And not just because we learn new recipes. Our friendly relations with immigrants and second-generation Americans from all over the world, from casual encounters to long friendships, have benefited each member of my family and our shared dinners together by nourishing us with knowledge, inspiration, and fresh ideas about food, health, cooking, responsibility, gratitude, sensory adventure, and the sacredness of shared mealtimes. And what happens around our kitchen table, in turn, nourishes our daughter in ways that go far beyond literal nutritional benefits.
My husband and I both grew up with, and benefited from, diverse friendships in ways that are deeply personal and difficult to measure--in other words, priceless. So, unlike the vast majority of educated, white-privileged parents, when we said that we valued diversity in our own family's neighborhood and school system, we meant it. We didn't just want to live near racial and cultural diversity, with "colorful" people populating the backdrop of our lives in a decorative fashion, we wanted to raise our daughter in a diverse community, as full participants. And that has meant developing real, personal relationships with our neighbors, building trust and genuine friendship and directly supporting one another with childcare and yard projects and celebrations and meal sharing. That has meant choosing a diverse school for our daughter, where white children are not in the majority, where "soft" pro-social life skills are actually prioritized alongside academics, and where overall test scores are deceptively lower because the school leaders and staff genuinely care about the inclusion and welcoming of poor and disabled students rather than gaming the rankings through exclusivity--or worse, by attracting wealthy, white (including "liberal") parents without needing higher test scores, simply by maintaining a white racial majority, knowing that whiter = better in the biased brains of white parents across the political spectrum.
Personally, I have met many local parents, both white and non-white, who struggled with gut feelings drawing them to consider going to great lengths to get into school districts based on nothing other than how exclusive (read: white) the student body is. It's understandable that we have all been trained to equate whiteness with the allocation of resources, because that is still how it goes under systems of institutionalized racism, but it is time for us to get savvy about recognizing opportunities to disrupt those systems in ways that benefit our own children directly and immediately.
Those parents worried by racial demographics that they can't help but view as red flags are often surprised to learn how progressive, friendly, positive, enriching, and supportive my daughter's school is--because isn't that a diverse public school? (Read: "ghetto." Read: underprivileged.) And that is not at all accurate. I would characterize my daughter's school as "cosmopolitan" (and trust me, that's not a euphemism, because I have seen the insides of many truly underprivileged, diverse schools) and more socially progressive than any of the white-majority "liberal enclave" schools in our metropolitan area. Educated liberals too often suffer from deeply rooted, unconscious biases that lead them to choose segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods, or segregated social and economic lives within diverse neighborhoods, even when those choices provide them no real benefits. Meanwhile, our kids soak up the social values we are teaching them with our actions more than with our words and our bumper stickers. Kids have amazing radar for hypocrisy and subtext.
We didn't want to send our daughter to a dangerous or struggling school just to expose her to racial diversity, but fortunately, we didn't have to make a choice between school quality and diversity. It's not always a binary. The world is not made up of dull stereotypes. There are successfully integrated schools all over this beautiful country, and finding them is well worth the thoughtful effort.
My daughter is a high-scoring, white-passing child, and she is excelling at a diverse school both academically and--importantly to me and her father--in developing the social and life skills that kids today desperately need in a world that is becoming more diverse and complicated to navigate as the economy and job sectors go through rapid, chaotic changes due to worldwide technology and climate-related shifts. I know that getting high test scores in math, while awesome, isn't enough to ensure that my daughter has a happy, healthy, and financially stable future. And I know that obtaining well-paying employment isn't the only, or even necessarily the most important, ingredient in a well-lived human life. (Her father and I, for example, have never been high earners! We're more like scrappy, high savers, and we've provided our daughter with a healthier, happier, safer childhood than either of us had.) I am confident that, based on how my daughter behaves at our dinner table, she is receiving a well-rounded and truly relevant education at her diverse school.
Americans are not known for our awesome eating habits. Our culture is famous around the world for our exports of extremely salty and sweet and chemically flavor-enhanced convenience foods... not so much for the wholesomeness of our diets or our cooking and eating habits. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East--almost everywhere in the world--tend to arrive in the U.S. with fewer diet-related health problems than the average American, and their health deteriorates over time, with exposure to our convenient and addictive junk foods. I've heard numerous anecdotal stories about the switch to American foods causing constipation and stomach pain right away, because our typical diet is lacking in fiber and loaded with sugar and other inflammatory ingredients.
And I'm guessing it's also hard on the digestion to gulp down takeout over the sink or smash a chemlab burger in the car while high-stress hustling from one sedentary activity to another. The typical American horks down a lot of low-quality, high-calorie mystery meats mindlessly, within a stressful yet sedentary lifestyle that isn't kind to digestion in general. It isn't every day that a typical American takes the time to shop for wholesome ingredients, cook dinner with care, and enjoy it at a relaxed pace at a table shared with socially engaged companions.
And then there's diet culture, which drives disordered eating in desperate, shame-filled attempts at losing enough weight to more closely resemble the bizarre, alien-like digital character images that pose as real human models on social media. We are a people of exhaustion-prompted impulse, anxiety, and body dysmorphia. There are structural and behavioral and social and psychological dimensions to our poor eating habits that can devastate the health of an individual within months and continue to degrade the health of whole families for generations.
To put a maraschino cherry on top of that hard-to-poop sandwich, the typical white American diet is also terrible for the planet, causing additional health problems for our people through air pollution and the effects of climate change. My husband is the son of an immigrant and has a minority of Western European ancestry, but he passes as white, and "white American" is the culinary culture that both of our families raised us on.
As adults, we discovered that we could break the cycle, reclaiming our own health and raising our child with better dietary habits, by looking back into our own pre-U.S. family traditions and around at our friends' and neighbors' traditions to find an abundance of sustainable alternatives to the typical American illness spiral. Adopting healthy habits and attitudes and recipes into our daily lives has had a profound effect--my husband lost about 100 pounds in early adulthood, and both of us reversed supposedly chronic health conditions--without us having to swear off any of our favorite American treats. Practicing a healthy lifestyle is not about obsessing over forbidden fruits and self-denial (a staple of diet culture), it's about attention to deep, whole-person nourishment (a staple of Blue Zones living). We can have our American pie and eat healthy too.
Meeting and admiring and loving people from all over the world has positively influenced my family's cooking and eating habits in a fascinating variety of ways, even when nobody actively set out to teach us anything. All we've had to do is stay open to new ideas and experiences; we didn't have to ask our multicultural friends to formally educate us about anything. And it goes both ways--sometimes when white Americans express sincere appreciation and admiration for immigrants' traditions, it can bolster pride in family traditions within a society that isn't always tolerant of traditions that pre-date the fairly recent founding of our nation, or which come from anywhere east of Germany or south of Spain. In my opinion, the constant flow of immigration from all corners of the world is one of the main ingredients in whatever greatness the United States of America can legitimately claim. Cultural sharing is natural and beneficial to all when it's mutually consensual, loving, respectful, and gratefully acknowledged.
How Immigrants Have Contributed to Our Table
Different Mealtime SchedulesPeople
around the world don't all eat three square meals of breakfast, lunch,
and dinner. They don't all eat meals at the same times of day, and they
don't all divide up amounts of protein, grains, and produce among
regular meals in similar ways. We have learned from this to experiment
with when and how much of which macro-nutrients to eat at each meal of the day. One practice
we've consistently adopted (and adapted) is the idea of British teatime.
I like to eat a light breakfast, brunch, and lunch (sorta hobbit
style) and then prepare a big, hearty meal after my daughter
gets out of school, in the late afternoon, followed by only a light snack in
the evening. This helps us to digest our food better and to sleep better
Direct Sharing of Foods and Recipes
My husband's father was a Holocaust survivor with a confounding background. His mother came from a family of Asian tribal nomads, mostly of the Siberian region but with some Mongolian and Chinese heritage, who migrated into Slavic Europe and became settled farmers. His biological father was a Slavic Ukrainian with roots in the Middle East and South Asia. My father-in-law was raised by his mother and an Eastern European stepfather in Hamtramck, Michigan, where he learned to speak several Eastern European languages before he learned English as an older child. We aren't sure how many languages my father-in-law could understand and converse in to some degree--sometimes he knew words and phrases without remembering what language they were from. He often passed as a swarthy, vaguely "ethnic" white man but could also pass as Latino (seemingly a default guess in America for anyone who is ethnically ambiguous) and was sometimes recognized as Asian, especially during the O.J. Simpson trial, when people noticed that he resembled Judge Lance Ito.
My husband's mother's heritage is roughly half Italian and half Western European, and her skin, hair, and eye colors are strikingly fair compared to the rest of her immediate family. My husband inherited enough of her appearance that he passes as white. His family made a conscious effort to assimilate into white American culture (and developed serious diet-related health conditions for a time), but they were also deeply involved with immigrant families from all over the world. My husband grew up around multilingual people and mingled cultural traditions, in a neighborhood without a white racial majority.
Now he manages a bicycle shop near the local university, and many of his customers are scholars from around the world--at least they were, before the pandemic. He often delights his customers with his delicate skill in identifying accents and his ability to greet and thank people in many languages, even though he is only fluent in English. The way he speaks to people with genuine warmth and interest and a sense of intercultural etiquette transforms their body language and facial expressions like magic. It's wonderful to see people come in with careful, guarded body language and quiet, precise English speech open up and brighten like time-lapse flowers blooming when my husband extends himself in this way. (I don't dare try this myself or recommend that anyone else does--it's extremely awkward and potentially offensive to guess wrong!)
Anyway, some of those customers turn into instant friends, and they bring my husband "tips" of meaningful objects, homemade foods, or rare (in the U.S.) varieties of tea or herbs from the culture he's shown a real interest in. He treasures these gifts and often brings them home and incorporates them into our home pantry.
Sometimes, even after people leave the university area, connections we've made remain. Last winter, during the gloom of pandemic, a vibrant and fascinating artist and champion of heritage food production and culinary traditions with a Jewish Turkish background, whom we befriended after my husband met her at the bike shop, sent us a care package of wondrous treats, including a jar of mahalep, a gorgeous spice which I had never used in baking or cooking before.
And earlier in the pandemic, she organized and included us in a virtual "dinner party" in which women with roots in many different cultures shared traditional, wholesome and comforting recipes that we all attempted to cook in our own homes. This was back in the days of lockdown, when we were afraid to venture out to the grocery store more than a couple of times a month, but I found that I already had most of the ingredients for the dinner party's recipes--various kinds of lentils, spices, grains, herbs, etc.--stocked in my kitchen already, after a couple decades of eagerly incorporating healthy and delicious global recipes into my regular meal rotation.
Some of our best friends from high school have strong international family connections, too. My own best friend is a smart, hardworking, artistic, politically active, joyfully single and child-free Mexican-American woman with a youthful personality, who shares interests and personal styles with my daughter so deeply that they actually have some of the same clothing and accessories. For a while, they both wore the exact same pair of hot pink glasses! She has brought me on long stays with her extended family in Mexico twice and taught me the glories of real Mexican food. One of my husband's oldest friends is a fellow second-generation child of Asian and Italian-American parents. He is generous and kind and loves sharing his personal pleasures, so he brings us back the best kinds of nori, noodles, and other treats when he visits extended family in Okinawa.
The Good Kind of Peer Pressure
We choose to send our daughter to a school without a white majority, in a neighborhood rich in immigrants (but, to be honest, a gentler and more mixed-income neighborhood than the disadvantaged one my husband grew up in), and to expose her to educational experiences offered by people of different cultural traditions. Peer pressure has positively influenced her to expand her tastes and even learn how to prepare different healthy foods.
My daughter has grown up always having friends and playmates of diverse races and cultural backgrounds. My husband and I also grew up without ever having only-white friends, but we did spend significant portions of our childhoods in majority-white private schools, so we have noticed the marked differences in social dynamics between how it is to have one BIPOC friend who is trying to fit in with all the white kids vs. being the only white kid in a diverse group. "Being the only one" is a valuable experience that many white people go their whole lives without ever experiencing, and it's enlightening. It can be rough (like when my husband was sometimes bullied as a child in contexts of toxic racial tension) or amazing (all the times when my husband and I, and our daughter, are warmly welcomed and invited into the embrace of a different culture or subculture on its own terms). Either way, it's enriching and can provide a basis for greater intercultural wisdom and compassion.
The neighborhood where we chose to settle has a significant amount of poverty in it, but our township does a better job than the nearby inner city of making sure low-income families have their basic needs met and can participate in the life of the community without shame. Many of the non-white people we are acquainted with in our neighborhood have higher standards of living and levels of education than my husband and I do, so our daughter has grown up without automatically associating racial diversity with poverty and pity. We often witness her and her diverse friends being good influences on each other, and though I am not so naive to entertain the fantasy that she and her friends might be completely free from the racial biases imparted to them from society at large and the media, they all clearly have positive attitudes about each other and close, supportive friendships, and that's valuable.
I can see evidence that these kids believe in intercultural welcoming as a good thing and not a threat to the vibe at their school. My daughter agrees that everyone should learn English if they move to the U.S., but she doesn't believe that nobody should ever speak a word of any other language once they land here, or that they should be made to feel ashamed of being different until they learn to fit in. When she heard that a girl from a Spanish-speaking country was transferring to her class, she asked me to teach her "hello" and some other friendly phrases in Spanish so that the girl wouldn't feel lonely until she learned better English. My daughter said "hola" to the new girl when she first saw her in the hallway, and the girl broke into a delighted smile. I am not just proud of my daughter for being kind; I am pleased that she has an interest in learning about and from others, because skills like bilingual fluency are good for everyone's brain and quality of life. Honestly, what's fancier or more impressive than being able to converse at the dinner table in multiple languages?
The absence of a white majority at my daughter's elementary school means freedom from the teasing and bullying that immigrant and second-generation kids sometimes experience in the lunchroom, over the different kinds of foods in their lunchboxes. There isn't as much pressure to assimilate into a dominant culture at my daughter's school, so the kids seem to feel free to share and express open curiosity about each other's tastes in food. My daughter's willingness to try new foods, especially vegetables and fruits, blossomed overnight when she started eating in a diverse school cafeteria. She came home one day and declared that she had learned how to like salads, and it stuck!
Sometimes my daughter has developed an interest in another culture in a non-food context that has led her to explore that culture's healthy food traditions on her own. Before the pandemic, we enrolled her in karate lessons by my husband's buddy's Okinawan father, the celebrated Shorin Ryu Shidokan master Sensei Seikichi Iha.
Our daughter loved the warm, friendly, yet reverent and highly disciplined atmosphere of the dojo, and it sparked a deep interest in Japanese culture that has lasted for years. Shortly after my daughter began her lessons, a new family joined the dojo, with two boys a little bit older than my daughter (and therefore automatically cool) who have some Okinawan heritage and could speak fluently in Okinawan dialect Japanese with each other and with Sensei while also being 100% fluent in English. My daughter was profoundly impressed and fascinated. She and the younger of the two brothers formed an immediate friendship connection that led to hanging out a couple times outside of karate lessons, and she became so enthralled with the sounds and symbols of the Japanese language that she has been studying it independently through a language learning app. (The outside of my house is currently covered in Japanese characters written in chalk!) All of this led, also, to watching anime films (her all-time faves are Spirited Away, Okko's Inn, and Weathering with You), which inspired her to learn how to use chopsticks and to taste tofu and sushi.
The photo at the top of this post shows her first stab at making her own sushi rolls. Her first taste of nori challenged her palate so much that it was difficult for her to swallow, but she was so determined to learn to like it that she soldiered on until she got used to the flavor and texture and could proudly claim to have developed a taste for it. Peer pressure has motivated her to learn how to prepare and integrate new highly nutritious foods into her diet, even in a meandering, indirect fashion. I love it!
During the pandemic, the karate boys' mom earned a certification in nutrition coaching and started a blog full of healthy meal ideas, inspired by a recent trip to visit relatives in Japan and realizing that she had become used to less healthy American ways of living. Now I follow her blog for more direct ideas too.
Sometimes the positive influences mix in synergistic ways. A couple weeks ago, my daughter celebrated the birthday of her BFF whose back yard is connected with ours by attending a small, socially distanced barbecue. Her back yard bestie has an African-American mother with deep U.S. roots and a father who immigrated from Ghana. He is a phenomenal cook who blends American and Ghanaian cuisines and grills the best chicken we've ever tasted, among his other culinary talents. His generous sharing with our daughter has already increased her tolerance for and appreciation of spicy food. And now he and his wife are passing along their skills to their children; the 10th birthday girl showed off some of her own talent with a delicious cake she had baked for herself.
My daughter filled up on more than delicious food at the cookout. She ran home and declared that she needed to up her game in the kitchen right away. She and her best friends all have a slightly competitive dynamic with each other, whether they're comparing test scores from school or playing video games or holding "art contests" or showing off their athletic and life skills to each other in person or over a video chat. So far it seems healthy; instead of putting each other down, they delight in helping each other to learn tips and techniques, and they admire each other's different strengths and talents. So it made me smile to see my daughter frantic to figure out a way to level up her kitchen skills in response to being served a wonderful homemade meal.
"What can I do to help you make dinner?" she demanded. "Anything, I'll do anything!"
I had already started to take out ingredients to make a cottage pie from Un-Cook Yourself, the cookbook released by comedic Australian viral pandemic chef "Nat's What I Reckon." My daughter picked up a knife (which we've already taught her how to use to safely chop vegetables) and insisted that she be the one to slice up the onion, just because she'd never had the experience of an onion making her eyes water. (She was thrilled when it happened and only slightly disappointed that her eyes didn't become visibly swollen and red.) It's so adorable how she's inherited my love of trying new things solely for the experience of newness!
Exposure to the cooking and eating habits of people from other cultures has certainly inspired our daughter to become a more adventurous eater and cook.
THAT'S a Knife
We don't personally know any Australians, but we are fans of Nat and various other jovial Australian celebrities. As my daughter enthusiastically cut up an onion to help learn how to cook an Australian dish, she did have one complaint--the slight dullness of the worn ceramic knife we've been using. "My friend's mom cut her cake with a really nice steel knife. Why don't we have any knives like that?" She described the knife to me, and it did indeed sound like a high quality chef's knife. I also giggled to myself when this exchange reminded me of the classic line from Crocodile Dundee.
My husband has been lusting after high quality kitchen knives online for a while now, and when he heard that, it pushed him over the edge of indecision, and he ordered a Miyabi santoku knife with a three-figure price as a 14-year wedding gift for all of us to enjoy.
And we do! Wow does it feel good to use a real good knife. We like to purchase American-made products, but we also appreciate the quality control of a German knife company and the traditional artisanship of a Japanese blade.
Grace and Gratitude
Some of our diverse friendships and extended family relationships involve different religious beliefs, and those beliefs can inform what and how people eat. We've learned about kosher and halal foods and under which circumstances we might prefer to buy ingredients that meet those standards, even though we don't share the religious reasons for those choices.
Our Christian religious family and friends often begin meals, especially holiday dinners, by saying grace. We sent our daughter to a religious preschool for a couple of years, where she learned to say a prayer of gratitude before meals. We don't regularly say grace at home, but we participate when we are with observantly religious dinner companions. Saying grace just once in a while reminds us that mealtimes can be sacred when we stay mindful of gratitude for the abundance of delicious and nutritious foods we enjoy and the company of others with whom we share the joys of this abundance.
The Values of Cooking and Savoring and Sharing
White Americans don't always value food production and cooking skills. Many white Americans think that farming, "burger flipping," and other food-related jobs are for losers who can't do anything else. Upwardly mobile Americans brag about being too busy to cook. White women often see kitchen work and gardening as symbols of sexist gender roles, associated with oppression. Not having to cook for oneself or anyone else is a status symbol in our culture.
In fact, agricultural workers and line cooks are among the most exploited, undervalued, disrespected workers in our economy. They have suffered inordinately from the pandemic. Their ranks are filled by immigrants who come from places where the work of growing and preparing food (and caring for the elderly, and childcare, and cleaning, etc.) isn't shameful, where everyone is expected to have some familiarity with those basic life skills. We perpetuate a social narrative that anyone stupid enough to stay in those jobs as opposed to, I dunno, going to achieve their CEO certificate, deserves to die on the job making an unlivable wage. This is a horrible tragedy and a poor recipe for America's sustainable survival.
In the world's Blue Zones, people who are mostly poor by our standards, people who don't have any of the status symbols that Americans tend to lust after, people who value time spent on activities that generate health rather than income or fame--like cooking wholesome meals, savoring food, and sharing unstructured quality time with loved ones--live longer, happier, more fulfilling lives than most white Americans, with a tiny ecological footprint.
There's nothing wrong with being a white American or enjoying the occasional cheeseburger or slice of pie. But there is something very wrong with white supremacy and bigotry against immigrants and BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color--not all of whom are immigrants, obviously), and it's hurting white Americans as well as everyone else. It makes us sadder, stupider, less healthy, and less dignified. It robs us of full participation in human life and the ability to reach our full potentials as individuals. So everything we do to turn it around within our own hearts and families to replace bad habits with better ones, fears with adventures, and suspicions with friendships, helps to create stronger individual Americans, stronger families, and a stronger social fabric. And it's just a more enjoyable way to live.
Each of us only gets one life here on earth (unless you believe in reincarnation, in which case... watch your karma!), but that life can be so much richer and more interesting when we invite all kinds of people to share their stories and their passions and their tables with us. Connecting with people from all over the world can open our hearts and minds and allow us to feel how big, how generous, how abundant in love and sensory pleasure the human world can be. My husband and I encourage our daughter to be nourished by human wisdom and cultural gifts of every color and texture and flavor, by setting an example in our own personal lives and by nurturing her own intercultural friendships and interests.
Even when we're alone at home together for our little family dinners, still deeply isolated in the middle of a pandemic, we are influenced by the positive values and pleasurable habits and skills and tastes we've picked up from our diverse loved ones and acquaintances as we cook, eat, and have interesting conversations among the three of us.
Immigrants often come to America seeking opportunities that they couldn't find in their nations of origin, but they also bring opportunities to those of us already here, to learn and grow and choose healthier ways of living. I hope that as we ease back into more and more of public life and socializing outside of our little bubbles, we all learn to appreciate and enjoy each other in broader and deeper ways than ever before. Nobody knows how much time they have left, but we are all endowed with the ability to savor what we have and appreciate the people around us. I truly believe that gratitude, savoring, adventurousness, and resourcefulness--all critical to providing and enjoying family dinners--are among the most important life skills for today's children to learn as they inherit a rapidly changing world.