Hamburgers. Fries. Corn on the cob. These are all things that come to mind when one thinks of American food. But what would you think if foods like tacos, burritos, and sushi were on that list? Over the past twenty-five years the demographics of the United States have been shifting due to both immigration and interracial marriage, causing America’s menu to become more culturally diverse than ever before. Indeed, as the ethnic makeup of America changes, the definition of American food continues to adapt to its creators, taking the category of American cuisine into domains it has never before ventured.
The Melting Pot of America
A nation with roots in immigration, the U.S. entered an abnormal time of relatively low immigration rates in the mid 20th century. In that time, the majority of the population was either white or black, with 85% of the population being non-Hispanic white . Since then, immigration into the U.S. has gradually resurged and brought America an influx of new races and cultures. While immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries were largely from Europe, the vast majority today (88%) come from continents other than Europe . Forty million immigrants, about half Hispanic and 30% Asian, have arrived in the U.S. since 1965, increasing the U.S.’s diversity immensely. It is estimated that by 2050, immigrants and their children will make up 37% of America’s population . Most of these immigrants come from Latin America and Asia, both of which have unique cultures that have been readily fused with preexisting American customs.
Further ethnic diversity stems from an increasing tendency towards interracial marriage in the United States. In 1970, due to cultural norms and lingering racial prejudices, interracial marriage occurred infrequently, at a rate of only 4%. Today, as more Americans progress towards racial unity, the rate of interracial marriage has increased to 15% of all marriages . This has lead the population of America to become inherently intercultural, as more and more people come from mixed backgrounds. In fact, by 2055, it is projected that there will be no longer be a majority race in the United States . Indeed, America has become a true melting pot of ethnic diversity.
Impact on Food
Due to the ever-changing population makeup of America, foods previously considered to be exclusively ethnic are becoming more mainstream than ever before. In particular, foods with Hispanic and Asian backgrounds are surging due to the corresponding influx of immigrants from these areas of the world. Items such as tacos, tortilla chips, and salsa are on the rise in a big way, and it’s beginning to show in U.S. markets. Salsa recently overtook ketchup as America’s most popular condiment , and tortillas are now eaten more often than burger rolls and hot dog buns . These changes are brought upon by a rise in American Hispanics’ population and buying power. In fact, Hispanics in the U.S. have increased their purchasing power from $208 billion in 1990 to $542 billion in 2001, and it only continues to rise today .
Similar to Mexican food, Asian cuisine grows more popular with each passing day. While fairly obscure just a few decades ago, Asian food now holds a prominent place in America’s food market today. The category’s fast food sales have increased by 135 percent since 1999 , with chains such as Panda Express becoming some of America’s most popular stops for a quick bite to eat (it brought in almost $2 billion in sales in 2014) . Just as Hispanics have popularized Mexican food in the U.S., Asians have brought much of their culture to share as well.
But perhaps the most prominent aspect of climbing racial diversity in America is the impact it has had on traditional American cuisine. Though authentic ethnic foods certainly play a consequential role in U.S. dining, the fusion of American foods with various ethnic flavors is what has truly changed the landscape of eating in the United States. Tex-Mex, a category of food combining both Mexican and American components, has risen to become one of America’s most sought-after dining options. Tex-Mex burrito chains like Qdoba and Chipotle have exploded over the past 10 years, with Chipotle adding 195 new restaurants in 2014 alone and beginning to outperform traditional rival fast food chains like Wendy’s .
Furthermore, foreign concepts continue to be incorporated into what many consider to be tried-and-true American foods. Burger chains like Whataburger now offer items such as chicken fajita tacos , and Hardee’s is now selling a Teriyaki burger , demonstrating influences from both Mexico and Asia. Red Robin offers a hamburger with Mexican-inspired guacamole paired with American-founded bacon , and even Lay’s now sells a “Chile Lemon” flavor of potato chips .
It is apparent that foreign cultures have been influencing American food, but to what end? Is the sanctity of American food being ruined by such changes, and is storied tradition lost with each subsequent food fusion? While some might view the transformations in this manner, perhaps the answer is that these influences are not foreign at all, but fundamentally American in nature. After all, we are a nation founded by a mix of races from all over the world, ready to adapt to fit the identity of its population. Moreover, one cannot deny that Asian and Mexican cuisine has brought American inhabitants some of the best food they have ever tasted. As America’s population continues to change, so will its food, but this shift is not one to view with contempt. The evolution of American cuisine is not only acceptable, but is as an embodiment of the country’s ideals. So next Fourth of July, pass on the barbecue, and indulge in a taco—it just might be the most American thing to do.
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8. Red Robin menu http://www.redrobin.com/menu ↩
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