Mother Tongue: Language and Food in the U.S.

Sorry for the delayed post everyone; I was feeling pretty sick last weekend and not quite up to writing. Many cups of tea later, I'm feeling a bit better, and my bout with the sniffles reminded me of the craving we get for the tastes of home when we are sick. For me, that often means Grandma's kale soup: a chouriço-studded bowl of beans and greens that reflects the predominantly Portuguese neighborhood I grew up in. (Fun fact: Emeril Lagasse and I are from the same town! Here's a link to his version of kale soup.)

Another food that reminds me of home is French meat pie, or tourtière. We always got ours from the same bakery growing up, and they were the best part of every holiday meal.

Another food that reminds me of home is French meat pie, or tourtière. We always got ours from the same bakery growing up, and they were the best part of every holiday meal.

It's funny how the food of a culture often outlasts its language. When I was in high school, most kids took Portuguese as their foreign language, because that was the language their Avôs (grandfathers) and Avós (grandmothers) spoke. They had to take the class because most of these kids did not speak Portuguese fluently. Maybe they understood a little, maybe they knew how to say please and thank you, but over the generations the Portuguese bled out, little by little. And yet, you can still to this day order a linguiça pizza at Papa Gino's (the Papa John's of New England). 

Of course, this is not a unique situation. In New Jersey there are many Italian-Americans who can make a mean meatball but no possano parlare Italiano (they can't speak Italian), and so on across various immigrant communities in the United States. It's amazing that in a country built by immigrants, it's so difficult to retain a language across generations. 

What's interesting is that it hasn't always been this way. As you can read in this article from the Miami Herald, the Founding Fathers and many subsequent presidents were multilingual, up until about World War II. It seems as though the shift towards English-only began as a consequence of the U.S.'s role in politics after World War II. If speaking the language of other countries was a matter of showing respect, then after World War II it became more important in the eyes of U.S. diplomats for other countries to show respect to us, than us to them. That, in combination with the distrust generated by the war towards speakers of German and Japanese, appears to have galvanized the shift away from the U.S. as a multilingual participant in a civilized society, and more towards the idea of the U.S. as an English-speaking leader of a multilingual collection of nations.

I am not a historian, so take that all with a liberal dash of salt. But, it's worth remembering that it used to be the norm in the U.S. to speak many languages, because our people come from many cultures. And while the evidence on whether bilingualism is better for your brain or helps to slow the progress of Alzheimer's is mixed, bilingualism certainly doesn't hurt it. Furthermore, there is evidence that supporting the first language helps students to better learn a second. So if we want immigrants from China, from Guatemala, from Syria, wherever, to be able to learn English, the best way we can help them is to learn Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic. In so doing, we help both them and us, because learning new skills helps to keep us sharp.  

I'm pretty sure my cookies didn't look this good, but Pati knows what she's talking about.

I'm pretty sure my cookies didn't look this good, but Pati knows what she's talking about.

Furthermore, in learning those languages, we come one step closer to understanding their culture--and their cuisine. While the mexican wedding cookies I made in 8th grade Spanish class may not have been the greatest, many of today's hottest chefs are from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves. Their knowledge of both current American food trends and the dishes of their culture have lead to everything from Korean style tacos to crispy potato tarts with uni and jalapeño. And for that, I say Thank you, Gracias, Grazie, Danke, Merci, and 谢谢.