How American Cuisine Became a Melting Pot

Eight Flavors, the new book by Sarah Lohman, is an absorbing history of food culture in the U.S., and of the people who contributed to it.

Wikimedia / JIANG HONGYAN / Aliaksei Smalenski / Sheila Fitzgerald / Carlos Yudica / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The first celebrity chef in America was an Indian immigrant named Prince Ranji Smile. Described by an excitable reporter in The New York Letter as having “clear dark skin, brilliant black eyes, smooth black hair, and the whitest of teeth,” Smile was poached from London by the New York restaurateur Louis Sherry to work in his eponymous Fifth Avenue establishment. Smile’s complex curries enthralled the city, and by 1907 he was touring the nation, performing cooking demonstrations at department stores and food halls. Fans, particularly women, flocked to him. But in the 1920s he left the U.S. after a Supreme Court ruling denied citizenship to Indian natives on the grounds that they weren’t white. No further records of his life remain.

Smile’s biography is revealed in Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, a new book by Sarah Lohman that unpacks the diverse history of a nation’s palate via eight distinct ingredients. Through chapters focusing on black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha, Lohman reveals how a nation founded by immigrants built its national cuisine on tastes from all over the world, and how those tastes continue to evolve. But almost more fascinating than the countless odd facts Lohman reveals—the Vanilloideae orchid is native to four continents, which suggests it was around before those continents divided; ketchup has its origins in an early recipe for soy sauce—are the people whose work had a profound impact on the way Americans eat, but whose biographies have been almost completely forgotten. In that sense, American food, which Lohman describes as “the most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet,” offers a unique and surprising view of American history.

Lohman organizes her chapters chronologically, starting with black pepper—hugely popular in the 18th century—and ending with sriracha, whose literal and metaphorical hotness as a condiment was enshrined when Bon Appetit named it the Ingredient of the Year in 2010. Early on, she establishes her argument that food is much more than nourishment: It’s an intrinsic part of human culture. “The physiological signals of flavor are interpreted in our brain’s frontal lobe,” she writes, “the part of the brain where emotional reactions are processed and personality is formed. Personal experience, our memories, and our emotions all inform the experience.” No Thanksgiving dish is an island; each one carries its own weight of memory and emotional connection before we so much as take a single bite.

That said, as much as we inherit our sense of taste from our parents and grandparents (Lohman points out that a liking for garlic, for instance, is passed from mothers to babies in the womb), American cuisine is an ever-evolving thing. It shifts and expands rapidly alongside changing patterns of immigration, culture, and even politics. Consider black pepper, which was so commonplace in the U.S. in 1750 that 50 different recipes in Martha Washington’s wedding gift, Booke of Cookery, featured it as an ingredient. After the Revolutionary War, it became impossibly scarce, because the British had imported it directly from the U.K. without revealing where it came from. But in 1790, an American captain from Salem arrived in Sumatra, where he learned that Piper nigrum grew on the northwestern coast of the island. He convinced a merchant to send an expedition to source the spice, and the boat returned 18 months later with more than 100,000 pounds of pepper “shoveled right into her hold like gravel.”

After that, black pepper became ubiquitous on American tables, especially when pre-ground pepper did away with the need to grind it by hand. But 1993 saw the launch of the Food Network, on which viewers watched chefs finish dishes with fresh ground black pepper, which led to yet another boost for the spice. In the two decades since then, Lohman writes, “black pepper consumption has increased by 40 percent. And in the 21st century, we’re buying it whole and grinding it fresh, just like Martha Washington.” Soy sauce has similarly ebbed and flowed in popularity, gaining favor in the 18th century as a British import, then largely disappearing until the Gold Rush in 1848, when Chinese immigrants arrived on the West Coast. It received its biggest boost in 1972, when Kikkoman launched the first Japanese manufacturing plant in the U.S., appealing to American soldiers who’d fought overseas in World War Two and gained a taste for the cuisine.

War, Lohman points out, “is a great propagator for new culinary movements.” Mexican cooking was first introduced to American palates in the early 19th century, when soldiers invaded what’s now Texas. Garlic owes its rise in popularity in the U.S. to the First World War, after which American intellectuals flocked to Paris and French cooking became the newest trend (it also helped that James Beard was stationed in Marseille in 1945).

But the key factor that’s defined American cuisine throughout the years is undoubtedly immigration. Chili powder, invented by a German American in 1897 to facilitate making Mexican food in the U.S., is one example of what Lohman describes as the “patchwork quilt” of American food culture. Sriracha, made in Southern California as a Thai-style sauce by a Vietnamese refugee, has an origin story that’s “more American than apple pie.” Fear of immigrants, she argues, is also an age-old American tradition, leading to a decades-long stigma against garlic, which represented Italian immigrants’ supposed refusal to assimilate, and absurd myths that the Chinese eat rats, or that MSG causes headaches (rather than being a chemical additive, Lohman points out, it’s a substance that naturally occurs in everything from tomatoes to cheese).

So it seems appropriate that Lohman dedicates significant portions of her book to the people who helped define American cuisine even while facing discrimination and disdain. There are the “Chili Queens,” impossibly glamorous Mexican women who supported their families by selling chili con carne in the Alamo Plaza in the late 19th century until they were shut down by concerns about sanitation. here’s Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave and amateur botanist on Île de Bourbon who changed the flavor of much of the world’s baked goods when he discovered a way to make vanilla plants pollinate. And there’s William Gebhardt, who found a way to manufacture chili powder as a shortcut for home cooks.

There’s also Prince Ranji Smile, whose celebrity and popular appeal couldn’t save him from clashing with the U.S.’s strict labor and immigration laws. In 1922, a profile of Smile ran in the New York Hotel Review, in which the author noted Smile’s contributions to the diverse character of American cuisine. “America has given no attention to the development of a school of cookery of its own,” Mary Pickett wrote, “but it has imported its cooks from all parts of the world, and when the American culinary school is finally developed it will have embodied in it the good points of the culinary art of the world.” Eight Flavors, a richly researched, intriguing, and elegantly written book, is a testament to how accurate Pickett’s prediction was, and how much American food owes to the people who helped a nation make other traditions its own.