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General Tso Chicken: An Immigrant Life Saga

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

When I was studying Asian languages in Italy, back in the 1980s, the few Chinese restaurants open in my native city of Rome only served two kinds of desserts: fried fruit and fried ice cream -- the unlikely creation that Jennifer 8. Lee singles out in her TEDTalk about Chinese American food. When I moved to Beijing to pursue my studies, I soon discovered that these crunchy treats are unheard of in China. Chinese cooks in Italy likely came up with the concoctions to meet the expectations of Italian customers.

Fried ice cream, just like the General Tso's Chicken that Lee explores in her presentation, highlight the role of immigrants in facilitating the global circulation of culinary traditions, and in shaping the food of their host communities. These two examples show how moving populations have practiced the adaptation, assimilation, and appropriation of foreign or unfamiliar flavors, dishes, techniques, and behaviors all around the world. Culinary exchanges have been taking place for a very long time in the most remote corners of the globe, and they were not always peaceful and enjoyable. Lee reminds us of that when speaks of nineteenth century Asian immigrants to the U.S. who were disparaged for eating rice, instead of more civilized fare. Sicilian cuisine still echoes the food traditions of the Islamic communities that once ruled the Mediterranean island in the Middle Ages. Roti became a common dish in many Caribbean locations after farmers were brought from India to work in the sugarcane plantations after the abolition of slavery.

We need to acknowledge immigrants as actors, not only as victims. As Jennifer 8. Lee observes, their cultural influence, their business acumen, and their ingenuity have played a crucial role in the ways food is -- and has been -- produced, processed, and consumed. -- Fabio Parasecoli

Proximity is complicated and can generate tensions. In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote: "To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates at the same time." Meals unite and divide. They connect those who share them, confirm the eaters' identities as individuals or as part of a collective. At the same time, meals exclude those who do not participate in them, marking them as outsiders. Participants in the same culinary culture acknowledge each other by the way they eat, by what they eat, and by what their diets exclude.

When foreign immigrants congregate in their new home countries, besides sharing experiences, memories, fears, and hopes with their fellow community, they are also likely to partake in meals. Ingredients and dishes that remind them of home often become culinary symbols for a besieged cultural identity. Of course, slowly but inevitably, immigrant cuisines mutate to adapt to new environments, mostly through uncoordinated adjustments. Sometimes, however, they are shaped by the conscious decisions of entrepreneurial individuals who decide to use their community's food traditions as a stepping stone towards financial independence and, hopefully, success. Those who introduce dishes and innovations are not easy to identify. As Lee points out, tracking the origin of a specialty may require some investigative research. Restaurant owners and chefs in "ethnic" restaurants -- as embattled as that category may be -- are not interested in getting credit for their contributions.

Other immigrants are present in all sectors of the food industry without being able to contribute anything from their own culinary knowledge. They grow vegetables and pick fruit; they slaughter animals in often inhumane conditions; they cook and wash dishes in the back of innumerable restaurants. In many cities, they sell coffee and snacks at street corners and deliver meals by riding their bicycles at neck breaking speed. They make the whole food system function, but they remain invisible, often exploited.

As the country embarks on the debate about immigration reform, it is crucial to bring these issues to the attention of policy makers and the general public. Academia can also play a constructive role in facilitating these conversations. At the Food Studies program at The New School, we have a course on food and migrations, and our online literary food journal, The Inquisitive Eater, often features articles and visuals on this theme. Together with The New School Center for Public Scholarship, we are also organizing a conference on Food and Immigrant Life, which will take place on April 18th and 19th at The New School, in New York City.

We need to acknowledge immigrants as actors, not only as victims. As Jennifer 8. Lee observes, their cultural influence, their business acumen, and their ingenuity have played a crucial role in the ways food is -- and has been -- produced, processed, and consumed all over the world. Although fantasies of ethnic purity are still haunting contemporary societies, it is not possible to keep change at bay. The way we eat is just another point in case.

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