Steak vs. Fried goat udders – which one is “ethnic”?
What is ethnic food? Is it anything foreign? America prides itself on its cultural diversity. This melting pot of…well, melting pots, is home to almost every type of cuisine on the planet. Yet how is it that we have a limited ideal of “American” foods as burgers, pizzas and hot dogs. Or maybe for the more liberal, American food is anything that is fatty, salty or too sweet.
The term “ethnic food” is ambiguous. We tend to have a good idea of the foods on either polar extremes of the line. Despite the cultural origins on many of our favorite foods, some of them are unabashedly American now—French fries, steak, and apple pie come to mind. On the other side, foods associated with exotic locales like Thai or Ethiopian are pretty clearly ethnic. Problems occur on the line as America assimilates more and more into its mainstream cuisine. Do people consider Italian food ethnic? Maybe if you were eating sweet corn agnolotti, but spaghetti with meat sauce is about as American as it gets.
More perplexing is whether soul food is considered “ethnic.” Some aspects of soul food are reflexively American like mac ‘n’ cheese or fried chicken, but what about chitterlings and pigs’ feet? Classifying soul food faces the uncomfortable question of whether being American means being white. But for many Americans, especially away from the Deep South, soul food is just as foreign as pad thai.
What about food that is undoubtedly white but just never made it big in America? Polish pierogi are just rare enough to be ethnic, but kielbasas are as common as tailgate parties. Would you therefore say that Polish food is ethnic?
Of course there are also those who describe ethnic when they really mean authentic. And by authentic, they mean non-Americanized. I could take a friend out for Chinese food and depending on what we ordered, you could say it was both ethnic and not. Sweet and sour pork, eggrolls, and chow mein just don’t seem that foreign for most of America these days. Tacos might bring to mind images of haciendas and senoritas, but burritos resonate with gas station microwaves and Taco Bells.
More likely, we associate American food to cooking styles. Barbecue is an American institution. Grilling, also very American. We tend to like fire, and lots of it. And of course, only in American will you find deep fried Coke and KFC Double Downs.
Or is it something inherent in the culture of the food that makes it American. Do we associate ourselves with cowboy independence and self-subsistence? Maybe we identify ourselves as the big beef eaters, preferably wrapped in bacon. Unfortunately, for some, being American is about being bigoted and self-righteous, in which case, “Hello, Freedom Fries!”