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In the Mood for American

Ari Appel

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What is American cuisine? Hamburgers, apple pie and barbecue are distinctly American. But many other foods that Americans eat, we do not call American. Pizza, for example, is Italian, despite being widely eaten in the US, and prepared differently than it is in Italy.

When it comes to food in general, the label of “American” is used less than would be accurate. We keep referring to foods by their origin even after they have become part of our culture. The term “American food” is not as commonly mentioned in American English as either “Chinese food,” “Mexican food,” or “Italian food,” while in Italian, the term cibo italiano, Italian food, is mentioned much more than cibo americano and cibo francese. Compared to Italy, America does not readily acknowledge that its own cuisine exists. It sounds natural to hear, “let’s get Thai,” but not “let’s get American.” That sounds like a call to do a patriotic dance. To me, it even feels weird that people in other countries say, “let’s go out for American food.”

At first glance, it seems that American cuisine is so hard to pin down because immigrants have brought various culinary backgrounds to the United States. As they have integrated into American society, they have retained their own cuisines, not leaving much to be distinctly American. In the cases where immigrants’ cuisines became Americanized, there has not been a clear point to start calling them American, so these foods also have eluded the label of American. This makes sense, but it only explains what’s not American, not what is.

One thing or another must be American, because the term “American” does exist. To figure out what is American, we first need to know who is American, because all food and culture is made by people. So, who is American? There are two ways to answer this question. One: all citizens of the US are American, and equally so, regardless of their origins. America is a land of immigrants, heterogeneous from the very beginning. Two: some citizens are more American than others, depending upon how much they have assimilated into mainstream culture. My guess is that most Whitman students would agree upon the first option. Although it presents a more hopeful perspective, Americanism is not that simple.

As a nationality, Americanism has certain norms, and the people who conform to these norms are seen as more American than those who do not. The fact that “more American” makes sense as a phrase is evidence of this way of thinking. If all citizens were equally American, no one in America could be “more American” than anyone else. The reality is that we consider some parts of our culture more American than others all the time. Hamburgers and apple pie are American, but not pad Thai and pizza, even when cooked by American citizens. Americanism isn’t actually an amorphous blob of all the cultures within America; the label “American” refers to a specific culture, and doesn’t apply to everything produced by American citizens equally.

The two conceptions of America––that all citizens are equally American, and that Americanism is a specific culture––somehow manage to coexist. Despite an apparent contradiction, immigrants can become complete citizens, though their cultures and foods cannot become completely American. Similarly, religious tolerance is held high, but our official national motto is “In God We Trust.” This is possible because the ideals of diversity, acceptance, and democracy hide the dominance of the monolithic American culture. In other words, the American ideal of heterogeneity makes it seem as though America has no established cultural norms, while in reality, America does have a mainstream culture that it expects everyone to conform to. But because America is said to be heterogeneous, it seems as if all cultures are encapsulated within it.

This connects back to the idea of American cuisine. The many foreign cuisines within America are not defined as American versions of those cuisines, but simply as foreign. In this way, American cuisine is not recognized on its own; instead, it is seen as an amalgam of foreign cuisines, heterogeneous. In the same way that American culture seems to encapsulate all other cultures, American cuisine seems to encapsulate all other cuisines. Because of this, American norms (culinary and otherwise) seem like they are applicable to all kinds of people, as if Americanism were inherent to human nature. This is a sign of an imperialistic national attitude. When we say that American cuisine borrows a little bit from everywhere, we may actually be saying, “we can call whatever we want ours.” But America is not imperialistic in a straightforward way: it does not transparently call foods from other cultures “American.” Instead, America acts like a distinct American cuisine hardly exists, and pretends that its own versions of Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Thai food are not actually American. In reality, the monolithic, apple-pie-and-hamburgers American taste pervades these foods. America avoids being defined by the distinct identity of this taste in order to justify imperialism. The claim that America’s actions are the articulation of the will of humanity as a whole is much more believable with the pretext that the American culture is heterogeneous and somehow embodies all cultures.

Heterogeneity serves as a guise for imperialism, but America’s boundaries are not truly loose, and not everyone is actually welcome. Only a narrow and inflexible identity from each different culture is accepted within the “all-encompassing” American culture. America makes exceptions to the rule of fairness and diversity for those who do not accept the hegemony. They are not accepted because they threaten to dismantle the monolithic American culture which wants to dominate the world.

The models of “melting pot” and “salad bowl” are sometimes used to portray heterogeneity in America. The melting pot suggests that America is made of many different cultures that inter-assimilate, and the salad bowl suggests that America allows these different cultures to retain unique elements as they integrate. From my experience, Whitman tends to favor the salad bowl because it appears to be more respectful. By avoiding assimilation, it shows that different groups can maintain their own cultures within the US. Whether or not this is possible, this model neglects the fact that America is always tugging the cultures within it toward a specific set of norms. If America were truly a free-flowing mix of other cultures, reshaped by every passing generation and wave of immigration, we would not sing songs and preach documents from more than two-hundred years ago. America simply wants us to think that nothing in particular is American so that it can dominate the world without being seen.

The lens of the melting pot and the salad bowl support the vision of America as nothing in particular, undefinable, made up entirely of other cultures. This allows America to disappear into its constituents while it is propagating its own hegemonic ideology. After all, the final goal of world domination is to convince the world you don’t exist. The idea of American cuisine has already been hidden. One day, when the American way has permeated the globe down to its most secluded corner, America will become totally invisible, because there will be nothing else.

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Whitman news since 1896
In the Mood for American