Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Making America Bland Again

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 13, 2016 --  

Thank immigrants for America's thriving ethnic food scene.

The year is 1971. You're hungry and in no mood to cook at home. Tired of hamburgers and other more mundane options, you look for more exotic cuisine. What are you options? Things look pretty bleak.

Mexican, Chinese and Italian restaurants pretty much summed up the 1970s ethnic food scene. At a Chinese joint, you could get a plate full of chow mein, or deep-fat fried poultry covered in a syrupy goop called General Tso's chicken. The Taiwanese inventor of the dish, who died last month, dismissed the Americanized version as "crazy nonsense."1 In a so-called Mexican restaurant, you'd find a Texas-inspried plate of enchiladas, which were nothing more than flour tortilla wrapped hamburger meat smothered in cheese. And many of the Italian joints would probably have dried spaghetti with hamburger-based meatballs.

Fast forward 45 years and the difference is striking. Venture into the older suburban ring surrounding any major American city and you'll find a breathtaking array of cuisines. Within a one mile radius of Bailey's Crossroads in Suburban Washington, DC, you'll find restaurants serving cuisines from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Peru, Greece, Thailand, Japan, Arabia, El Salvador, Bolivia, Vietnam, China and India. Diners can get authentic Uighur Laghman noodles, Vietnamese Banh Mi filled with grilled pork and cilantro on a crispy french baguette, pan-fried Salvadoran Papusas stuffed with pork and cheese with a spicy cole-slaw like cordita on the side. African restaurants serve savory ground nut stew with a rich meaty broth. Iraqi or Afghan-style kebabs will satisfy carnivores as south Indian curries do the vegetarians. And those seeking seafood can do far worse than ordering a chilled plate of fresh ceviche at a Peruvian eatery.

Why such a striking change? Immigration. In 1970, the percentage of American residents had fallen to an all time low of 4.7 percent since the Census Bureau began tracking the figure.2 Since then, immigration has ramped up. The foreign born population has grown steadily until it reached 12.9 percent in 2010, and now stands at a rate that is close to the historical highs reached a century ago. The faces of immigrants look quite a bit different today. Instead of being predominantly from Southern and Eastern Europe, they are from hundreds of countries representing every region in the world. This is the very change that has made the aging suburb of Bailey's Crossroads a culinary designation.

But now, as at the time of the immigration last peak, native born Americans are frustrated and exhausted by all the change that the immigrants have brought on America's shores. In the 1924, Congress imposed draconian immigration quotas The new law limited immigrants to a “more of the same” national quota system in proportion to those already in America. This allowed large numbers of English and German immigrants at the expense of pretty much everywhere else. America's percentage of foreign born residents steady dropped from 13.2 percent in the 1920 census, until bottoming out in 1970. The consequences for American cuisine were disastrous, as anyone who remembers the 1970s can attest.

This year, Donald Tump was elected on a platform of halting all immigration by Muslims, and building a wall to keep out Mexicans. Regardless of whether you think this is a good idea, the timing is crazy. Mexicans have ceased to be the largest immigrant group to the United States — China surpassed Mexico in 2013.3 What's more, the Mexican-born population of the United States is actually declining, as workers who have come to the country have started moving back to Mexico.4 Plans to curtail immigration are nothing more than a solution in search of a problem.

If America once again closes its doors to immigrants, as it did a century ago, expect things to return to the way they were in the 1970s. Yes, the dining scene will get a lot more bleak. And American innovation, starved of foreign talent, will clearly take a hit. Remember the 1970s Ford Pinto? That's not exactly the standard America should be shooting for.

Clearly, not all the ills of 1970s America can be blamed on a dearth of immigrants. A lack of post-war foreign competition allowed American stagnation, and a defeatist attitude inspired by America's unpopular and failing war in Vietnam was pervasive.

Yet if there is any doubt that immigrants helped America bounce back from it's 1970s funk, look no further than the mid-20th century suburbs that host many of today's immigrant restaurants. Amongst the Salvadoran Papuserias and Vietnamese Pho shops, you'll probably find an old I-Hop barely creaking along from the 1970s, dishing out the same waffles and fried meat patties from 45 years ago. The bland flavors of that I-Hop are symbolic of nostalgia that resonates with many Americans. For those who love flavors of the world, a future focussed on such nostalgia could not be more depressing.


1. Washington Post, Peng Chang-kuei, Credited as Creator of General Tso's Chicken, Dies at 97, December 2, 2016

2. Census Bureau, Nativity of the Population and Place of Birth of the Native Population: 1850 to 2000, February 2, 2006

3. Census Bureau, China Replaces Mexico as the Top Sending Country for Immigrants to the United States, May 1, 2015

4. Pew Research Center, More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the U.S., November 19 2015