American Beauty, Time For Change
“Did you vote for Obama?” the fish seller asked me. “American? Obama?” a complete stranger asked Shel in the street. “Is America ready to elect a black President?” a dinner guest asked.
The French papers and magazines are full of stories about the US elections. Some are neutral, but as far as I can tell, most take a position, and that position is pro-Obama. France’s attention, and I imagine the world’s attention, has been completely captured by Obama’s story, the most American of stories.
It’s happened several times recently that we’ve been invited to dinner somewhere, and asked to bring a dish that’s “typically American.” These requests drive me mad, because, after all, what’s typically American? A couple of years ago I had a column published on this subject in a Seattle-area community paper. I’m reproducing some of it here, because my thinking hasn’t changed much since then.
“I don’t spend a lot of time in the frozen food aisle of our local market. It’s cold there, and I prefer to cook from scratch. But one Tuesday something exceptional took place right next to the frozen organic vegetables.
It began simply. I’d attended the dedication service for the Japanese-American internment memorial on Bainbridge Island. A photographer for the local paper had captured me in a group shot of people looking solemn, and Rick Nakata, guardian of the frozen food aisle, whose own family had been interned in the camps, had seen the picture.
“Why did you go?” he asked me.
“Because I care,” I replied, more than a little taken aback.
“Really? But you’re not Japanese!”
How funny. It’s quite true that I’m not Japanese, but then, neither is he. We’re both Americans, born in the US of immigrant ancestors. Did he think only Japanese Americans cared? Couldn’t it easily have been my own family being interned, my paternal grandparents, who had only left the old country because they were Jewish?
My universe shifted slightly. Always before Rick and I had discussed frozen apple strudel, malfunctioning freezers, special orders, just regular grocery stuff like that. But now here we were, surrounded by food, only knowing each other because of food, and touching on some of the biggest topics of our time. Who’s an American? What do Americans think and feel? And, because food is always on my mind, of course I was wondering about what American food is.
Everyone who has friends or family in the old country, whatever country that is, has undoubtedly had experiences like this one. An original Italian recipe calls for one clove of garlic to be lightly warmed in olive oil, and then removed. All it’s supposed to be doing is delicately flavoring the oil, and heaven forbid you should actually bite into it. In the US we chop a handful of garlic into the same oil, and leave it there, because we want the zing of finding that garlic in every bite. That’s how we do it in America, but it gives Italian cooks fits. It’s “their” recipe, but we take liberties, change it to suit ourselves, act like we weren’t properly brought up and don’t understand tradition.
Do we even have a unique tradition? At the market, I put edamame, Thai fish sauce, kasha, green chiles, pomegranate molasses, and other less exotic items into my cart. I make traditional dishes – Eastern European, Asian, Syrian, and Mexican. But when I look into my basket what I see is American food. After all, having grown up in San Francisco I was in my twenties before I learned that all kids didn’t eat wonton, gnocchi, tempura, and tamales. It’s all American food to me.
What I think is really great about “American food” is the way it keeps expanding to absorb more and more of the world’s exciting flavors and ingredients. As it is with our food, so it goes with the rest of our culture: the definition of what’s American has lots of room for growth, and a steady rate of change.”
Back to France. The fish seller, who’s Algerian by origin, after he’d surprised me by asking me how I’d cast my ballot, went on to say something interesting. He said “if America elects Obama the entire world is going to change, once we all see that America wants to change, and when the world feels the effects of that change.” A smart guy, that poissonier.
Today is another Tuesday where the universe as we know it can shift. It’s our shining opportunity to show the world what it means to be American, to be able to break with the past, to follow a new path, to do things in a way that’s worthy of our pioneering heritage. President Barack Obama, now doesn’t that have a deliciously American ring to it?