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"Fusion City" in Gastropolis: Food & New York City

From "Fusion City," the Introduction. An immigrant travels with luggage of several kinds. There are suitcases packed with practical goods and memorabilia (for example, a handwritten cookbook, a lefse rolling pin, or a gefilte fish pot, such as those in the museum on Ellis Island), and there is the baggage carried only in the mind, which contains flavors, aromas, and images from the kitchens of homeland and family.

Of the 12 million people who came to Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 (the vast majority by 1924, when the National Origins Act reduced the flow), forming the most momentous migration in history, one-third stayed in New York, adding to the already pulsating mix.

If at first they attempted to cling to foods they knew, or that resembled those they knew, and offered comfort through their familiarity, they were, ultimately, forced toward change by circumstance; by contact with other ethnic groups even within their own tight enclaves (at that time, the Lower East Side was one of the most crowded places on earth); by the urging of misguided social workers; and by the power of enculturation.

That process had been under way even before they began their lives here. Creolization, whether created by epochal forces such as mass migration, or by a single immigrant leaving home, begins at the airport or pier, when a sense of "us" and "them" is first established. On arrival, language, clothes, mores, manners, traditions, ways of thinking, consumption patterns, always at risk, are at once clung to, and slowly, and to varying degrees, altered, the process helped along not only by societal pressures, but also by the natural inclinations of immigrants themselves, impelled to move on out, to taste the new, and to be, and act, a little bit American. Inevitably, food culture is part of that negotiation.