I am at a potluck in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The hostess has asked us each to bring a dish that reflects our ethnic food. There is a huge and glorious spread from all over the world: African peanut stew, Thai noodles, Mexican enchiladas, Scandinavian pickled herring, and Russian rye bread. Middle Eastern hummus and pita is nestled next to Indian dal and chapattis. We are gathered around the table, wondering at the richness of our culinary cultures and our community.
I couldn’t help but compare this feast to the Minnesota church potlucks of my childhood where much of the food derived from cans and boxes. Of course, there was an array of bizarre Jell-O salads. (Lime Jell-O with pineapple, celery, and stuffed green olives was our family favorite.) “Chow Mein” hot dish had nothing much to do with genuine Asian cuisine, except for a glug of soy sauce and crunchy noodles on top. And, my heavens, there were bars! Lemon bars, blonde brownies, and my favorite – seven layer bars (a deadly-sweet concoction of chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, nuts, and sweetened condensed milk on a buttery, graham cracker crust). The town – and the food – was homogeneous and predictable.
Back at the wildly ethnic potluck, a friend who grew up in a middle class family in Kentucky opened up a huge can of fruit cocktail and unceremoniously dumped it into a bowl. “Here’s my ethnic food!” she proudly drawled. The room erupted in laughter…and a light bulb went off in my head.
Now I’m a northern European mutt – a genealogical stew of German, Scots-Irish, Welsh, French, and English. And I grew up in a small-town during the 1960’s when the food around our house was generic, supermarket American, except for the wealth of vegetables we grew in our huge garden every summer. When confronted with the invitation to bring my ethnic food to the aforementioned potluck, I opted for a large green salad to reflect my childhood garden and my ancestors who were farmers. But deep down, as I surveyed the glorious diversity on that table, I felt bereft of culture, ancestry, and (perhaps most important to a 20-something young adult), coolness. Thanks to fruit cocktail, I felt suddenly and strangely proud of exactly what had made me feel inadequate a moment earlier.
For centuries people have found a way to transform epithets into a source of pride and strength. The song “Yankee Doodle” is a pure example of this phenomenon. It took the phrase the British used to scorn the revolutionaries in the American colonies and turned it into an anthem of irreverent determination. And there are innumerable stories of how oppressed minorities have taken on the very derogatory names they are called as a source of pride and rebellion.
In a small way, that’s what my fruit cocktail friend did for me at that long-ago potluck.
I was so captivated by the experience that I went home and crafted a bluesy song about it called “Ethnic Food.” The repeating chorus crows, “I’m awful hot for that tater tot, so pour that Velveeta on!” Go ahead and have a listen at the link below. Just don’t be surprised if you get a sudden hankering for those little canned wieners in barbeque sauce!
Here is the link to the song: