Jane Ziegelman: Immigrant Identities, Preserved in Vinegar?
TENSIONS over immigration in Europe are flaring this summer, along with questions about what — whether language, dress or diet — makes a foreigner a citizen. Of course, these questions also have a long history in America.
One of the biggest battles over assimilation occurred a century ago in New York City, and the battleground was food. Politicians, public health experts and social reformers were alarmed by what they saw as immigrants’ penchant for highly seasoned cooking. They used too much garlic, onion and pepper. They ate too many cured meats and were too generous with the condiments. Strongly flavored food, these officials believed, led to nervous, unstable people. Nervous, unstable people made bad Americans.
In other words, to be a good American, you had to eat like one.
No immigrant food was more reviled than the garlicky, vinegary pickle. Pungent beyond all civilized standards, toxic to both the stomach and the psyche, the pickle was seen as morally suspect. As Dr. Susanna Way Dodds wrote in the late 19th century, “the spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness ... and the poor little innocent cucumber ... if it had very little ‘character’ in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the ‘totally depraved.’ ”...
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