Krishnendu Ray didn't learn to cook until he came to the U.S. from India. He quickly became fascinated with the subject, so much so that he's written The Ethnic Restaurateur, a history of immigrant food cultures in America.  He talks with Von Diaz about America's (very) gradual acceptance of new foods, the overwhelming skepticism even now-popular meals once faced, and the fate of the term "ethnic cuisine."

Von Diaz: You and I first met a couple of years ago in an Indian cooking class, and I remember you saying that you first learned to cook after coming to the U.S. How did your background inform your decision to study food?

Krishnendu Ray:  It started by me not finding out anything about cooking. I’m an Indian, middle-class male, so it seems we are not taught how to cook and it seems to have made no difference to us. That’s what was surprising to me.

Other people had fed me, mostly what Indian sociologists call kind of the servant/wife complex of cookery. My mom did most of the cooking, and she often would have a servant come in a few times a week to help her in cooking and cleaning, etc. So I was fed by these women and I had not thought about it at all.  

VD: So that was a big shift for you?

KR: It was big. I came to the U.S. to study development and under-development, so I was hit by this nostalgic feeling of food and this bigger realization that I have been fed all my life, and I have not paid attention to it. Then I ran into a few books, rare books at that point of time, and I said, “Wow, you can think seriously about food.” So I went to my adviser and I said, “I think I’m going to change my dissertation.”

VD: And what was his response?

KR: He said, “Don’t do it. No one is going to give you a job.”

VD: But that’s clearly not the case. What made you want to dig deeper, specifically into the role of immigrant food workers in New York?

ethnic restaurateur The Ethnic Restaurateur

KR: I started reading up on other immigrant experiences, and then I did a survey of immigrants; in this case, 126 households. I asked them about food and cooking and culture.

One of the things I wanted to look at was, I knew from everyday experience that most of the cooks and most of the staff in the kitchen were immigrants. My first question to myself was A) was that true throughout New York history, and B) can I find data on that?

So I looked at the census data, and that data set goes back to 1850. Unfortunately, the census was not counting cooks, because cooks were counted under servants. Not until 1910 did cook come to be we have a category called “cooks.” I could find bakers, butchers, saloon keepers, and in fact, most bakers and butchers in most of New York history from 1850 onward were foreign-born, German and Irish. I had no clue about it.

As you dig deeper into this material, surprising things emerge. For instance, I didn’t realize that Americans had such a kind of a negative attitude towards German food, because for an outsider like me, it looks like very similar to what I consider American food: meat and potatoes, lager or beer, dairy.  It’s very Germanic and Northern European, understandably, because the largest number of immigrants to the United States historically and for the longest time have come from northern Europe, from the United Kingdom, from Ireland, from Germany, etc.

So what’s fascinating for me was this very dynamic nature of American eating and our valuation of it. So we seem to have something that’s peculiarly constant, which is we have immigrants coming in from these very different places. We don’t respect their food very much for the first generation or the second generation when they are poor, working-class folks. But as they start climbing up, we change our judgment about how good their food is. 

VD: Can you give me an example of that?

KR: Italian. Looking at today’s food scene, Italian food is at the height of popularity and prestige in the U.S. We have had, at least since the 1980s, expensive Italian restaurants. But if you look back at the historical materials, the 1880s into 1920s into 1930s, people, nutritionists, and social workers are full of disdain for Italian food and olive oil, about how spicy their food is and how garlicky it is. Their complaint is that this makes Italians susceptible to their thirst for alcohol, and this is happening at the same time as when the anti-alcohol campaign is heating up.

If you look at that previous example I gave of German food, it was considered inferior; the culture is considered inferior. Ben Franklin was complaining a lot in Pennsylvania about the Germans, then called the Pennsylvania Dutch. The fear was that they were going to Germanize rather than being Anglicized.

So we have this kind of a dynamic nature, a constant change in American food, which I think is very interesting and very exciting. My argument is every 40 years, American cuisine changes. That makes it unusual in the world.

Our first attitude towards the new immigrant cuisines is skepticism, then they slowly become popular at the cheap end of it, then they have an impossible time climbing up the social ladder. We see that with Mexican, with Indian, with Thai. In fact, there is a big gap in the middle often. Think about Mexican food: We get terrific tacos and taquerias, you will get some very exclusive places at the upper end of it, but there is a huge gap in the mid-market space. Our posture towards new foods goes from skepticism to re-evaluation to the upscaling of it.

VD: Let’s talk about the term “ethnic cuisine,” because you use the term “ethnic” in your book. It has recently come under fire, and people are starting to really criticize it. What do you make of its origins?

"We don’t respect their food very much for the first generation or the second generation when they are poor, working-class folks. But as they start climbing up, we change our judgment about how good their food is."
-Krishnendu Ray

KR: “Ethnic,” in my research, emerges in the 1950s. It emerges that white people can’t have ethnicity, which is different from race, because race is seen largely a black/white thing, and ethnicity is a way to talk about cultural difference while skirting the question of race.  

That comes into play since the 1950s, and it becomes quite popular. My research shows that over the last five or ten years, the use, at least in the domain of food, is beginning to decline at the upper ends of the journalism field. The New York Times has stopped classifying foods as ethnic. It specifies it more as Indian or Indian-regional, like Punjabi, or Mexican or even Mexican-regional: Oaxaca, etc.

So, in some ways, “ethnicity” is a word that was kind of born to account for cultural differences, just when the civil rights movement was emerging, and also to avoid the polarization of race. I think it has fulfilled its function, and it now sounds a little outdated. 

VD: It is still totally a buzzword. How long do you think it is going to take to go out of style?

KR: I have a feeling this generation is the last generation. I think young people will use it less and less, like any of these words that have a social history that comes into play. They get outdated, and by the time the next generation comes along, they’re probably not going to use “ethnic.”

Von Diaz
Von Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York City. Her work has been featured on NPR, StoryCorps, WNYC, PRI’s The World, BuzzFeed, Colorlines and Feet in 2 Worlds.