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Malieh Nassar, left, serves food to her children in the kitchen of the Mother Mosque as they end their day of fasting in observance of Ramadan, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Walk through the international section of almost any supermarket and you will see the impact that waves of immigrants have had on American cuisine: papayas from Ecuador, pierogi from Eastern Europe and tortillas from Mexico, to name a few.  Food is an expression of culture, and, like other aspects of their lives, immigrants adapted the foods of their homelands to the United States.  They created the wide variety of cuisines available in America today – Greek, Chinese, Italian, Thai, Mexican and many more.

America offered a surprising abundance of food to the new arrivals.  Most immigrants were able to buy foods which they could not have afforded in the old country.  For instance, in Sicily elites controlled access to food and peasant diets rarely included luxuries such as meats, olive oil, milk and pasta.  The poor produced these foods, but were rarely able to consume them.  In the United States, working-class Italians could afford the kinds of foods consumed only by the upper class in Italy.

Ahmed, an Egyptian immigrant, at his halal food stand in New York City.  He went to Egypt in September of 2002 to get married; it is unclear whether he was able to return to the United States.

For many immigrants, foods were regulated by religious law.  For observant Jews, kosher dietary laws had the effect of empowering male religious leaders who regulated what could be eaten.  The abundance of food and the lack of communal religious authority led many Jews to abandon strict religious observance.  Many of Irish descent, shaped by memories of the famine and a diet limited largely to potatoes, expressed their culture less through food and more through politics, the arts and the church.


Lombardi’s Pizzeria and Grocery store, New York City, 1905.  It is believed to be the first pizzeria in the United States.

Immigrants provided a market for foods from the homeland, often giving them their first business opportunities, developing restaurants and grocery stores around their ethnic foods.  Today, Caribbean food abounds in Flatbush Brooklyn, while Jackson Heights in Queens has stores serving the needs of South Asians, Colombians and Salvadorans.  Eventually, many “ethnic” foods find their way to restaurants and supermarkets and become popular with a wider population.