There were networks of trade that fed the Native American people in the United States long before the arrival of the first European settlers. Their corn, a staple for them, came from the South, Mexico and Guatemala, before they learned to grow the crops for themselves. Several varieties of bean imported from the South were also added to their diets. The hunter gatherer people of the U.S. imported from the same areas cacao, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, and the tomato. And tobacco was introduced along with the food crops.
According to the theories of the late Russian geneticist N.I. Vavilov, most of the world’s basic food plants originated in a relatively few places on the planet, most of them close to the equator. Experts in this field call these places Vavilov Centers to commemorate their importance to our world.
The diets of the first European settlers on the Atlantic coast benefited greatly from the well established trade networks with the South. Had they been restricted to consumption of what were native plants only, they would have had to make do with the sunflower, blueberries, cranberries and the Jerusalem artichoke. Development of trade between the settlers and the “Old World” sparked cultivation of almonds, carrots, flax, hemp, lentil, onion, peas and wheat from Central Asia. Asparagus, beets, hops, lettuce and olives originated in the Mediterranean. The settlers’ tastes governed which of the plants were favored and cultivated more widely. “American cuisine” largely relied on what were “non-native” crops.
In the last 50 years diets in the U.S. have been transformed not by imports of new crops so much as by the addition of new dishes introduced by immigrants to the country. Mexican restaurants and recipes have swept the country. When I returned from a year in Guadalajara in 1980 I had to search for a Mexican restaurant in U.S. cities I visited. Today our favorite “neighborhood” take out meals in Kansas City are from a Mexican restaurant and a Palestinian restaurant/grocery store less than two miles from home. Hummus and the fresh pita bread have become staples of my diet. A primary attraction of most U.S. urban centers today is the variety of ethnic restaurants opened by immigrant families across the country.
For many residents of and visitors to our urban centers the diversity of ethnic foods offered is part of the appeal. Any major city stages an international feast every night. In some venues the food is accompanied by music and/or dance enhancing the flavors of the culture. Beyond the food, music and art work decor, there is, however, little exposure to the culture. In most restaurants, we eat at separate tables. That might change though.
Someone asked Myles Horton at the beginning of the Civil Rights era how he was able to get whites and black residents of the South to meet and learn together at the Highlander Center. Horton quickly replied, “First, you set the table; then you call everyone to dinner and serve the hot meal.” We can imagine one long table for everyone gathered at Highlander. This story reminds me of my own experience in New York City in the mid-1960’s. One of the most popular restaurants in Manhattan’s Little Italy was Mama Leone’s. You usually had to wait for places to open up but you were seated at one of the two or three long tables with strangers already enjoying their pasta fagioli and lasagna. I never left the place without a happy stomach and a full spirit.
May we all find places in the future where new dishes are enjoyed and the tables are long. And may the delight in sharing a meal with people who are strangers lead to thanksgiving for and celebration of the diversity of food and cultures in our lands today.