The dictionary defines “ethnic” as relating to a population subgroup within a larger dominant national or cultural group. Since the vast majority of boomers grew up in families that were first or second-generation immigrants, ethnic was a term for any food outside of their own family’s fare, or the American cultural food norms that began to coalesce after the War. Prior to WWII, food across the country depended very much on the geographic region where one resided. These regions became known for particular cuisines, dependent on the types of food that could be grown, raised or caught in the area. The interstate highway system, proliferation of packaged and frozen foods, and blending of families from different regions eventually morphed into an American cuisine primarily focused on meat, dairy and starches.
Yet even in specific regions, foods were inevitably influenced by the groups of immigrants who moved to those areas. Immigrant entrepreneurs opened restaurants but quickly found that family recipes were often out of step with American tastes. At the same time, ingredients that were in abundance in their former countries might now be unavailable or cost-prohibitive. Consequently, adaptations of family recipes formed what boomers knew as “ethnic” Italian, Chinese, German, Irish, Greek or other cuisines. Boomer foods had been Americanized.
As of this writing, St. Patrick’s Day is near, and once again, corned beef and cabbage dishes will be served up in Irish and non-Irish establishments from coast to coast. Yet the dish did not exist in Ireland as boomer Americans came to know it. More than likely it was developed in the U.S. from an Irish dish called colcannon, which mixed potatoes, cabbage, carrots and leeks or onions.
So many dishes boomers ate and learned to love, both at home and in restaurants, were American versions of recipes that may have gone back centuries in another land. Here is a list of just a few popular dishes:
General Tso’s Chicken — not Chinese. This sweet and spicy chicken dish more than likely originated in Taiwan in the 1950s by Peng Chang-kuei, a chef who fled mainland China after the Chinese civil war that put the Communist Party in power. Peng later moved to the U.S. and opened a restaurant in New York City. General Tso’s Chicken became a popular item on his menu, and word spread across the country.
Chicken Parmigiana — not Italian. It was in the U.S. in the 1950s that breaded and fried chicken (or veal) with tomato sauce and melted Mozzarella cheese first appeared. Regions of Italy served a similar layered eggplant and tomato sauce dish, not as a dinner entree and not with a meat, though occasionally with regionally-produced cheese.
French Fries — not French. Lengths of fried potato sticks called frites originated in Belgium (not France) in the 1600s as a replacement for fish in winter. Soldiers stationed in Belgium in the aftermath of WWI heard Belgians speak French, and attached the French name. While French fries are forever associated with catsup as a condiment in the U.S., in Belgium it is more often served with mayonnaise or various vinegar-based sauces. Likewise, French Toast is not French. More than likely, it originated in ancient Rome, where leftover or stale bread was soaked with milk and eggs, then fried in oil and eaten with honey. A similar sweet breakfast was made in the Netherlands, where it was often eaten with cinnamon and sugar. In France, leftover or stale bread was soaked overnight in cream, or cream and eggs, to form a custardy dish that was baked and eaten as a dessert.
Burritos — not entirely Mexican. The American version of a burrito — a flour tortilla stuffed to overfilled capacity with meat, cheese, beans, vegetables and more — had its origins in San Francisco in the late 1960s. In Mexico, the burrito was served in various regions as a smaller corn tortilla wrapped around beans, chicken or pork (not beef), salsa and sometimes local cheese and vegetables. Most of the food boomers knew as Mexican developed from Americanized Tex-Mex dishes in the 1960s. Fajitas is another example of a style of cooking adapted through Tex-Mex filters. It was not seen on restaurant menus before 1969, when it appeared in Texas as a version of what boomers know today.
What was “ethnic” food to your family, boomers?
Additional reading on this subject by Mister Boomer: