I always felt food was magical with abilities to transport us in space and time, much like good books. Food can make us feel connected to both identity and difference. I spent last week exploring and eating the Lower East Side of NYC and I have magically traveled the globe: french pastries, Italian pasta and gelato, Jewish latkes and matzo soup, Srilankan Kutto, Morrocan tagine and bastilla, Chinese dumplings and spicy cumin lamb ripped noodles, Vietnamese Banhmi sandwiches, Indian samosas, etc. Of all these places, I have only physically been to Paris. What a privilege to have access to the world through my tastebuds! To quite literally consume, internalize, appreciate, enjoy other tastes. Yes, yes, I know it is not the same as going to these places and eating the dishes in their native environments. But, these tastings are certainly strong enticements to travel beyond our personal tastes and comfort zones. A closed mouth may easily represent a closed mind. And, certainly my tastes of the world were to a more or less degree — Americanized versions of the culturally original or AUTHENTIC. I struggle with the valorization of authenticity (a bit of Heideggerian baggage). As you know, I label my recipes on this blog as inauthentic because I hesitant to claim a cultural purity, Bengali, Bangladeshi, Southern, Muslim, Hoosier or otherwise. Who determines what is authentic? Does Americanized automatically mean inauthentic? What does Americanized mean? These are questions raised at the Tenement Tastings Tour that celebrates American immigrant history. As with all experiences of taste, you will have to taste for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Here is a brief account of my experience.
After a tour of a Jewish immigrant tenement apartment on 97 Orchard, we sat down together around a big table. Our guide talked us through each dish, the local restaurant it came from and how each item represents a people.
Our tour began with German tastes of soft pretzels and potato salad. It is hard for us relatively “new ethnic arrivals” to imagine Europeans as having been once considered, ‘other.’ During the Temperance movement, German bars were a specific target of legislation. Much of the political organization talked about in the shop keepers tour of the Tenement museum involved the collective resistance of the business owners.
Pickled cucumbers and pineapples represented Jewish immigrants.
Cured meats and olives were offered as representations of Italian immigrants.
Cotija cheese with guava jelly, sweet plantains, and Cuban sandwiches represented Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants.
Chinese immigrants were represented by vegetable dumplings and peanut noodles.
Our dessert plate included Hong Kong egg custard cups, German pretzels – chocolate dipped and halwa. Multiple histories on a plate. Now American.
What would I add to this tour as a representation of South Asian immigration? Samosas?
One needs to be aware of the danger of stereotyping food as well as people. How we separate or put it all these tastes together help us rise above the differences and enjoy our common humanity through shared pleasures of taste, find resonances and distinctions. Much like, Dominican restaurants that sell Chinese food or American diner offerings. For me, inviting unfamiliar spices and tastes primes me to invite otherness into my life and maybe be a little less afraid. Food makes me want to visit, meet and reach out to unfamiliar cultures. Thailand and Morroco are high on my travel wish list. If what we eat defines us, I want to eat everything, as much as possible and responsible, as much as a hungry philosopher.
Now back to Indiana where my global food adventures continue in my kitchen.
Wishing you the privilege of an open palate,