Kayla Stewert is a food and travel writer who grew up in the South. “So, many people assume that African American food is collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken. They are, but by no means the only food that we eat,” Stewert said.
“A lot of the dishes we love in the U.S.—sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese, okra, black-eyed peas—are dishes that either have roots in West Africa or Black Americans developed once they arrived in the US.”
She said that in Texas you’ll see a lot of BBQ and traditional Southern food but in Louisiana, there’s more seafood and vegetable dishes.
“New Orleans is home to Creole and Cajun cooking which simply would not exist without Black hands,” Stewert said. A lot of Black chefs were not credited with their contributions to New Orleans cuisine. She said their ideas have been copied and in some cases White chefs are cooking Black food.
“Something really exciting about Black food now is that some Black restaurateurs are able to feel more creative–trying new things, taking traditional dishes and expanding them to create their own model of what Black food can be,” she said.
Two things determine whether Chinese food or Mexican food or any ethnic food is authentic or traditional: where it came from and who cooks it. According to Stewert, that’s a false distinction because most cuisines are a fusion and lots of ideas and dishes may not be traditional but are nonetheless authentic.
Chop suey, fortune cookies, fried won ton, Indian curry pizza, and California rolls are examples of nontraditional ethnic foods that people really love.
“Maybe the communities here are just even more regional variations much as these other home countries and ancestral places have different regions and styles, maybe the style that’s in Chicago, or LA, or New York, or Houston, or New Orleans is just one more region to add to this beautiful tapestry of our cultures,” said Quincy Surasmith.
Surasmith is Managing Editor of Feet in Two Worlds, a nonprofit newsroom for and by immigrants that focuses on food among other issues. It was founded in 2004.
“Think about food as a lens. It’s way to understand immigration, labor, business, and politics,” he said.
Surasmith said you won’t find a New York style egg roll in Los Angeles. And Thai food in the U.S. is much more meat-heavy than in Thailand. Fortune cookies started in Japan. Pepperoni pizza isn’t Italian, although Margherita is. Reporters who are food writers have lots of way to talk about more than food.
Silvana Salcido Esparza grew up in the back of a Mexican bakery in Central California. She said her family opened 18 bakeries that catered to migrant farmworkers. She owns restaurants in Phoenix.
“Our bakery became the little store, the hub for our culture.” Salcido Esparza’s Dad was a preacher.
From an early age, she learned the idea of service to her community through food and bread. At 15, she started selling carnitas, a traditional pork barbeque in Michoacán that was new to California at the time. “I sold out every weekend,” she said.
“On a Saturday we were preaching at the migrant camps and on a Wednesday I’m with my father selling bread out of the back of his truck and watching them bring out crates of tomatoes or peaches to barter with my father for a gallon of milk or some bread,” she said.
She noted barbeque is a big American favorite with festivals and competitions all over the country. “Its typical not of assimilation but more appropriation…because that food developed out of the Mexican culture of pit cooking,” Salcido Esparza said.
“So the immigrant is very important in the food that we serve,” she said.
“Food absolutely can be such a joyful and wonderful thing, and it is, but it’s also an opportunity to talk about the very real issues that have existed in our country since its founding and continue to exist and I would encourage everyone to use food not as a way to copout from the hard conversations but as an opportunity to talk about history, race, and gender, and women’s rights and as a way to talk about all the issues we are having conversations about and trying to express in our work.”