Immigration: A Food Lover’s Perspective


Bring me your naan, your guacamole, your kebobs yearning to be eaten

There will always be political issues and debates that divide Americans.  Rarely is there a subject that the food lovers among us can weigh in with a credible and unique argument.  Food has no direct relationship with tax rates or defense spending.  But there is one hot-button political issue that should be near and dear to the hearts of all Americans who love good food.  Immigration.

There can be no debate as to whether an open immigration policy has been beneficial to the American culinary landscape.  If I have my way, we will change the first part of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty to read:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free and share the cuisine of their native country”

Many immigrants come to the United States to engage in the noble entrepreneurial exercise of opening a restaurant.  And we as a nation are better for it.  Within a 15 minute drive from my house, I can enjoy authentic Indian, Thai, Chinese (which includes many delicious subgroups like Cantonese or Szechwan), Ethiopian, Greek, Japanese, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Middle East (too many and too various in this area to break down by nation of origin), or Korean cuisine.  Some parts of the country can boast more, some have less, but odds are if you live near a decent sized metropolis or college town you have similar choices as well.  Quite often these places are a “hole in the wall,” but they serve succulent, freshly prepared meals that enrich our gastronomic existence.

Still not convinced?  That’s ok because there is another side of this coin.  Many fine dining establishments are not owned by immigrants, but their presence is essential to the successful and high quality operation that exists within their kitchens.

Many years ago, I worked at one such establishment as a bartender.  I won’t mention it by name, but it is a well regarded Italian restaurant on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor.  One of my first shifts, I was working on a Friday morning and a member of the kitchen staff came to the bar to ask me to make the espresso/kahlua mix needed for tiramisu.  I was somewhat taken aback when I realized the person barely spoke any English.  Not a problem, we figured it out and soon I was getting to know the kitchen staff, the majority of whom were from Mexico or Latin American points nearby.  The chef spoke fluent Spanish and the kitchen ran like clockwork.

If you think that is unique, you are wrong.  Bartenders and wait staff like to drink together after work, and it took minimal inquiry on my part to learn that the presence of immigrants working in the kitchen was the norm for most restaurants.

Did we speculate as to their legality or status?  Hell no, we didn’t give a damn.  They worked hard, were professional and got the food up for service to the ravenous public in a timely manner.  It was a fun environment, I spoke next to no Spanish but could still understand when being hazed or ribbed by the kitchen staff.  For obvious reasons bartenders and cooks have a natural symbiotic relationship, and as a bartender I had some liberty when giving it back.

To some, the arguments I have presented will not be appreciated.  If they would rather eat at the slice of Americana known as Applebee’s than they can go right ahead.  For me, and I submit for most food lovers real Americana is at the table of a local dive, run by someone who speaks broken English, works 12 hours a day six or seven days a week, and makes a mean tamale or authentic shawarma.

Throughout history, the sharing of a meal has been a way of bridging the gap between cultures.  I for one consider myself fortunate to live in a country that has (for the most part) encouraged people from all over the world to come to the United States and try to create a better life for themselves.  All it takes is an open mind and an empty stomach to realize that having a minor language gap is a small price to pay for a great meal made with earnest pride.  I will leave the demagoguery of this issue to the usual suspects.  If you want to get worked up about immigration, it is your right, but I won’t join you.  I’ll probably be picking up Indian takeout.