In light of President Donald Trump’s recent threats to immigrants in the United States, these days we’re becoming more and more aware of the value that other cultures bring to our nation. A quick look at the current American dining scene, and this value becomes instantly palpable.
You can taste it in the kebab carts on the street corners of New York. You can smell it walking past French bakeries that pop up in our metropolitan areas. In fact, entire neighborhoods in big American cities are defined by immigrant cuisine. Think Koreatown in New York City, Little India along Devon Ave. in Chicago, or Thai Town in Los Angeles.
You can also see it in small cities and towns across America. Take, for example, the small city of Northampton, Massachusetts.
Northampton, also known as The Paradise City, is located in Western Massachusetts, 35 miles shy of the Vermont border and just east of the Berkshires. It feels like a place where the American dream is alive and strong. The small city of nearly 28,000 residents is a charming locale where small businesses, restaurants and bakeries thrive.
Northampton is the kind of place where people still stroll along Main Street, where folks linger in downtown Pulaski Park, and where you’ll likely see at least familiar face during an outing. Northampton also happens to be where I live.
There is one area, however, where Northampton fails and that’s in its diversity. According to the United States Census, as of 2010 Northampton is almost 88 percent white ― 84 percent being “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino” ― and approximately 7 percent Hispanic or Latino, 4 percent Asian and about 3 percent black. This is not representative of the demographics of the United States as a whole, in which approximately 77 percent of the population is white (62 percent being “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino”), 13 percent black, nearly 18 percent Hispanic or Latino and close to 6 percent Asian as of 2015.
Despite these disproportionate numbers, this small New England city represents the people of the world through its cuisine in a big way. Just walking along Main Street ― the main thoroughfare that runs just below Smith College ― one comes across 33 dining establishments, nearly half of which showcase foods from other nations.
A close look at this small city ― which in many ways represents a lot of smaller American communities across the nation ― demonstrates just how scarce our dining scene would be without the influence of other countries. Without immigrants to introduce those cuisines, our options would be cut in half, and our lives would be blander because of it.
We made a map so you can see for yourself. The yellow dots indicate each of the 33 restaurants located in Northampton. Scroll to the right, and you’ll see the current restaurant scene in town. Scroll to the left, and you’ll see how many restaurants would remain without the influence of immigrant cuisine ― only 16 remain.
Thailand, Morocco, Mexico and Vietnam are just some of the nations represented in downtown Northampton’s 17 immigrant-influenced restaurants ― and it’s all thanks to non-native residents who have influenced the way we eat.
The Banh Mi Spot, located at the east end of Main Street, serves traditional Vietnamese sandwiches that rival some of the best in Brooklyn. It’s been in business for three years in Northampton and is an appreciated part of the dining scene. “The Northampton community has been very welcoming,” manager Sitha Ok told HuffPost. “We actually won Best of the Valley Advocate three times in a row.”
The Banh Mi Spot is owned by Ok’s family friends, who are Vietnamese and Cambodian ― and his family works closely with them. Ok manages the place and his brother is one of the cooks in the kitchen. Ok, born in Amherst, Mass. to Cambodian parents, wants to make banh mi as known and loved as burritos. “Everybody knows Mexican food, but not many people know Vietnamese food ― how different it is, and how fresh. We’re just trying to help people be more aware, and it helps that everybody loves food.”
“This is how food changes this country, when immigrants bring their culture and their food."”
Directly across the street is La Veracruzana Mexican Restaurant, which has been in business on Main Street since 1989. The Mexican-born owner, Martin Guillermo Carrera, says that when he first moved to Northampton you couldn’t find Mexican food products anywhere. The only corn tortilla he could get his hands on came out of a can. When he opened up shop he had to ship in all his ingredients from Chicago. As a bigger Mexican population moved out east, ingredients became easier to locate. “This is how food changes this country, when immigrants bring their culture and their food,” Carrera told HuffPost.
Carrera, who has 11 brothers and sisters, discussed the current president during our talk. “All twelve of us were insulted when Trump said Mexico sends its worst ― we served in the military ― his words cheapened our contribution to this country,” he shared.
But Carrera’s contribution with La Veracruzana has been well appreciated within the Northampton community. And still, within his own restaurant, his staff is affected by Trump’s words and his stance on immigration. “I think people are all nervous for some family members or friends they may have,” Carrera explained.
Adam Dunetz, owner of the breakfast and lunch spot the Green Bean and popular coffee shop The Roost, offers another perspective on how non-native speakers have shaped our American dining scene ― and his insight all happens behind closed doors.
“Hiring [immigrants] has really been a significant cultural shift in my restaurant. ... I think that they’ve helped people recognize the value of having a good job.””
Dunetz has been in business for over nine years now, and he says he’s never had many non-native speakers in his employment ― until recently. All within the past year, Dunetz told HuffPost, that has changed drastically ― reaching close to 18 percent of his staff ― and he couldn’t be more thankful. His non-native speaking staff is mostly from El Salvador and Mexico.
“The work ethic is unlike anything that I’m familiar with in my experience running these restaurants. I’ve done the Green Bean for nine and a half years, The Roost for six years, I’ve worked with phenomenal employees,” Dunetz told HuffPost. But “these guys work for me for eight hours as hard as I’ve seen anyone work for me, and they usually go on to another job where they do the same thing at night ― probably for another eight hours and probably just as great over there ― they go to bed and do it again in the morning, happy to be there with a smile on their face.”
Dunetz said that this change in his staff came when he was starting to lose some steam in the restaurant industry. “Hiring these folks has really been a significant cultural shift in my restaurant. How could it not influence everybody to see these people that are so appreciative of the work, that work so hard, that are going to work somewhere else when they’re done with here? I think that they’ve helped people recognize the value of having a good job.”
“Their addition to my team in both places has been incalculable in ways that’s just really hard to measure, but really significant,” Dunetz sums up.
All that would be lost in an America where immigrants are no longer welcome.
Here’s a list of the restaurants on the main thoroughfare ― which includes Main Street and a small section where Main becomes Bridge Road ― that are represented on the map above. Restaurants that primarily feature immigrant cuisine are bolded:
- Amanouz Cafe ― 44 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium ― 141 Main St. Northampton MA 01060
- Bueno Y Sano ― 134 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Bruegger’s Bagels ― 96 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Dobra Tea ― 186 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Filo’s Greek Taverna ― 279 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Fitzwilly’s ― 23 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Go Berry ― 80 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Green Bean ― 241 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Haymarket Cafe ― 185 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- India Palace ― 28 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- La Veracruzana Mexican Restaurant ― 31 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Local Burger ― 6 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Mama Iguana’s ― 274 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Moshi Moshi ― 4 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Noodle’s ― 257 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Nourish Wellness ― 10 Bridge St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Oriental Taste ― 41 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Pho Vietnam/The Bahn Mi Spot ― 18 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Pinocchio Pizzeria ― 122 Main St #3, Northampton, MA 01060
- Pita Pocket ― 193 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Sam’s Pizzeria and Cafe ― 235 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060 (though this restaurant serves pizza, most of its fare is considered American)
- Spoleto ― 1 Bridge St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Starbuck’s ― 211 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Sweeties Fine Chocolates And Confection ― 68 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Tart Baking ― 192 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Teapot ― 116 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Thai Garden ― 2 Bridge St, Northampton, MA 01060
- The Dirty Truth ― 29 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- The Foundry ― 24 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- The Roost ― 1 Market St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Toasted Owl Tavern ― 21 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060
- Viva Fresh Pasta ― 249 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060