabbing chapter.
posted by progosk at 2:18 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

Slight tangent, but...I get very irritable about this subject living in the UK. The "American" aisles in the local supermarkets are full of almost nothing but candy and marshmallows. (Meanwhile, I'd kill for some of the red beans and rice mix I picked up last time I went back, or some proper cocktail sauce.)

I once nearly shouted at a coworker in the pub after he said something like "Does America even have a cuisine?". I said something like "We're a three-thousand-fucking-mile-wide country with a rich and varied culinary history, [coworker's name]! We have several fucking cuisines, and I don't have to take this from the country that invented the chip butty!"

In my defense, I was about four pints in at this point. We still get along, but he doesn't bring up American food any more.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:10 AM on June 19 [9 favorites]

I've long thought that of all the food cultures that have developed in the States, barbecue and the smoking of what were thought of as less desirable cuts of meat, in the style that it's done is probably the closest thing to "American" food
Most the barbecue documentaries that you'll see on Netflix or PBS are more global explorations of meat and fire. (And while I get that American barbecue has its own distinct culture, I would bristle at any assertion that America somehow invented the idea of meat smoking) However the best work that I have seen that explores barbecue as a cultural institutions is Lolis Eric Elie's Smokestack Lightning, which is a travelogue of the Barbecue Belt and exploration of the history of the different regional styles, as well as, say, the Latinx origins of Texan barbacoa and how African Americans in the Great Migration brought barbecue to St Louis and Chicago and developed their own styles there.
posted by bl1nk at 4:20 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]

the Latinx origins of Texan barbacoa

Maybe this is just because I'm from Texas so I grew up immersed in Tex-Mex/Northern Mexican food (let's take this opportunity to remind/recognize that Mexico is also a large country with a varied regional cuisines as well!) but barbacoa was always in that category. Do people from other parts of the US without such a large population of Mexican immigrants think it wasn't?
posted by LizBoBiz at 5:02 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]

Just to echo what LizBoLiz says about Mexico, this is somewhat like saying that Eye-talian food is spaghetti and lousy beef meatballs and chicken parmigiana with tons of mediocre red sauce. USA has the most diverse cuisines on the planet. Go Padma!
posted by DJZouke at 5:53 AM on June 19

In New England, I definitely have known some folks who interpret "barbacoa" as some form of "insert American barbecue into Mexican taco" not unlike "insert Korean bulgogi into Mexican tacos" or "chicken satay + Mexican taco" and thought it was a concept akin to taking American barbecue and applying a Latin name to it rather than the other way around; which is definitely an annoying misconception to have to foodsplain.

I also took a bit of this morning to re-read Elie's historical theories on barbecue, and he puts forth an interesting argument of how the East/West variances on barbecue style could partially be explained by how coastal states specialized in raising hogs whereas Texas and other Western states focused on cows, but also how Western states barbecue largely evolved from Mexican barbacoa (and Cortez's records had early documentation of indigenous people cooking their meat by wrapping it in leaves, putting it over coals, and burying it) whereas coastal states trace more of their barbecue lineage to the open fire and structure smokehouse techniques brought over by Caribbean slaves; and what we see as regional variations are really the result of separate parallel cooking traditions meeting and merging.
posted by bl1nk at 6:01 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]

some proper cocktail sauce

This person who is ignorant of European store offerings is ready to be corrected but the basic and quintessential cocktail sauce, in my experience both at home in a coastal community and in southern seafood restaurants, is basically:

Ketchup (mandatory) + Horseradish (mandatory) + Lemon (optional) + Worcestershire Sauce (optional) + dash of Tobasaco sauce (optional)

Perhaps I'm wrong in assuming that there's availability of the first two (nay, three even, since lemons are ubiquitous in a metropolitan area of any size in Europe surely) or maybe y'all's Ketchup isn't suitable for some reason but that's a proper southern/US cocktail sauce right there and I wish you the best in enjoying it because it is a wonderful thing indeed.

A side note, the other two optional ingredients, being proprietary and less universal I'm sure, could probably be specially ordered and kept in the cabinet for this purpose alone and would basically last forever because it's just a tiny bit of each and the shelf life of each one is basically forever in a cabinet. Hell, Worcestershire sauce bottles, though I can't find a good image, used to say "Do Not Refrigerate" I think. Heck, I use a lot of Tobasco on almost anything (eggs, soup, rice, beans, fish, sauces, beverages, sandwiches, etc) and when I run out of the larger size bottle it is a notable occasion.

EDIT: Wait a sec, isn't Worcestershire sauce a British thing anyway?

posted by RolandOfEld at 8:10 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]

[Comment and a direct reply deleted. Stargazey, it’s time to leave this thread alone.]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 9:33 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

pressing the issue of who immigrated to the US when is a distraction from the topic.]

AND it is a typical what-about-ist silencing tactic when people bring up racism and colonialism, particularly in the US
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:36 PM on June 19 [4 favorites]

One of the techniques / dishes I most associate with American cooking is southern BBQ, which has a very immigrant basis.

It was originally German food, smoked meats. Upon the emancipation of the slaves, black farm workers used to do what farm workers do all over the world to this day: migrate around the country to where produce is in season and the landowners need help with the harvest.

Only, as they travelled through towns the restauranteurs didn't allow them in, but they discovered that the Germans (and presumably other similar Europeans) would sell them delicious meats cooked low & slow, which they could eat out of wrapped up newspapers.

This was a big boost for the pitmasters, who were no longer just cooking speciality food for their own ethnic community, and the cuisine took off.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:24 PM on June 19

isn't Worcestershire sauce a British thing anyway?

In a way. It was actually a British Raj thing, invented in India.

The idea was to give old India hands a taste of the spices they grew accustomed to on the subcontinent.

You wouldn't guess it today, so mild is it. But at the time it must have seemed very exotic and spicy.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:26 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

Padma Lakshmi Finds a New Voice, Amplifying the Voices of Others.
Though the format has its limits, each episode contains a full and often unexpected arc, with its own set of complications and contradictions. In the end, Ms. Lakshmi isn’t just the star of her own show. She’s chosen a far more powerful role: introducing her vast audience to a diverse constellation of voices.

The result is delicious, and makes for genuinely good television — producers greenlighting vapid, celebrity-filled food shows should take note.
posted by Nelson at 3:08 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

One of the techniques / dishes I most associate with American cooking is southern BBQ, which has a very immigrant basis.

It was originally German food, smoked meats.

I'm sure the German immigrants to Hong Kong invented char siu, as well, while passing through on their way to Indonesia to invent satay. Come on.

A lot of cultures have dishes involving smoky meat cooked over fire. (The oldest continuously operating barbecue restaurant in the USA is Katz's Deli -- pastrami is a beef brisket, rubbed with spices and cooked slowly with smoke.) In fact, one of the beginnings of culture was people getting together to smoke meat over fire.

The word barbecue itself comes from the Spanish recording of the Taino (Indigenous Caribbean) word as barbacoa; there's no Indigenous American food tradition with a longer recorded history. The grossest simplification of my understanding of the history of Southern US BBQ is it begins as Indigenous cooking traditions, which were then adopted by colonializing Europeans, then developed by their Black slaves. Here's a good long history.

I don't want to erase the role that German immigrants played in barbecue -- particularly in the Texas barbecue tradition, and double particularly in Texas' sausage making -- but it's bull to assign it to any one group, and if you did have to assign it to one, it wouldn't be Germans.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:26 PM on June 19 [13 favorites]

Haha, a link to my favourite BBQ recipe & technique site!

I think it was Anthony Bourdain who gave me the German angle.

It might have been less to do with the origins of the style, and more to do with the popularisation via the migrating emancipated slaves finding a convenient form of takeaway cooking that they could eat anywhere they could sit down out in the open.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:39 PM on June 19

I think it's customary to put a link into threads on the blue when they are discussed on the grey.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:25 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

I found out about this series because ELEMI is one of my local favs and they said on IG that they'd be in the first episode so, of course, El Chuco gotta represent and watch at least the first ep! I really liked it and was struck how beautiful my city looked through another's eyes.

I kept watching though because it was clear that Ms Lakshmi was endeavoring to explicitly and directly center and amplify marginalized voices and experiences. I find that exhilarating and inspiring! Which is exactly what good travel/food TV should do!

But, guys, if any of you ever come to El Paso, please don't go to H and H Car Wash. Not because the owner is a MAGA jerk but because the food isn't that great and I can think of at least 6 other classic El Paso diners, most owned and operated by WOC, that have much tastier food!
posted by blessedlyndie at 10:53 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

Germans did not invent smoked meat and that's a pretty absurd origin story. Indigenous Americans almost certainly smoked meat and fish to preserve it before Europeans ever got here.

I grew up in rural Southern CO, a region which is still staunchly within the Chile Verde belt. Is that immigrant cuisine? I'd argue that it's uniquely regional North American, and there's plenty of evidence that variants existed pre-Columbian exchange.

That said, my grandparents' best friends were a couple from two different regions of India, and my grandmother's Polish/German extraction combined with my grandpa's green thumb and the (I'm told) surprising diversity of the region (the city I was born in is among the most diverse smaller cities in the country), there was a hardcore exposure to "fusion" cooking that I don't believe had a name at the time. Chile Verde would often show up in surprising contexts - including Easter Brunches at the Mennonite church, where you might see e.g. Posole next to Jelabi depending on who showed up.

All that is just to say that I'm stoked about this show, stoked about getting into some of the other amazing, unique regional crossovers and weirdnesses that make "American" cuisine interesting.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:39 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]

PBS recently had a similar show focused on Southern cooking, Somewhere South. Hosted by Vivian Howard from the series A Chef's Life. Each episode has her traveling to a different area of the south and learning about indigenous and immigrant contributions to what we think of as "Southern food." She also has an episode about the Gullah Geechee folks, also one with the Lumbee tribe, and several Asian immigrant groups.
posted by dnash at 8:36 AM on June 21 [2 favorites]

Germans did not invent smoked meat and that's a pretty absurd origin story

I already clarified that it wasn't an origin story, but a story about the popularisation & spread of the style. Do I have to say it again? I just did.

Germans most certainly had a tradition of smoked meat, as did many other cultures. It's an age old technique that helps preserve it and little coincidence that so many cultures around the world made use of it. It can be, and almost certainly was in every case, discovered by accident as a byproduct of regular cooking over fire.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:02 AM on June 22

The beauty of the way this show focuses on a variety of perspectives, including but not limited to that of European immigrants, is that it can cover the way different subcultures and types of American food developed and spread. Barbeque from different cultures and regions in Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina etcetera are different, and the history of how those styles were popularized and spread is different, and instead of covering southern barbeque as if it was monolithic, "Taste of America" treats these styles as unique and focuses their episode on a specific culture and region. The episode about southern barbecue that was released in honor of Juneteenth is about the food and history of Gullah Geechee, which has such an profound place in American history.

Given that, even if it was unintended, the effect of repeated comments centering German Americans as the ones who came up with southern bbq and relegating black Americans to merely being the means for popularizing and spreading the food after eating it at German restaurants and pushing back against this informative comment by doubling down on that focus has the overall effect of seeming to only want to hear and discuss the Eurocentric parts of southern bbq.

Instead of generically simplifying American food or a given style of American food and then only focusing on the Eurocentric parts of that history, Padma and the show go more in depth, visiting specific cultures and regions, covering more of the history, letting us hear the voices of people from that culture, giving us a better sense of the beautiful range of food we eat across America. Trying to move past a solely Eurocentric focus does not by any means imply completely ignoring European American influence on American food. There is an episode of this show about the German-American origins of food like hot dogs and hamburgers.

Moving past a Eurocentric focus just means that we don't only limit ourselves to only having that perspective on food culture and history, and we are all enriched for it. For example, to follow up on the discussion in this thread, of the history of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, why stop at the British origins? There are so many jokes about the ubiquity of ketchup in American food, with the implication that it's boring and unimaginative - Top Chef Season 3 has an episode where the chefs are asked to update stereotypical American food and one of the chefs makes something boring, blobs some tomato sauce on it and dismissively says "I know you Americans like to put ketchup on everything." But ketchup is far from boring! The history of ketchup and the way it developed and changed each time a new culture learned about it tells a story. Ketchup came to America via the British, but if we go deeper and look at the etymology of the word, we can see that the English word "ketchup" comes from the Malay word "kecap", which reflects the fact that the British first came into contact with it in the Malay states. It used to have fish in it! From old cookbooks we can look at the prevalence of tomatoes and sugar in ketchup recipes in the US at different points of history and make links with folklore around our founding fathers and the changing American diet. Isn't it so much more fun and interesting to look at American food with this broader perspective instead of just limiting ourselves to such a narrow focus?

Thanks so much for making this FPP, mayurasana, and also thanks to everyone in this thread who's talked about the complexity of American food and this show and the amazing way it covers American food & cultural history.
posted by photoelectric at 4:33 AM on June 22 [14 favorites]

One of the techniques / dishes I most associate with American cooking is southern BBQ, which has a very immigrant basis.

It was originally German food, smoked meats. Upon the emancipation of the slaves, black farm workers used to do what farm workers do all over the world to this day: migrate around the country to where produce is in season and the landowners need help with the harvest.

Only, as they travelled through towns the restauranteurs didn't allow them in, but they discovered that the Germans (and presumably other similar Europeans) would sell them delicious meats cooked low & slow, which they could eat out of wrapped up newspapers.

This is an incredibly one-sided, POC erasing absurd depiction on the origins of American BBQ. My stomach is churning at how this is being depicted here - these poor freed slaves learning from their benevolent German benefactors the mystical magic of smoked meats that they had never seen or heard before. I don't want this comment deleted because I need to come back once in awhile and just marvel at how easily it is that people will try to erase POC from historical narratives.

A compilation of links, based off of two minutes of research:

Michael Twitty: Barbecue is an American tradition – of enslaved Africans and Native Americans

Texas Monthly: How Southern BBQ Got to Texas
Barbecue was a shared tradition among slaves, and unlike the distinct regional ‘cues we see today, the differences throughout the antebellum South only hinged on what type of wood and animal were available. So it’s no surprise that we’d see cooking methods that were cemented in the plantations of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas make their way into East Texas with the influx of slaves just before the Civil War.

Etymology of the word Barbecue

barbecue (n.)
1690s, "framework for grilling meat, fish, etc.," from American Spanish barbacoa, from Arawakan (Haiti) barbakoa "framework of sticks set upon posts," the raised wooden structure the West Indians used to either sleep on or cure meat. Sense of "outdoor feast of roasted meat or fish as a social entertainment" is from 1733;

Michael Twitty: Barbecue is an American tradition – of enslaved Africans and Native Americans
The common cultural narrative of barbecue, however, exclusively assigns its origins to Native Americans and Europeans; the very etymology of the word is said to derive from both Carib through Spanish (barbacoa – to roast over hot coals on a wooden framework) or from western European sources (barbe-a-queue in French – “head to tail” – which fits nicely with contemporary ideas of no-waste eating and consuming offal). Some American barbecue masters have taken to attributing the innovation of barbecue to their German and Czech ancestors.

....At best, our ancestors are seen as mindless cooking machines who prepared the meat under strict white supervision, if at all; at worst, barbecue was something done “for” the enslaved, as if they were being introduced to a novel treat.

posted by Karaage at 5:24 AM on June 22 [21 favorites]

Reviewing some of the earlier comments regarding German immigrants is pretty ironic given that episode 2 of the show literally focuses on the contributions of German immigrants to American cuisine via the aforementioned hot dogs and sausages, as well as beer, centered in Milwaukee, one of the major population hubs for German American immigrants and their descendants in the U.S.

Even more significantly, Padma talks with the 3rd and 4th generation descendants of those German immigrants about topics way more nuanced than merely who can get credit for what food influence - they have conversations about assimilation and loss of culture and the push and pull between fitting in and being erased. Instead of digging one's heels in regarding presumptions of German influence on Southern BBQ, why not take the time to learn about the actual research and education that went on in the show itself regarding the German Americans' actual contributions to American cuisine?

For example, I had no idea until this episode - despite studying German for multiple years in high school and university - that thousands of German Americans were also sent to internment camps during the World Wars, and that plenty of other German Americans had to make serious decisions regarding how much of their heritage they could even dare to participate and identify with, lest they get harmed for even just speaking German. "They had to assimilate in order to avoid being targeted." Sounds familiar! Eerily so. (Being Chinese American, especially during These Times, I can relate to the imperatives to assimilate, the concerns with being identified as the "wrong" kind of ___, etc...) Sure, as the episode notes, it helped that the Germans in the U.S. were predominantly white, but still - that didn't save them from the repercussions of being perceived and marked as Other, when the Other was the Enemy, even when they were white.

There's a lot in the show that resonates in its examination of immigration, the descendants of immigrants, and the ways food contributes to the interplay of how cultures are formed and also perceived within the overall umbrella of American cuisine and identity. When the episode addressed how assimilation for German Americans was also a necessity for their survival, it really brought home a layer of depth that I hadn't expected from a relatively "light" episode about a mostly white immigrant heritage, and it wasn't a hokey "And Now For Some Serious Times" segment either - just a matter of fact discussion about something that impacted the community and evolution of a culture that Padma was learning about.

And that's just one episode! Padma brings so much empathy and nuance and incredible knowledge of her own to the show, it's been utterly compelling viewing. She gets to some really in-depth and fascinating discussions with her interviewees in each episode, which I'll have to get more into in another comment. Really loving the show so far, even though it frequently makes me wish I could reach through the screen to get some (ok pretty much all) of the beautifully filmed food being discussed.

Anyway, great first FPP, mayurasana, and thanks for posting!
posted by rather be jorting at 10:36 AM on June 22 [11 favorites]

Looks like Padma is pretty busy with promotion of the show: She's on SF Chronicle's new podcast Extra Spicy and I just saved the latest Vulture profile on her by E. Alex Jung.
posted by toastyk at 12:29 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

Also you get to see inside the Weinermobile!
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:55 PM on June 22

Having the time to sit down and watch the free episode on YouTube just now (while sitting and vacuum packing the 7 odd kilograms of chorizo links I made yesterday), I was struck by the mention of how, after they could no longer exploit slave labor that made growing rice so profitable, plantation owners sold off their land. Rather than learn to do any actual work of their own, or pay fair wages, they closed up shop. It’s just one line in the episode, but it feels like it deserves its own spotlight.

As far as trying to whitewash the origins of barbecue in a thread about the ethnic origins of American cuisine, wow. As far as German roots, sure, I’ll give you the Texas hot links, and the presence of sausage in Texas barbecue, but making claims last that is ignoring, as has been pointed out, the roots of the term in barbacoa, or the radically different food history of German smoked meats (largely bacon and ham, and things that could be cured and set aside over months, with time and space to smoke for hours on end over the course of weeks) vs. the cuts that were seen as unwanted and needed hours of cooking to make palatable, or even the roots of our language (eating high off the hog as a description of the desirable cuts of pork, the loin, the tenderloin, the hams). This is not to downplay the role, in Texas barbecue, of German owned butcher shops, but when you’re talking about that, literally you’re talking about an entirely different animal (pork vs beef) and ignoring a vast history of the oppressed.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:19 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]

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