The waxing-waning nature of Italian food demonstrates the capriciousness of national palates, and history is rife with similar examples. In the 1930s, Ray told me, emigrants from Japan found that their children would return home from their new schools parroting their teachers, who had given them the idea that “American” food—dairy, cheese, and meat, mostly—was instrumental to growing up big and strong. Many parents embraced that notion. “Now, it's completely flipped,” Ray says. “Now we think, of course, the Japanese live the longest, eat the best food."
The gradual upward revision of Japanese and Italian cuisines may hint at what’s to come for some cuisines that today sit in the middle of the pack when it comes to check-price averages. “Twenty years from now Chinese food may be able to climb in American estimation,” Ray writes, “but that depends on a lot, including the continuing economic rise of China and the decline in the flow of poor Chinese immigrants into the United States.” He added in an interview that he thinks Korean cuisine is also “going to do pretty well.”
When immigrant food is brought into the American fold, another big question, aside from whether it will be thought of as high- or low-end, is how long it will be considered exotic; food can be a useful entry point to thinking about how immigrant cultures are absorbed into the American mainstream, and what “mainstream” might look like in just a few decades. Only 80 or so years ago, The New York Times published an article that, to make a point about how radically Americans’ eating habits were changing, imagined a “hodge-podge” of “strange dishes” that a family at the time could plausibly plop on the dinner table next to each other, no matter how objectionable such a spread may have seemed. Those strange dishes? Spaghetti, meatballs, corn on the cob, sauerkraut, fruit salad, and apple pie. Yesterday’s strange hodgepodge is today’s boring dinner.
For quite a while, in fact, “foreign” food was simply shorthand for German food. That’s what writers in the Times meant virtually anytime they referred to foreign food between the 1850s, when the paper was founded, and around the 1920s. In the mid- to late 1800s, when relatively poor German immigrants were first arriving in the U.S. en masse, their sauerkraut and sausages were denied incorporation into the American culinary canon. Decades later, only after generations of Germans built wealth and social capital, the hot dog’s American-ness does not require elaboration.
As someone who has spent half his life in India, Ray at first was surprised after moving to America to see just how German it was. Before recent waves of Latin American immigration, Germans represented the largest historical influx of newcomers to America, and they deeply shaped the country’s culture; until World War II, German was among the most commonly taught languages in schools (much like Spanish is today). But German influences, Ray says, have been “scrubbed out of the script,” partly because they are so pervasive as to convince people they don’t need documenting, and partly because anti-German sentiment after the two world wars allowed little room for overt praise.