Edible Americanness

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

The biggest dilemma for an American expat living immersed in a foreign culture and lifestyle is knowing how to hold onto one's Americanness. And when raising multicultural children in that foreign land, the question becomes even more necessary. In order to assimilate and feel at home in my adopted country I learned a new language, new customs and adapted to the new social behaviors and rules. In order to become French, I had to let go of so much of my Americanness. Yet, I had an extremely strong need to transmit my heritage to my sons, to keep and pass on that very essence of who I was, who I am; they were, after all, as American as they were French, as American as I. I didn't want them to learn or experience some watered down version of their American culture and I was that bridge, that link. But how does one do this on a daily basis far away from home? Food.

Culture is expressed in both what and how we eat. We may travel the world, move from one country to another, but one thing we all carry with us, the one aspect of our culture that generations of immigrants have kept close to their hearts, loathe to leave behind, is our cuisine and the rituals that surround it. Food is so much more than nutritional sustenance; the dishes we serve are infused with culture, yes, and memories, are permeated with family history and redolent of emotions. We hold onto that food of our childhood and of our family as a way to keep it close to us no matter where we are in the world, a way to hold onto home. And through our cooking, we remind our own children, grandchildren and generations of family to come who we are, where we came from and, whether that culture is national, ethnic or religious, it is how we keep our culture alive. Each time we gather around the table, this ritual, this eating together strengthens bonds between individuals, whether family or friends, as well as between generations, and we become part of a community.

Is it hot dogs, cole slaw and apple pie? Steak and potatoes? Or maybe it is the cabbage soup, rye bread, knishes and borscht of my Russian Jewish grandparents' New York kitchens? -- Jamie Schler

But what is American cuisine? Unless we live in a cultural hub with a distinctive cuisine and a stand-out culinary personality, that thing called cuisine is often mysterious and elusive; or we simply don't pay attention, taking for granted what we find on the farmer's market stalls or on our dinner table. Too often we simply don't understand or appreciate that food heritage. I didn't "discover" the cuisine that I had left behind and what makes it unique and singular until I found myself immersed in a new culture with its own distinct and distinctive cuisine. And then I grabbed onto it and embraced it, making those dishes of my youth over and over again, serving them to my spouse, friends and, most importantly, my children in order to share, express, teach and transmit my American heritage... share a little bit of myself.

But what is the American cuisine that I share with my children? Is it hot dogs, cole slaw and apple pie? Steak and potatoes? Or maybe it is the cabbage soup, rye bread, knishes and borscht of my Russian Jewish grandparents' New York kitchens? Ooooh, or is it the glorious convenience and gadget foods of the 1960s and 1970s that we loved as kids? Could it also be the seafood, hushpuppies, citrus and key lime pie of my native Florida? I, like my home country, am a cultural melting pot, and each of these foods is a part of who I am as an American. Each a separate identity meshed together to create my American personality.

Expats have the tendency to separate and purify the dishes we cook rather than fuse them with our spouse's local -- foreign -- cuisine. Back to the authentic basics, the food that expresses our own culture(s) clearly and concisely. And when I place one or the other of these foods on the dinner table in front of my sons, I serve them with stories, family or religious history and family lore, personal adventures and tales of my youth. Dinnertime becomes a classroom, the foods a lesson in which I impart just a little piece of my Americanness, a bit of my -- and my sons' -- culture and heritage.

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