A Harte Appetite: Some 'foreign' foods were created in America

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Spaghetti and meatballs was born in the USA, although each one is a classic Italian food. (Fred Lynch)

The humorist Gerald Nachman contends, "When it comes to foreign food, the less authentic the better." Ironically, he probably doesn't realize just how many so-called "foreign" foods were invented right here in the United States.

Take, for example, spaghetti and meatballs, that presumably quintessential Italian combination. Though both meatballs and spaghetti are classic Italian foods, putting them together was something that never occurred to people in the Old Country.

In Italy people ate in courses, so the pasta was served by itself and the meat course served separately, if there was one. Typically there was not. As the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink notes, many Italian immigrants could recall eating meat only three times a year -- at Christmas, at Easter and at the feast of the local saint.

Conversely, here in America people were accustomed to putting everything on the table at once, and for their main course they expected meat. Thus, it didn't take long for spaghetti and meatballs to be united and a classic was born. But despite the fact that you can find it on any menu turistica in Rome, it's an American classic, not an Italian one.

Spaghetti and meatballs is hardly the only dish that seems foreign but isn't. Consider vichyssoise, that cold potato and leek soup that could hardly seem more French. It was concocted not in Paris or Lyons, but in New York City in 1917 by Louis Diat at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. (Some speculate that his invention may have been the result of culinary necessity when either the soup wasn't reheated in time or the day was simply too warm for hot soup.)

Chop suey is an American dish created from leftovers and is Cantonese for "odds and ends." (Fred Lynch)

Then there's Swiss Steak (which has nothing to do with Switzerland and everything to do with the process of "swissing," the technique of running meat through rollers to tenderize it), German chocolate (named not after Deutschland but after American confectioner Samuel German) and the English muffin (which you won't find by that name in Great Britain because it was invented in New York City).

But when it comes to faux foreign fare, Chinese immigrants have been the most successful. In California in the early 1900s they invented the fortune cookie, a treat that wasn't marketed in China itself until almost 100 years later.

And that was nothing compared to what journalist Jennifer Lee calls "the greatest culinary prank that one culture has ever played on another" -- chop suey. Though some are dubious, Lee, an ABC (American-born Chinese) from New York who traveled all the way to China to find the truth, insists that chop suey is American. It was created in this country from leftovers and christened chop suey because that's Cantonese for "odds and ends."

Chop suey these days has been overtaken in popularity by General Tso's chicken. If you think that's an authentic foreign dish, I've got some beachfront property in Sikeston, Mo., I'd like to sell you.

Modern Chop Suey

This recipe, adapted from one by Chef Joseph Poon on the Epicurious website, updates the classic version with more sophisticated vegetables and tofu instead of meat.

10 shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced

10 oyster mushroom caps, thinly sliced

10 ears canned baby corn, rinsed

1 cup thin green beans cut into 3-inch pieces

1/2 cup julienned jicama

1/2 cup julienned celery

1/2 cup julienned carrots

3 asparagus spears cut into 2-inch pieces

2 ounces lotus root cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons white wine

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger

1 finely chopped garlic clove

1 finely chopped shallot

4 ounces firm tofu, rinsed and julienned

Blanch vegetables for 40 seconds, drain and set aside. Combine remaining ingredients except tofu and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened. Add tofu and vegetables. Heat through. Serve drizzled with sesame oil and garnished with cilantro.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699.

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