In almost every home, of almost every community, somewhere there is a mom or a grandma awake before anyone else in the household doing what she knows best to bring a family together.
In some households, as the kids awaken, it is the smell of a freshly baked pie crust that greets their senses. Seems like the best way to start a day. The aroma of a flaky crust that will soon be filled with apples or peaches seems so American, and it is.
What is also American is the sight of rice and beans in a simmering pot. It might not be recognizable in some communities of this vast country, but it’s as red-white-and-blue as Jazz. Down in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, the combination of red beans and rice is what young Black kids grew up on, and it is what has helped unite a community that has been part of the multi-colored fabric of this nation for four centuries.
Mr. Louis Armstrong sang about many things but what he chose to say on paper was perhaps a message to us of what meant most to him. He often signed his letters “red beans and ricely yours.”
Outside of the bayou and well into the barrio, you can find beans and rice of a different kind. The kind that accompanies most meals and is usually scooped up with a tortilla. For Spanish-speaking households, the pairing of refried beans and rice is a staple to any main course, and during the holidays when kids are waking up they are met with the aroma of tamales or menudo that have been on the stove since before the rooster crowed.
It isn’t just on chilly mornings or during the holiday season, the food that we eat is a cultural passing-down of traditions, memories, and storytelling. Looking down at a plate of turkey with gravy tells a history, sometimes a complicated one, of who we are as Americans from the time of our founding. It’s a necessary history that for some can be hard to digest, but one that should be shared from generation to generation.
In households with families whose faces are not usually found in the school history books, their eating and cooking traditions are just as significant. The tamales in the southwest, the creole cuisine of the deep south, it’s all as American as corn on the cob.
Think of the husk that warmly embraces a red chile pork tamale. Its origin goes back to Mesoamerica, and its evolution handed down in different forms from Mayans and Aztecs to our tias and abuelas shows us how the people of our North American continent is made up of not just families but survivors.
One of my favorite aspects of being a hyphenated American is that I get to enjoy the riches of cultures as they come together in the kitchen and on my dinner plate. If you pay close attention, your next meal is telling the story of America. Your meats are influenced by early European settlers. Your sides of beans might be of the red kidney kind if you are of African descent and they may be of the pinto kind if you come from the indigenous populations of Mexico.
The sauces that you cover everything with are a taste of continents and places that seem far away but somehow are now part of your home.
Time spent with family and friends is a time of sharing laughter and life updates. Even more importantly it is a time of teaching and history as we celebrate the passing on of practices that continue to evolve and continue to bind us together one serving at a time.