Posted by: justawriter | October 14, 2009

Far Afield – I want to savor all of America’s flavors

Monday was Columbus Day. That holiday always seemed odd to me. Ostensibly it is a day to honor a great explorer, but it is really a day to commemorate a certain ethnic heritage.
It’s not that I think the contribution of Italians to this country should be ignored. In terms of food alone there are plenty of reasons to celebrate that particular heritage. Italian food was one of the first “cuisines” to penetrate the American consciousness. Back in the bad old days when cooking meant “boil it until it’s dead” one of few places the average American could taste the exuberant use of spices was in an Italian restaurant. In case you think I am exaggerating I would refer you to an autobiography I am reading called “The Tenth Muse” by Judith Jones.
Jones was a book editor and was responsible for getting some of the most influential cookbooks of the ’60s and ’70s published. In an early chapter she relates how her mother, an exemplar of the New England homemaker, is horrified that her daughter cooks with “garlic!” Oh, the horror of it all. Thankfully, tastes and styles in food have changed and even in North Dakota we can now enjoy restaurants that recreate the flavors of the world from Thailand to Greece.
Still, we hear a lot about the downside of ethnic pride. The late George Carlin commented on “Proud to be Italian” and “Proud to be Irish” buttons by asking why he should be proud of something he had nothing to do with, an accident of birth. And too often callous politicians have used ethnic rivalries to divide their opposition and rule to the detriment of everyone except those who were elected. In a country where suspicion of our fellow citizens often bubbles under a thin skin of civility, we don’t need any more reasons to divide ourselves.
We also have to be careful on the other side as well. There are those who promote a thinly disguised racism in the name of Americanism. They demand that anyone who comes to the country should talk like us, dress like us and eat like us. What these Americanists are really demanding is that everybody should think like them, and they get to define what “real Americans” ought to think.
Well, I’m sorry. Too many Americans, including many of those the Americanists don’t approve of, died in too many wars defending our right to think and live however we want to let someone take it away from us.
These people also forget that our own forefathers didn’t easily forsake their homelands when they came to North Dakota. For the first half of the 20th century the Normanden, a Norwegian language daily was one of the largest newspapers in the state. Similarly, for a long time a politician couldn’t get elected in the south-central part of the state unless he could give a barn burner of a stump speech in German as well as English. In so many ways, they brought bits and pieces of the Old Country with them and that heritage remains with us to this very day.
This country’s original motto was E pluribus unum – Out of many, one. It reflects a deep truth about our country, that we are people from every corner of the globe who have come together to live as one nation, indivisible. We are a quilt of many colors, warm and exuberant in one patch, cool and subtle in another. All the patches fit together and if we forcibly remove them, we are left with a worthless rag full of holes.
Diversity is the strength of our country. There is no one – except maybe your mom and dad – to tell you how to eat, how to dress or where to live. There is no one who can force you to think a certain way or worship in a particular church. As long as we are not pushing around someone else, we are free to adopt the latest design off “Project Runway” or sew our own from Simplicity pattern. It’s up to you. There is pretty much no wrong way to be an American.
I intend to take advantage of all the heritages of America. So this week I may celebrate with spaghetti and spumante. I see some gumbo in my future when Mardi Gras rolls around. Then there will be Irish stew and soda bread for March 17 and so on through the year. I might even be brave enough to risk some lutefisk come the middle of May. These are all flavors of America and we should enjoy and appreciate them to the fullest extent possible. It would be a shame to segregate ourselves to a tiny corner of a banquet table 3,000 miles long.

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