We welcome a guest post today from Andrew P. Haley, author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 (May 2011). In the book Haley examines the transformation of American public dining at the start of the twentieth century and argues that the birth of the modern American restaurant helped establish the middle class as the arbiter of American culture. In this post he offers an entertaining look at how the Americanization of immigrant foods is a means of cultural integration–but argues that sometimes it’s best not to mess with the original. He even shares a beloved family recipe. Enjoy.–ellen
I am an American historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who studies food, and, like most of my ilk, I believe that the mixing of ethnic dishes into the American culinary melting pot is evidence of the healthy assimilation of immigrants into their new home. I don’t especially love chop suey or nachos with extruded cheese, but I appreciate what they symbolize (and I genuinely love bagels with cream cheese and Cincinnati chili). As Donna Gabaccia wrote some years ago in We Are What We Eat, multi-ethnic foodways “suggest tolerance and curiosity.” While eating barbeque did not end the segregation of African Americans any more than the chop suey craze of the early twentieth century reversed fifty years of anti-Chinese crusading, America’s culinary mélange has provided a beachhead for the newly arrived to stake a claim to the American way of life and has often held out the promise of future acceptance.
So I am a bit ashamed to admit that I was appalled to learn about all the horrible things that have been—and are continuing to be done—to hummus. As an American of Lebanese descent who grew up eating hummus, baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh long before they were available at the corner grocery store, I protest. As someone who has experienced the melting pot first hand, and who has seen the worst that Americanization can do to hummus, I beg you join me in saying to corporate America: Hands off my hummus.
For those of you who were not lucky enough to have an Arab-American mother and who must buy your hummus at the grocery store in plastic tubs, last summer’s New York Times account of all the many new forms of hummus available to the restless American public will probably not come as a surprise. Companies like the one owned by Majdi Wadi, a Kuwaiti immigrant who now lives in Minnesota, churn out endless varieties of hummus including, but not limited to, hummus with guacamole, hummus with salsa, hummus with fresh roasted peppers, and hummus with artichoke hearts and spinach.
But this is the food of my ancestors and so simple to make (forgive me Mom, but the secret family recipe is below) that I have blissfully continued to mix the tahini, chick peas, lemon, garlic, and salt myself, believing that here was a recipe so perfect that it needed little adulteration. Sure, there is nothing wrong with some olive oil and sumac on top, and perhaps a sprig of parsley if you want to add a little color or a few diced green chilies (a la Mona’s in New Orleans) for some added fire, but overall it should be eaten simply and with pita bread (flat Middle Eastern bread, not those thick, fluffy, Greek-style pancakes).
My suspicion of the culinary melting pot’s ability to improve hummus was honestly earned. I grew up in the seventies and eighties in a household where we ate a lot of kibbeh and m’judra, but where we also had our fill of Jell-o and shake-and-bake chicken. My Lebanese-American mom made spaghetti with rolled balls of 100% ground beef because as aspiring members of the middle class, we could certainly afford not to dilute our “meatballs” with bread crumbs and parmesan, and it was for similar reasons (I assume) that she messed with hummus. While it truly pains me to dredge up the memory, I grew up in a household where we ate hummus with Bugles, those trumpet-shaped corn chips made by General Mills.
Please understand: my mother is a marvelous cook, and she did a great job of preserving her family’s culinary traditions and teaching her two sons to both appreciate and cook Lebanese food. She is a big reason why I now study food. But she is also the one who brought those horrible corn chips into our house and nearly ruined hummus for me. Arabs pinch their pita into a scoop to eat their hummus, but my mother decided when I was quite young that corn chips would make a perfect substitute, in that they were ready-made scoops and crunchy to boot, and by serving Bugles she could further assimilate the Colell family into mainstream America by saving pita bread for family meals, and trotting out the Bugles whenever we had company.
I was too young to recall how the corn chips were received by the extended family (and I did not speak Arabic, so any squawks of protest from visiting relatives from Lebanon went over my head), but those too-sweet chips ruined hummus for me. As a child, I assumed that because I hated hummus with corn chips that I hated hummus itself, and avoided it and almost everything else that was made with tahini. It was not until I was in college and my dorm mate Danielle, who had grown up in the Middle East, invited me to her favorite restaurant in Cambridge—a wonderfully dark and cheap Middle Eastern dive beneath the bowels of Harvard Square—that I realized that hummus is a wonderful thing when served with pita bread.
That one meal changed my life. I married Danielle and eventually sanity returned to my parents’ house and we stopped the Bugle thing in the late 1990s. We are all happier now and eat more hummus than ever.
So while I respect the culinary melting pot and believe it played a historically important role, I also think that it is time for food historians to admit that not every composite dish, no matter how cleverly it brings together the foods of the Old World and the New, is a success. Hummus with Bugles was a mistake, as is hummus with guacamole or dessert hummus or any of the thousands of other hummus variations that food chemists are currently cooking up. The beauty of hummus is its simplicity. It is easy enough to make and lovely with just a splash of olive oil on top, so why not eat it plain?
Heed my advice. Ten years from now when you realize that hummus with guacamole is as gauche as Franco-American Chef-Boyardee (once a perfectly acceptable introduction to Italian cuisine), you will reject the crazy adulterated hummus with alfalfa sprouts and anchovy paste that you now think is the height of sophistication. And you’ll be sad that you wasted so many years wandering in the desert. So spare yourself the shame and steal my mother’s recipe. You will thank me some day.
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 can Progresso chickpeas, drained, but reserve the liquid (My mother loves Progresso and won’t allow any other chickpeas in the house.)
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup or so of chickpea liquid
5 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
4 Tbs. tahini, well stirred (This is often my father’s job, as he is the only one patient enough to stir the tahini until it was completely emulsified.)
Place garlic, chickpeas, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and process. Add lemon juice and tahini and process some more, adding chickpea liquid as necessary until the hummus is smooth and velvety. Scoop the hummus onto a plate and spread it with the back of a spoon. Drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of sumac or paprika. Serve with pita . . . please.
Andrew P. Haley is assistant professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 . Become a fan on Facebook, follow his blog at historycult.tumblr.com or follow him on Twitter @HistoryCult.