America: One Big, Tasty Bowl of Gumbo?

Gumbo Ya Ya Photo: Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance

We had a wonderful interview with Molly O’Neill and Dan Huntley on Friday, November 12. If you didn’t hear it, I hope you’ll check it out on the WFAE, Charlotte Talks archives–it was lively and full of great stories.  Molly is the author of a beautiful new book called, “One Big Table.”  It chronicles her ten year journey to collect the best family heirloom recipes that are still in use across the country. Dan is a local food expert (and BBQ maven) who is helping Molly stage some One Big Table farm events to promote the book both locally and in other regions (Molly did one just a few weeks ago Ellis Island–talk about the perfect venue!). One of the most important take-aways from the interview, from my perspective, is the huge influence of ethnic and immigrant recipes and food ingredients on the American table. Molly said that the old image of America as a melting pot might best be updated to, instead, a tossed salad. As a bread baker, I suggested we call it One Big Loaf. But, regardless of metaphors, the fact is that the recipes that people keep cooking are the ones that are passed down, generation to generation, sometimes tweaked and modified yet still, to a great extent, preserving the emotional connection to the original source.  This could be to a grandmother, great grandmother, or someone who stowed a few seeds in their socks when they arrived at Ellis Island and started a garden that has since become part of a family’s legacy.  
   As we approach Thanksgiving, I think it’s especially timely to focus on the historic pathways of the foods that we love to eat. This is America’s uniquely secular, non-denominational holiday, and our thank you gift back to the world, specifically dedicated to giving thanks not only for the gifts of the earth but also for those who came before us.  It could be said that the first Thanksgiving, the one in Plymouth, is the iconic example, the model, of the fusion of Old World and New. The Pilgrims brought their customs but the local Native Americans brought the food and showed them how to use it and, for a moment at least, everyone shared a kind of peace and harmony. Considering all the fear that is currently running rampant about immigrants flooding our shores (I’m not taking sides here, but who can blame them; even with all our problems this is still the best place in the world to live and to reach for a better life; and all of us, or at least most of us, came from immigrant stock ourselves), coming together at the table is the one place where we can find commonality in our diversity. Whether we live in a tossed salad culture, a melting pot, or one big loaf, there are times when it helps to reflect on how many immigrant influences we each do have in our lives, and how these influences show up most clearly on the table, in the meals that we share. Hey, maybe what we really are is not a tossed salad but one big, tasty gumbo–what do you think?

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