Don’t Fear ‘The Other,’ Eat Their Food

Pastitsio, a Greek baked pasta dish, ready to be served at this year’s Greek food festival at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in York, Pa.

This is the day after Thanksgiving and maybe the last thing you want to read about is more words about food. This is a bit different, so bear with me.

We are certainly still in a dangerous time in America, and the right is fomenting a lot of hate and directing a lot of violent rhetoric toward people who are The Other, and by that I mean “people who are not straight cis white Christian males.” We are unfortunately seeing the result of that in the form of mass shootings.

To help overcome this and make a more diverse, open nation that is not prone to violent outbursts aimed at specific groups, perhaps we should look to our stomachs. I know, I know, you don’t want to do that at the moment, as your stomach is likely a little bigger than it was on Wednesday. But I am talking about food as a gateway to accepting other cultures.

Growing up in my hometown of York, Pennsylvania, we had two influxes of immigration in the 1970s and 1980s. First, Puerto Ricans moved to York, and some settled in my neighborhood. Then, Greeks moved to my hometown, and many of those folks also settled in my neighborhood.

There were the usual garbage ideas by the locals about Puerto Ricans and Greeks. Lazy, crooked, odd, etc., I heard all of it, including unfortunately from extended family members. Never in my own home, as I was raised in a household that was full-on FDR/JFK/MLK Democrat.

I soon made friends with Puerto Ricans and Greek kids (like our blog’s leader, who was once a Greek kid himself), and in turn, I was introduced to their food. With Puerto Ricans, it was mothers asking me if I would like to try things such as tostones (twice-fried plantain fritters), pernil (a wonderful slow-roasted pork shoulder dish often served at Christmas), and tres leches cake. With Greeks, it was my introduction to perhaps my favorite sandwich – gyros, plus baklava, and something I have never been able to pronounce, soutzoukakia. My buddy’s mom Mrs. Drivas just smiled as I was mangling the pronunciation and said “call them Greek meatballs.” I also learned of Greek people’s love of wild greens when a neighbor asked my father if the small city field across the street from our house was sprayed with any chemicals because they wanted to pick dandelion greens from it.

This food experience also includes the soul food I was exposed to via Black friends, and of course, my own family’s Pennsylvania Dutch food, which many of you would find quite exotic in some cases. Look up “hog maw” on Google and before you judge it, do you eat sausage? Yes, you do? Well, just consider that hog maw is made from a casing that is not near as close to the pig’s sphincter (sorry to ruin sausages for you).

Not a bad slice of diversity for a city of about 45,000 people. This food experience is something that influences my own cooking, as I make Puerto Rican, Pennsylvania Dutch, Greek, and soul food on any given night (love love love smothered chicken).

I credit my upbringing with being open-minded about other cultures. A lot of that is my parents’ teachings, but some of it is being exposed to these cultures, and thanks to my parents, not being afraid of them.

One time during an interview, Anthony Bourdain was asked how he would describe his life’s work, and he said “trying to make Americans to not be so damn fearful of other cultures.” He saw food as a great way to do that. He didn’t just look at the world beyond America, he also sat down to eat with people in rural Texas and the Ozarks. He never judged their food, comparing the raccoon folks in the Ozarks were eating with food that people without a lot of money ate in other cultures, who made it taste pretty darn good.

I will close by saying that Americans really have embraced different food and the idea we are a solely meat-and-potatoes covered in gallons of bland gravy type of nation is not really true. The supermarket produce section I visit today is much more diverse and larger than the one of my youth. Restaurants featuring food cultures such as Thai and Indian that were once only found in the largest of cities can now be found in, well, my hometown. Mexican restaurant menus that were once strictly Tex-Mex now have things like chicken tinga and al pastor on them. Our palate is diverse, just like our country.

And that’s nothing to be afraid of. Let’s eat.

The last word goes to Los Cafeteras, a Chicano band from East Los Angeles, who has a message for anyone who thinks immigrants do not belong.


One thought on “Don’t Fear ‘The Other,’ Eat Their Food

  1. World culture provides this old white boy immense joy. You highlighted food. First-Draft often highlights music. Both fill the soul.

    Thank you.

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