Salad Bowl or Melting Pot, regardless which expression conjures up images for you, the basis for both is alimental. Yes they refer to us, the citizens of this country, the settlers, the immigrants, the refugees and those born to them, the last five hundred or so years of assimilation and dissimilation. Comparing us to a Salad Bowl indicates that even as we are mixed, the individual ingredients are still identifiable, in other words in the same way you can pick out the onions or tomatoes in your salad, you can tell when you’re in Korea town, or in Little Italy even as they are both located in an American city.
A Melting Pot would be more appropriate in comparing a blending which is less distinguishable such as Rice-a-Roni, the combinations of rice and pasta introduced by an Armenian family, or a Hamburger or Hot Dog, brought to America by German immigrants and appropriated as American food.
Of course the blending refers to more than food but I leave that part for another story. Here I’m concerned with cultural identity.
What is the first thing that immigrants look for when coming to America? Food of course, but not just any food, the food of their homeland, the food that their mothers made, the tastes of home. This association makes us feel less foreign and more accepted. It’s the human need to belong. Food also makes us proud of our heritage. When a food we grew up with across the oceans makes its appearance in America, we feel a connection.
First sought after are the staples such as bread. When we first arrived in Dallas in 1965, the only breads available came in a plastic bag from the grocery store. While at first we were fascinated and intrigued, we quickly reverted to our desire for the freshly baked chewy and crusty bread of our past. Luckily we were not alone as many other immigrants had similar cravings. A few small bakeries appeared trying their hands at the art of bread baking. As demand grew fresh bread became available even in grocery stores While the best bread has only three ingredients: flour, water and salt, baking bread is one of the hardest processes to perfect. The variables are almost uncontrollable. The right oven temperature, the perfect blend and grind of flours, the humidity, the kneading and proofing are all steps where things could go wrong especially when baking in large batches. As many bakers who have tried can attest, baking bread is a trade, baking good bread is an art form. Although today bread is widely available, the art of baking has become illusive. To cover up for inadequacies bakeries have resorted to flavorings and additions. Cheese breads, olive breads, fruit and nut breads while all enticing and acceptable are far removed from the simplicity of the original. They have sadly become complete meals or desserts.
When a French style bakery entered the arena claiming that they imported an authentic brick oven and secret recipes we were very exited. While better than previous selections, it still did not live up to our expectations. Oh yes, expectation: that illusive something based in memory. That was the missing ingredient and one that could not be filled. No imported brick oven or secret recipe would live up to nostalgia. It was not only about the bread, but the aroma permeating the air as we approached the bakery, a shabby little hole in the wall where the baker and his wife had been up for hours lovingly practicing their art form, where you were recognized and greeted by name, where you didn’t have to point out that you preferred a darker loaf and where your business was appreciated. Immigrants trying to duplicate that feeling of home bring with them the foods of their ancestors and thus enrich our lives with the one connection we humans have to one another that causes minimal friction: food.