As the series producer of Neighborhood Kitchens, learning about ingredients and techniques from talented chefs who are bringing new flavors to New England kitchens has been nothing but fascinating.
I now have a growing interest for food issues and history. Last week, I started reading Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine by culinary expert and historian Andrew F. Smith. He eloquently writes about the automated mill and how it changed food productions in our country, the enormous influence of French cuisine, and the effects of America's long history of immigration on the variety of cuisines we enjoy today.
According to Smith, three historic events changed the way America eats. The first, in 1848, was the California Gold Rush, then the ending of the Mexican-American War, and finally the European Revolutions occurring at that time. These three events brought large waves of immigrants -- mainly Chinese, Mexicans, and Germans -- and their languages, traditions, and cuisines into the United States.
The discovery of gold in California attracted miners from diverse backgrounds, but Chinese miners were the largest group. By 1850, San Francisco had a Chinatown with five restaurants. Chinese cooks introduced rice with stir-fried vegetables and meats flavored with ginger and soy sauce. For their non-Chinese customers, Chinese cooks invented "American Chinese food," including fried rice, chow mein, and chop suey. Needless to say, these inventions have little in common with the cuisine served in China. Today, 163 years later, there are about 40,000 (American) Chinese restaurants in the U.S., which means that there are more Chinese restaurants in North America than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. That's a lot of fried rice.
With the annexation and the conquest of Texas, California, and the Southwest came the rich culinary traditions of Mexico: tortillas, tamales, and enchiladas, which were adapted to appeal to the American palate. By the 1940s, some new items had been invented, such as crisp tortilla chips and nachos, which are now served all over America, from baseball stadiums and movie theaters, to airports and malls.
The European Revolutions of 1848 were the third significant event. Nearly 435,000 Germans had arrived to the U.S. Many immigrants went into the food business and introduced sausages, cured meats, pickles … and, of course, lager.
In the beginning of the 20th century, mass immigration into the U.S. brought cuisines from all over the world to cities all across America. And in Boston, especially in neighborhoods like the South End, Allston, and Central Square, one can find food from every continent in just one half square mile.
-- Patricia Alvarado Núñez is the Series Producer of Neighborhood Kitchens.
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