Foodways

Definition: Foods preferred by immigrant groups, together with the circumstances under which they are produced, cooked, and consumed

Significance: What people eat, when, and with whom—their “foodways”—are largely determined by their cultures. As circumstances allowed, immigrant groups brought their food preferences and eating customs with them to the United States, allowing them to maintain a sense of identity and cohesion.

What Americans think of as “their” food is an amalgam of numerous culinary traditions. Particular foodstuffs, recipes, methods of preparation, and styles of presentation have been contributed to the mixture by dozens of ethnic groups, but few of the “ways” survived intact. Interactions with a new environment and with an alien and often hostile culture produced a synthesis of old and new, a synthesis that changed as one generation replaced another.

Until relations turned antagonistic, Native Americans aided European settlers on the East Coast of North America and traded with them. Although European immigrants had found a landscape and climate somewhat similar to their own, they survived in large part thanks to the three major crops that the Native Americans shared with them—squash, beans, and corn.

English, Dutch, and Irish Immigrants

The English and the Dutch were the most important ethnic groups to settle along the eastern coast of what would become the United States, with the former eventually attaining political dominance. The first English settlers were males drawn from social classes with little experience of hunting, fishing, or cooking. Although much of their food did not survive the sea journeys, they brought cattle, swine, poultry, and honeybees with them and introduced wheat, barley, rye, and fruit trees.

The diet of New Englanders was plain, featuring cod and corned (preserved) beef. Popular dishes included succotash (a mixture of beans and corn) and baked beans prepared with salt pork and maple syrup. The English also learned from Native Americans to combine lobsters, shellfish, and vegetables in communal clambakes. They drank beer, often brewed from corn, and cider made from apples and pears. In time, rum made from West Indian sugarcane and tea from China became popular. As women joined the settlements, they were expected to take over the cooking, most of which was done over open fires.

English settlers in the warmer southern colonies enjoyed a richer diet than those in the north, eating more pork than beef and in some cases adopting the foods eaten by their slaves.Wealthy landowners also depended upon slaves and servants to prepare their food, often in buildings separate from the living quarters. Like the residents ofNewYork (but unlike those of New England), southerners celebrated Christmas as a day of feasting and merrymaking.

Although they too relied on corn, Dutch settlers in New Netherland (part of which would become the English territory of New York) raised a wider range of fruits and vegetables than the English and ate richer foods. One distinctive dish was hutespot, salt beef or pork cooked with root vegetables and added to corn porridge. The Dutch also had a greater preference for cakes and cookies.

A wave of poverty-stricken Irish immigrants began to appear in the United States during the 1840’s, driven by a blight that destroyed their principal food crop, potatoes. Although they too spoke English and were assimilated relatively quickly, these immigrants brought a cuisine less elaborate than that of the English. The dish that many people think of as particularly Irish, corned beef and cabbage, is an elaboration of a much plainer everyday dish. Alcohol played an important role in Irish culture, and, for Irish males at least, taverns fulfilled many of the same social purposes that eating establishments played among other groups.

A reflection of the growing popularity of diverse immigrant foods
A reflection of the growing popularity of diverse immigrant foods, this West Coast restaurant chain offers noodle dishes prepared with recipes based on American, Italian, Cuban, Thai, and other Asian cuisines. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Central, Eastern, and Northern European Immigrants

Germans were the most numerous ethnic group migrating to the United States during the nineteenth century. Most settled in the Midwest, with many of them growing their own food and raising dairy cattle. German Americans cooked potato dishes and introduced such foods as sauerkraut and frankfurters. Those settling in the nation’s growing towns and cities often opened delicatessens, which have since become a fixture of urban American life. Bakeries and breweries were important, as was the consumption of beer in communal settings such as beer gardens.Atypical link with the home country was Oktoberfest, a beer festival originally held in Munich but copied in German communities around the world. Poles and other eastern Europeans brought foodways that resembled those of the Germans, preferring sauerkraut, noodle dishes, and pierogi (dumplings filled with potatoes, cheese, and cabbage).

Many Jews settling in the United States were central or eastern European, and their foodways drew upon national traditions as well as Jewish religious tenets. Because Orthodox Jews observe strict dietary laws, avoiding pork for example, most Jewish immigrants settled where religiously sanctioned kosher foods were available. Thus, Jewish marketplaces became the culinary and cultural centers of Jewish communities, offering fruits and vegetables, fish, and the meat of animals slaughtered according to religious law. The women of the house prepared deboned fish with egg, onion, and flour, called gefilte fish, served on Sunday mornings.

Many delicatessens were run by Jews and specialized in kosher food, one of the first being that established by H. Schulz in Brooklyn in 1882. Such “delis” proved popular with non-Jews as well, and they sprang up in many communities, large and small. In time, the kosher food trade grew so large that dozens of Yiddish-language periodicals devoted to it were established, including Der Groseriman, which began publication in 1909 in New York City.

Along with Germans, Scandinavian immigrants living in cities opened bakeries and soon dominated the industry. Those settling in the Midwest outside cities missed the seafood that formed amajor component of their diet in Europe but found substitutes in nearby streams and rivers. As circumstances allowed, Scandinavians served a buffet meal at holidays called smorgasbord by Swedes, koldtbord by Norwegians, and kolde bord by Danes. With time, they imported a characteristic dish to be served at Christmas called lutefisk, dried cod preserved using what was originally a mixture of lye and water. Scandinavian immigrants celebrated Saint Lucia Day on December 13 (near the winter solstice) to welcome the return of daylight. To mark the event, Swedes served sweet buns known as Saint Lucia buns, while Norwegians served cookies flavored with ginger or cinnamon and called pepperkake.

French, Cajun, and Southern European Immigrants

The French were the major European immigrant group to settle in what would become Louisiana. During the eighteenth century, they were joined by other immigrants of French ancestry from Canada known as Cajuns and whose Cajun cuisine, strongly influenced by French cooking, would become regionally important. Closely related Creole cuisine developed around the port of New Orleans. Besides French, it combined African, Native American, and Spanish elements and involved rice, game, chicken, smoked pork, and crawfish. Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) was celebrated for the first time in theNewWorld in 1699 in New Orleans. Later, the festival, which involves parades, consumption of Cajun and Creole dishes, and a general spirit of revelry, spread to many other cities.

Most Italians immigrated to the United States during the decades immediately before and after the beginning of the twentieth century, living and working in cities. Many were men who saved their pay, lived penuriously, and eventually returned home, where they shared stories of America’s abundance. Most Italian immigrants were able to eat much better in the United States than they had at home, purchasing imported cheese and pasta and adding meat, fish, and fresh vegetables. As Italian immigrants were thus able to imitate the eating habits of their native country’s tiny upper class, food played a prominent role in their culture.

Thanks to enterprising immigrant restaurateurs, a distinctive Italian American cuisine soon arose. Authentic Italian pizza had begun as a flat piece of bread sprinkled with salt and flavored with a little oil, but the more elaborate product familiar to most Americans originated in the Little Italy district of New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many other foods served in “Italian” restaurants were scarcely Italian but became popular nevertheless.

Initially, most Greeks who came to America were men who expected to work, save their money, and return home. They often lived in boardinghouses with other Greek men, eating communal meals of familiar food—a pattern shared by Romanians and Basque-speaking immigrants from Spain. Typical dishes involved grains, spiced meats, and fresh vegetables cooked in olive oil. After the first decade of the twentieth century, the pattern of Greek immigration came to include entire families intent on remaining in the United States. The lives of Greek immigrants revolved around Eastern Orthodox churches, which began staging public food festivals as a means of raising money while allowing their members to celebrate their heritage. These festivals also attracted other Eastern Orthodox immigrants such as Serbs.

Mexican food has become so pervasive throughout the United States that Mexican food shops and restaurants can be found in every state
Mexican food has become so pervasive throughout the United States that Mexican food shops and restaurants can be found in every state. These women are making authentic tamales in a store in Detroit’s Mexican Town. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Latin American and Caribbean Immigrants

Most Latin American and Caribbean immigrants brought with them cuisines combining Native American and European elements. In the case of immigrants from Mexico, the European element was Spanish. Mexican immigrants’ proximity to their native country made it relatively easy to obtain ingredients not ordinarily raised in the United States, and in communities with significant populations of Mexican immigrants, specialty groceries and bakeries supplied Mexican foods and served as informal social centers.

The staples of the Mexican immigrant diet were tortillas and beans. The former, flat pieces of bread made from corn or wheat, were eaten plain, rolled and filled with cheese or spiced meat to make enchiladas, folded and fried crisp as tacos to hold similar fillings, and so on. Beans were boiled, then often crushed and fried in fat. Mexican cooking made use of chili peppers of varying hotness as well as salsas (sauces) made fromchilies and spices such as cumin. Mexican Americans used what were regarded as less desirable cuts of meat in stews and versions of the spicy Spanish sausages known as chorizos. Chile—a stew made from beef or pork cooked slowly with chilies and tomatoes—evolved numerous regional variations in the Southwest and became a staple of the American diet.

Mexican immigrants (as well as those from Central America) prepared tamales—corn dough packed around a meat or cheese filling, wrapped in corn husks, and steamed—for consumption at Christmas. As was the case with other aspects of food preparation, the time-consuming process of preparing the tamales fell to women.

Haitian immigrants in Louisiana and Atlantic coast ports at the end of the eighteenth century brought with them a cuisine combining Caribbean, European (particularly French), and African elements, with rice, squash, corn, and black-eyed peas predominating. A favorite dish was pois et riz, a mixture of kidney beans and rice. Meats included chicken, goat, and pork, all cooked with hot peppers and spices. Haitian immigrants made patties of black-eyed peas for consumption on New Year’s Eve.

Cuban cooking reflected Spanish as well as Caribbean and African influences. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, many Cubans settled in nearby Florida, where they reproduced a Cuban cuisine based on red beans, black beans, rice, and pork. The last was usually cooked in a sofrito, or sauce, of olive oil, lemon juice, onion, and spices. Corn was cooked in stews and soups and ground for tamales.

African Immigrants

Most African Americans are descendants of Africans transported involuntarily from the western shores of Africa to the southern United States as slaves. Drawn from numerous cultures, they brought a variety of foodways with them but adopted ingredients and cooking methods from their masters and from Native Americans. Living in an agrarian society, most grew private gardens and were allowed to hunt and fish. They frequently shared communal cooking facilities, and, at least under slavery, men and women shared cooking responsibilities.

African American foodstuffs came to include many ingredients that had been introduced into the South by European or American traders. Some foods, such as rice and black-eyed peas, came directly or indirectly from Africa itself. Okra was also of African origin, and it became a key ingredient in the meat and vegetable stew enjoyed by both African Americans and Cajuns as gumbo. Peanuts were originally carried by the Portuguese from Peru to Africa before being reintroduced into the NewWorld. The sweetness of many African American dishes may be a result of the introduction of sorghum and sugarcane into the South, where it was harvested by slaves for the production of molasses and sugar.

African Americans adopted corn for bread and grits and cooked native catfish and such small game as opossum, raccoon, and squirrel. Cuts of meat such as oxtails, hog jowls, and tripe that were discarded or deemed less than desirable by their masters were also widely used. Dandelions and the tops of beets, turnips, and other vegetables were boiled as greens, and the cooking liquid (rich in vitamins and minerals) esteemed as “pot likker.” During the 1960’s, the resulting complex cuisine became known as “soul food.”

Unlike slaves, Africans migrating voluntarily to the United States during the twentieth century usually found an infrastructure in place that allowed them to buy foodstuffs and prepared foods similar to what they had known in their native countries.

Although slaves generally adopted Christianity and observed such Christian holidays as Christmas, a distinctly African American celebration, Kwanzaa, was created in 1966 by Ron Karenga. Running from December 26 through January 1, the celebration was based loosely on African harvest festivals and included a karamu (feast) held on the evening of December 31.

East and Southeast Asian Immigrants

Due to growing anti-Chinese prejudice and the desire of Chinese immigrants themselves to maintain their cultural identity, Chinese immigrants in nineteenth century California lived in myriad Chinatowns, neighborhoods in which they opened their own groceries and restaurants. They continued to consume traditional foods, leading to the importation of millions of tons of rice. Stir-fried dishes were preferred as a means of saving fuel, and most ate with the traditional Chinese utensils, chopsticks. Because most Chinese, like most peoples of Asian origin, are lactose intolerant, they did not eat dairy products.

Chinese Americans developed a new cuisine for non-Chinese diners. Inexpensive dishes such as chow mein were created by immigrant Chinese cooks, but despite, or perhaps because of, their inauthentic nature, they proved to be popular with non-Chinese diners. At the same time, many Chinese restaurants continued to supply authentic dishes to their ethnic customers. What Americans think of as the traditional conclusion to a Chinese meal, the fortune cookie, is said to have been invented in Los Angeles by an immigrant named David Jung, the founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company, during the second decade of the twentieth century.

Many Japanese immigrant families worked as agricultural laborers, frequently contracting with landowners to share profits from the crops they tended. Besides working in the fields, women were expected to prepare all the food, purchasing rice, soy products, and fish from Japanese importers. Japanese Americans grew their own vegetables such as napa cabbage and daikon, a type of large white radish.

Asian immigrants celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year (Tet) with dancing, the exchange of food and gifts, and ceremonies honoring their ancestors. Chinese Americans prepared mooncakes, rich pastries traditionally containing lotus seed paste and the yolks of salted duck eggs, for the Mid-Autumn Festival, while Vietnamese Americans produced a version known as bánh trung thu. During Tet, Vietnamese Americans cooked an elaborate rice, meat, and vegetable dish known as banh chung that they exchanged with other families and placed on their ancestors’ altars. To celebrate their New Year, Japanese immigrants ate mochi, or roasted rice cakes, which for them symbolized strength. Other foods consumed during the New Year celebration and regarded as symbolically important were eggs, red fish, and fish roe. As is the case with many other groups, such festivals eventually became a means for immigrants who had given up traditional foodways to remember and reaffirm their heritage.

Arab Immigrants

The first major wave of Arab immigrants came to the United States during the late nineteenth century from the area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean known as Greater Syria. Most were Christians and tended to settle in neighborhoods known as Little Syrias that had their own specialized grocery stores. A second wave of Arabs arrived after World War II. Most of them were Muslims. Like Jews, Muslims observe a strict set of dietary rules, avoiding all pork products and alcohol. Their preferred beverage is green tea, usually sweetened.

Like Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples, Arabs ate a diet based on grains, olive oil, cheese, and vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant. Mutton and beef were the favored meats and were often grilled as shish kebabs or mixed with cracked wheat to become kibbe (meatballs). Eggplants were often cooked and mashed with oil to become baba ghanoush, while chickpeas underwent the same process with lemon juice to become hummus; both spreads were served with khubz, flat breads known as pita in the United States. Meals often began with appetizers called meze.

Initially, Christian Arabs celebrated Christmas on January 7, eating mamoul and sweet ka’ak (cookies and pastries stuffed with dates, walnuts, or pistachios). During Lent, Christian Arabs abstained from consuming eggs, meat, and dairy products. Easter called for a large, rich meal, often featuring ham as the main course.

Muslims observed Ramadan during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, a period that for most adherents involved avoiding food, drink, and tobacco from sunrise to sunset. The meal that broke the fast was also regarded as important, although here, as was the case with many other immigrant groups, regional differences were maintained in the New World. To break their fast, Palestinian immigrants consumed dates along with water or apricot juice, while Yemeni immigrants ate asida, wheat dough cooked with chicken or lamb broth. Desserts might include milk pudding, qatayef (a kind of folded crepe filled with cheese or nuts), and baklava.

Grove Koger

Further Reading

  • Counihan, Carole, ed. Food in the USA: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of essays, several of which deal with immigrant foodways, their evolution, and their impact on American cuisine. 
  • Diner, Hasia R. Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Readable survey of the foodways carried to America by three important groups of European immigrants. Photographs, extensive notes. 
  • Gabaccia, Donna R.We Are WhatWe Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Includes chapters on immigrant foodways, ethnic entrepreneurs, and ethnic cookbooks. List of sources, extensive notes. 
  • Hall, Robert L. “Food Crops, Medicinal Plants, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” In African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture, edited by Anne L. Bower. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Analysis of the specific food and medicinal plants brought to the southern American colonies by enslaved African Americans. Extensive bibliographical notes. 
  • Keller, Linda, and Kay Mussell, eds. Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. Essays discussing general aspects of immigrant foodways as well as those of several specific groups. Illustrations, tables, bibliography. 

See also: Arab immigrants; British immigrants; Chinese immigrants; Family businesses; German immigrants; Greek immigrants; Irish immigrants; Italian immigrants; Japanese immigrants; Jewish immigrants; Mexican immigrants.

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