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We Are What We Eat

We Are What We Eat

Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans

Donna R. Gabaccia

ISBN 9780674001909

Publication date: 04/14/2000

Ghulam Bombaywala sells bagels in Houston. Demetrios dishes up pizza in Connecticut. The Wangs serve tacos in Los Angeles. How ethnicity has influenced American eating habits—and thus, the make-up and direction of the American cultural mainstream—is the story told in We Are What We Eat. It is a complex tale of ethnic mingling and borrowing, of entrepreneurship and connoisseurship, of food as a social and political symbol and weapon—and a thoroughly entertaining history of our culinary tradition of multiculturalism.

The story of successive generations of Americans experimenting with their new neighbors’ foods highlights the marketplace as an important arena for defining and expressing ethnic identities and relationships. We Are What We Eat follows the fortunes of dozens of enterprising immigrant cooks and grocers, street hawkers and restaurateurs who have cultivated and changed the tastes of native-born Americans from the seventeenth century to the present. It also tells of the mass corporate production of foods like spaghetti, bagels, corn chips, and salsa, obliterating their ethnic identities. The book draws a surprisingly peaceful picture of American ethnic relations, in which “Americanized” foods like Spaghetti-Os happily coexist with painstakingly pure ethnic dishes and creative hybrids.

Donna Gabaccia invites us to consider: If we are what we eat, who are we? Americans’ multi-ethnic eating is a constant reminder of how widespread, and mutually enjoyable, ethnic interaction has sometimes been in the United States. Amid our wrangling over immigration and tribal differences, it reveals that on a basic level, in the way we sustain life and seek pleasure, we are all multicultural.


  • Today’s multiethnic American diet offers intriguing insight into the character of the nation, the subject of Donna Gabaccia’s We Are What We Eat… Rigorously annotated and dense with detail, Gabaccia’s writing nevertheless evokes knee-buckled puritans and buckskin-clad settlers, sunbonnets and babushkas, and the clamor of street markets at the turn of the century. Drawing from early American cookbooks and immigrant journals, Gabaccia unravels the nation’s earliest ‘regional creoles,’ dishes combining cultivated ingredients with indigenous plants, game and seafood, enriched by the foodstuffs of Native American traders… Gabaccia explores the journey of these ethnic foods from pushcarts to the national marketplace and how—despite the homogenizing effects of industrialized canning, milling and meatpacking—ethnic cuisines have retained their essential and often ritualized role in American life.

    —Linda Temple, USA Today


  • Donna R. Gabaccia is Professor of History at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/8 inches
  • Harvard University Press