What ‘White’ Food Meant to a First-Generation Kid

Processed snacks signified American comfort and belonging.

Comments: 135

  1. Growing up in the North East in the 60's I think we had one can of Spam in the cupboard for emergency food only, if there were a hurricane or something.
    Moving to Hawaii in the 70's I about gagged on the Spam-alot served up there.
    It's all what you know. We did not eat white bread, only whole wheat and ryes.
    A honey pot was on our kitchen table and we always had fresh salad with every dinner. So no, white people food is not actually eaten by all white people.

  2. In your eagerness to separate yourself from the masses and tell us the healthy way in which you and your family ate, it appears you have missed the entire point of the article.

  3. @John Mead: there is no point to this article, except for the author to mock and denigrate the American culture that accepted her and her parents, and gave them a home.

  4. ALL white people do not eat white bread. And baloney. And Kraft Mac.
    And TV dinners and Cheetos and fast food ....it is not "White'' food.
    So tired of this stereotypical racial tripe masquerading as factual.
    What about black people? Do they all eat the same? Jews?

  5. Much ado about nothing and a lot of navel gazing. I, too, am a first generation American and my parents served us American foods with the idea that we then would become full-fledged Americans. Immigrants try to fit in, so what? Eventually they reach some sort f equilibrium where they fuse both parts of their lives---the American and whatever other culture they come from.

    And, really, a slice of pizza gives you hives for a week? Sounds like a psychological issue.

  6. Allergies, fireweed. We may not know exactly how Ms. Ko's came about, but allergies and autoimmune disorders can be absolutely debilitating. If there's a silver lining here, it's that hers seem well controlled. If they were worse, you better believe there's a risk of psychological trauma -- you try an extended visit to the emergency room because some lying cook thought it was all in your head.

    I wish Ms. Ko the best. She wrote an entertaining article that even compelled fireweed to sift through to the end.

  7. And yet not as much of a psychological issue perhaps as the need to minimize someone else's experience by suggesting their physical symptoms are a psychological issue.

  8. Interesting about the pb&j, apple and oatmeal cookie, as that was my daily lunch growing up, and mostly what I feed my kids today. Only they don't get the cookie; they get a fruit instead. I should probably give them a cookie.

  9. A little cookie now and then is relished by the wisest men.

  10. My mother, a second generation Italian, used to label all non ethnics - essentially WASPs - "American people". Her expression was "you know how American people (insert verb - eat, talk, think, on and on).

    As a NJ native of that era I'm wondering what the only good Chinese restaurant in NJ was.

  11. Typical American, was a common phrase in my family.

  12. Growing up in the 50s in an Italian-American family that ate arugula and radicchio in salads I longed for a wedge of iceberg with Kraft Catalina dressing, like we saw on TV. And instead of polenta I wished for Kraft macaroni and cheese. Because they were American.
    Now I laugh that the foods of my childhood have moved beyond trendy to be mainstream. As have pho, dim sum, shawarma, and tacos.

  13. I know what you mean: I wanted turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving ... I got chicken and mole, rice, beans and tortillas. I wanted PB&J sandwiches for lunch ... I got the oddly combined avocado and tomato sandwiches on Wonder bread (sliced tomatoes packed separately) .

    On the other hand, I still eat both.

  14. My mother used to bake her own brown bread and makes us school sandwiches with cheese (not Velveeta) and fresh lettuce and tomatoes. How I longed for the other kids' baloney, mayo, and white bread sandwiches, and of course those barbeque chips, which we were never allowed. I would hide my brown bread in shame. Now of course high-end restaurants serve brown rice, brown bread, and gently sauteed or steamed vegetables, the very things I secretly loved, but associated with being poor or un-American.

  15. As a first generation Italian American in the 60s, I longed for green beans that came in a can, casseroles, and roast beef for Sunday dinner instead of spaghetti. My best friend's "American" family had those things. I was equally captivated by their generous use of butter on things like noodles. Oh boy for a plate of that!

  16. Lisa Ko, I am older than you and my family was from Italy but your story made me laugh and made me wistful. I, too, begged for American (Amerigan) food, particularly for my school lunches, when our different-ness seemed to be on display every day. My biggest standoff with my mother was over sandwich bread -- why couldn't I have Wonder Bread for my lunches instead of...THIS! "THIS" was the bread my mom made every Friday...when she also used a portion of each week's dough for pizza, which waited for us, still hot, when we came home from school. (As you can imagine, I'd pay quite a bit for just a single slice of that bread or pizza now.) Thank you for your story.

  17. My mother was second generation Irish from San Francisco, transported by marriage to upstate NY in the early 50's and I can tell you, I was tortured by her homemade bread and begged for Wonder Bread. Ugh natural peanut butter (Oxheart, surely the only one available). No Chef Boyardee. No Swansons. No Hamburger Helper, not ever. I then became a professional bread baker inspired by the SF Sourdoughs my mother carried back in her suitcase after our visits to relatives and a from-scratch cook forever, which has always suited me well.

  18. Well all this made me want to do was go get a Swanson's TV dinner and see if those brownies were as deliciously terrible as I remember while simultaneously watching Plinko on the Price is Right.

  19. Yes, they really ARE that awful. Once in a very great while -- maybe once a decade -- I buy one just to revisit childhood memories. God, it is terrible. But as a child, I was FASCINATED by the idea of a meal in a little compartmented metal tray. And back then, it was METAL and you cooked it -- for an hour! -- in the actual STOVE. So it wasn't a pop in the microwave thing. It was a real commitment of time, and anticipation. (Anticipation really DOES wet the appetite.)

    So you can't quite replicate it today, not perfectly -- no more metal trays or foil covers to peel back!

    My mom thought they were the height of wastefulness -- one meal, for ONE person? perish the thought! -- so we only got them for extraordinary treats, like when recovering from measles or something.

  20. You've finally answered a question that has persisted since my childhood in New York City: Why is the McDonald's in Chinatown filled 24/7 with Chinese?

    I just never understood...and I never ate there either.

  21. Writer probably does not know difference between "White" & "Caucasian".

  22. Makes a difference if you can afford something besides Spam.

  23. Good point. It is easy to forget from our lofty viewpoint in 2017, that 50-60 years ago, Spam was very cheap. It didn't require any cooking or fancy preparation (though there are some weird and wonderful recipes for it!). It lasts pretty nearly forever on the shelf, too -- good for that bomb shelter or doomsday prepper hideout, or just in case of a power outage or hurricane.

    I know I ate it a few times in my childhood -- I seem to recall it baked, with pineapple rings -- but it had to be a very rare thing. My mom and grandma were Old World scratch cooks, who disdained most modern convenience foods.

  24. Fantastic!!! More, please.

  25. My mother used to fry up Spam and it wasn't too bad. She'd also put it into my white-bread sandwiches along with mayo--yuck. As an adult, I have never used Spam or even considered it. In fact, I pretty much avoid any processed foods (except for Cheerios) and perhaps canned tomatoes for sauce. They had some strange ideas about what was good back in the 50s and 60s.

  26. A lot of things people THINK are not processed foods, are indeed processed foods.

    For example: tofu. It does not grow on trees, it is PROCESSED. All cheeses are processed foods. Homogenized milk is a processed food. All yogurt is processed food. Oatmeal is a processed food.

    And canned tomatoes -- San Marzanos really stand out, but all canned tomatoes qualify -- are an excellent example of a very, very good canned food that can be better than real tomatoes (hard, nasty ones) in the winter. They make superb sauces and soups and stews. To disdain canned tomatoes (or canned beans of all types) is really being fanatical for no purpose.

  27. Wouldn't being born in the US make the author second generation?

  28. Remarkable how America's immigrant cuisine has become white because another kind of immigrant thinks all white people look and eat the same. Hot dogs are German, pizza is Italian, bagels are Jewish and stew and green beer are Irish. Belgium and France argue over who invented the french fry and thank the Spanish for Alubias Con Arroz. Lumping all this together into "white" food is like confusing Cantonese and SzeChaun.

  29. Say what you like but frozen tv dinners and super processed packaged foods with oodles of conservatives were consdered quintissentially American to first generation kids in the 80s and 90s (and I say this from experience) regardless of their supposed origins. Her family's idea of assimilation was to buy into an American lifestyle which marketers assured was the route to happiness. That was the point of the article but I guess you were so caught up in trying to nitpick that you missed it.

  30. Thanks! actually our "American cuisine" is a wonderful mishmash of all the unique cultures and nations that have come together to make up our "melting pot". The things Ms. Ko identifies as "American" (and despises) like pizza....originated in Italy. Of course, we transformed pizza from its Neapolitan origins into something more American, just as we took Chinese cuisine and came up with chop suey and chow mein.

    (BTW: even something that strikes us as incredibly "Italian" like spaghetti....the pasta itself came from CHINA and was brought to Europe by Marco Polo in the 12th century. The tomatoes themselves came from the New World; they did not exist in Europe. Food travels around the world in a very fascinating way!)

  31. Oodles of preservatives, I think. (But not all packaged foods, then or now, are loaded with artifical ingredients.)

  32. There's no place like home.

    But, nearly everything wrong with the American diet leads back to advertising and processing. In the case of Spam, there's nostalgia added to the mix. For some reason, people who ate this stuff during the war have warm feelings for it, though you don't see many of them walking around with bloody bandages on, or sleeping in shelters, for that good ol' wartime feeling.

    My parents lived through the war too, but they did everything they could to avoid the things they associated with it, like bombs, bullets, and Spam.

    As for the innocence of 1986, try this: "We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun."--George Orwell, 1937

    But, to keep thing in perspective, a great friend of mine lived a long life never having stepped into a McD or a Burger King, but said, "I'd have every meal of my life at a McDonald's if that was the only place I could meet, and talk with my friends".

    Luckily, it isn't.

  33. You are not alone...my daughter who used to compete in fencing in high school would fall sick every time the coach gave her gatorade. Turns out she is allergic to all artificial colors and preservatives, makes her so sick she throws up.

  34. In east Asian countries, you won't find too many food products advertising that they are good source of fiber, because the typical diet has always been rich in vegetables, whose variety is many times richer than any typical American grocery store. Don't be ashamed of the kind of food you have always been eating, especially when it may often be far superior that the typical "white American" diet. New immigrants should simply be proud of being an American, i.e. someone who is not afraid to be different.

  35. I enjoyed your article. Although I'm born and bred in the us, much of what you said rang true for my family. If it was junk food, we ate it. My mother's "go-to" meal? Hamburger Helper.

    And our television was rarely off.

  36. Instead of an article meant to improve our diets we get another screed about bad 'whiteness'.

    Enough already...we get it...white privilege, white superiority, white food, white ancestry, white... white...white...white is bad.

    Some of these articles, beyond not being very informative, are just plain head-scratching silly.

  37. Americans should stop obsessing over food. You need a bare minimum to survive, over-eating does the opposite--kills you faster, and makes the entire country unable to even defend itself--can't have fat soldiers defending us, but no one cares--so eat up. Food for thought.

  38. What began as a cultural engagement or assertion through food is reworked through the lens of an autoimmune disorder. The two are mutually exclusive, no? Trying to figure if the autoimmune disorder is also revealed as a metaphor here America's rejection of your participation in our culture...though I've had a tough time trying to pin down what our culture is--especially as it has changed so much since the 1980s when I was younger.
    My wife is from South Asia and when our family eats at home, we are having dal chawal as often as we have baked chicken and fruit and the occasionally cookie (taro buns today). And pizza twice a month (pizza was a luxury growing up--we had it four times a year). Pizza is far more American than burgers (when we have qeema kebabs, they are very much like a burger though they are the South Asian cousin of the American style)
    Growing up in Jersey, American food was a mash-up of what you ate at home and what you aspired for (yes, we always hoped to eat TV dinners or Sara Lee cakes, but they never tasted as good as the photos implied they would).
    When my wife's family came to America, they reveled in their first taste of Ragu on pasta. It signified for my brother-in-law that they arrived finally (they became "American," taking the oath of citizenship, which soon followed, was merely a formality).
    American normalcy should be an informality always. Our palates continue to expand. In the end, that is central to being American.

  39. I don't think this article is navel gazing like one of the commenters wrote. I actually related to this and found the parts about the apolitical approach to be quite compelling.

  40. As an immigrant child from Australia in the early sixties, I too longed for processed foods, and junk TV, and pizza, and wearing T-shirts and sweats to bed, and between meals snacking. Alas.

  41. Don't Australians eat vegemite? and isn't that a highly processed food?

  42. You can tell a lot about a family's history by the food they eat. Growing up I thought it was normal to have gumbo, sauerkraut and sausage, stewed potatoes, grits and eggs, stew, and ham hock and beans in the same week. In the Pacific Northwest my friends didn't know what to make of my family's eating habits.

    I explained to my friends that my PawPaw was from Louisiana and he was half German and half Cajun while my Granny was from Texas. They combined their respective food history into an eclectic mix that got passed down through their kids.

    I'm glad that they passed their food history down. I've found that I'm more open minded and less picky when encountering other cultures. A Moroccan friend thought he would get me with a goat dish, I loved it. Another friend from Cambodia added her family food to my life.

    If you look at the foods from the different regions of the United States you can tell who immigrated there. That's the beauty of this country, we really are a melting pot.

  43. My father's mother came to the U.S. from what was then Czechoslovakia and his father came to the U.S. as a child from France. Before she married my grandfather, my grandmother received a degree in nutrition studies from Columbia University which was a very unusual academic path at the time. When we were little, my father sometimes described to us the acute embarrassment he suffered as a child in the 20's when his mother insisted on bringing his lunch to the school gates everyday and how that decidedly "un-American" food led to him being called "froggy" by his classmates. In later years however he would wax lyrical about eating brown bread spread with goose fat and apple pie with the skins on the apples and realized how lucky he was.

  44. This culture of "American normalcy" is largely an artifact of the traumas of depression, World War II, and postwar threat of sudden nuclear destruction. And it was not just Americans who wanted it. I would not begrudge the survivors of those times their TV dinners eaten while watching game shows.

    As for food: My mother also stuffed turkeys with sticky rice (much moister and flavorful than bread stuffing), and fried slices of Spam that we ate with rice. Spam is underrated. It’s the American Mortadella/Prosciutto, and is best when used like a salty ham. I once took a can of Spam to a good sushi place before the dinner rush, and made the chef’s day: He prepared it both raw and cooked, in beautiful cut and custom handrolls. The saltiness of the Spam balanced just right with the other ingredients, and the soft texture and uniform consistency of the Spam worked better with small portions sushi rice than a tougher, chewier, and uneven capicola or pancetta would have.

  45. My stepson spent a decade in the Navy, traveling around the world. He picked up some interesting recipes; one was SPAM sushi. It sounds awful, I know, but it really wasn't bad. I think it's fantastic your sushi chef took the challenge and made it into something intricate and delicious!

  46. So exactly who is this American other making immigrant children ill at ease adults? I have yet to meet one.

    I do meet and read many americanified complainers making classic cliche complaints that assume they are entitled with what is now apparently called white privilege but the privileged making those privilege assumed complaints know no racial or sexual boundaries.

  47. Once upon a time, as a young man in San Francisco, I stumbled on one of those hole in the wall cafes on a side street that still existed in the early sixties. A large blackboard with a chalk written menu propped in the window listed dishes like beef stew, chicken & dumplings & apple pie in English as well as Chinese.

    The clientele were almost all older Chinese gents, seemingly in their seventies and up. I sat at a small counter, there were no tables & was served one of the most fantastic stews I've ever eaten. Those old boys knew what real American food was all about & I'll bet that some of them had enjoyed a stew like that with their nickel beer along the Barbary Coast fifty years earlier.

    That stew was very close to the one that my old grandmother, the daughter of German immigrants, born in 1880, made for us in the fifties. American cuisine is our most regrettable lost art.

  48. AJ: "American cuisine is our most regrettable lost art."

    A search for "American cuisine" at Amazon returns a few thousand results. And the 75th anniversary edition of "Joy of Cooking", which was published in 2006, is still in print.

  49. Very well, BMS, but it seems that the road houses & eateries priding themselves on American cooking I've encountered over the years were schooled from " The Drudgery of Cooking."

  50. AJ: "the road houses & eateries priding themselves on American cooking"

    OK. You were referring to restaurants. Have you tried looking at restaurant reviews?

    As for the Chinese restaurant in SF that you remember, try a Google search for "chinese beef stew San Francisco".

    And sometimes, if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself:

    Old-Fashioned Beef Stew
    Molly O'Neill

    Chicken Potpie for the Modern Cook
    OCT. 3, 2016

  51. "Eventually, the food I’d gorged on, with its cheery packaging and bright colors, made me sick, and I developed food allergies and chronic autoimmune issues. These days, a slice of pizza or a handful of Doritos will give me hives for weeks."

    I doubt this was due to the food.

  52. I don't know the author, so it is impossible to tell if this is a genuine allergy -- as diagnosed by her physician with actual verifiable tests -- OR just a general belief that "foods I don't like or think are icky, make me sick!"

    I say this because I know a LOT of "self-diagnosed" folks who claim a whole range of allergies, some of which are very convenient -- some seem to draw a lot of attention to them -- some allow them to demand special foods and treatment when visiting or at restaurants. These folks are VERY VERY high maintenance. Some of them are "orthorexic" -- the invented allergies allow them to avoid eating a lot of foods they just don't like, and often, in the hopes of attaining a very slender physique.

    The author is implying that eating junk food as a kid gave her celiac disease or "chronic auto-immune disease" as an adult. That is almost certainly not true. In fact, eating a wide variety of foods is considered protective of your risk for allergies -- it is the special snowflakes, whose parents handle them with white gloves, who have the highest risk of ACTUAL allergies.

    NOTE: there is very little that pizza has in common with Doritos, which are made out of CORN. Is Ms. Ko allergic to both wheat AND corn?

  53. Who cares what other people think of what I eat, just like I don't care what they eat. Cows are lucky because they all eat grass, regardless of what color they are, and the grass is green.

  54. The appearance of processed foods in the USA in the 1960s did not appear to be a step down the road towards unhealthy eating, obesity and diabetes, but rather, a way for Americans to spend less time in the kitchen and more time at leisure, both good things. The notion that such conveniences would lead to ruinous health seemed far-fetched at the time.

  55. Most folks alive today have NO IDEA what it took to put 3 meals a day on the table in the historic past -- and clean it all up afterwards! -- it was a HUGE job that consumed most of the day for women. No refrigeration, so you had to shop almost daily. No way to safely store leftovers, either. Tremendous heat from the stove, making cooking in summer pure misery.

    EVERY food had to be prepared entirely from scratch -- think of making Thanksgiving dinner, 3 times a day, every day, your whole entire life. And then CLEANING IT ALL UP afterwards.

    If you do this at all -- cook all or mostly from scratch for your family -- it is hard to avoid the sense that you spend a couple of hours making something, and the family eats it up in 15 minutes, then runs from the table with no interest or intent on helping you clean it up.

    Cooking CAN be very creative and pleasurable -- IF you can choose the time and place to do it, and what to cook. If you have to cook 3 times a day, the same stuff over and over again -- with no options at all to do anything else -- it quickly becomes drudgery.

  56. A privileged child in New York in the 50s, I remember my first slice of pizza when going to the ice-skating rink in Central Park. It was a treat, a memorable one, and the other is a junior cheese whopper at Burger King in the 90s at the subway stop.

    My youngest friend is a first generation American. Her mother and I grew up in Africa and Europe. Neither of us were allowed to have snacks. None of my classmates ate in-between meals and there was no such thing as a vending machine. Tinned cans were a luxury and everything was 'organic'.

    We have had an exchange about the amount of candy and sweets that are being dispensed at day-care and school (further reflection has just made me eat a handful of 'kitty treats' instead of raw almonds. A first and last mistake of this kind). How sharp is our concentration these days? Why are so many children on sedatives?

    Having worked for the first female clinical psychiatrist in the Philippines, she writes of her childhood, a family of eleven where a gong rang when the food was on the table and the rush to be on time. An attractive woman, an athlete at school, when assigned to a global children's agency based in New York, she ate all different kinds of food during her visits to 64 countries in two years. Strong but not stout with a medium frame, I never saw her take a sip of water at the office.

    As for my young friend, she is not getting treats, but books because she likes to read. The mature ones prefer chocolate bunnies :)

  57. During my economically-challenged childhood, we only had "junk food" at other people's houses, and we loved it. As soon as we had babysitting or paper delivery jobs, we spent almost all our money on it. Alas, as one gets older, the consequences of consuming it are much too severe.

  58. As a third generation American with a Japanese mother, she made a lot of "white people food" but from scratch at a time when housewives were using instant mixes and canned food. It wasnt a mystery that neighborhood kids all congregated at my house for cookies and cake. We ate a lot of American food but at the end of the day, having been raised in Japan with a mother who cooked everything from scratch, my mom was able to go to the next level. Instant and processed foods are okay - just dont rely only on them was what she used to say.

  59. Please have the author explain to us what she meant by "the devastation of the Reagan years."

  60. Totally connected to this. As my family is from the Balkans, I definitely remembered wanting "real" (Kraft) mac and cheese not the pasta with "real" cheese my mom would make when I asked for "mac and cheese." My dad and I had an assigned night - Thursdays - when my mom would work late and my dad and I would go to Burger King. All I wanted was to be "American" and not weird.

    I would however caution against viewing immigration as a "non-white" versus "white" experience, and equating "American" with "white." My skin color most certainly would be defined as "white," but the immigrant experience was certainly (and continues to be) real, with all its confusion of casting off one thing to gain another, and then the sadness and emotion of it all. Which isn't to say that it isn't different from the range of experiences people have that are both "non-white" and "immigrant." But let's not forget that "white" is an evolving term. Southeastern Europeans like myself (and/or Italians, Greeks, others) would not have been "white" in years past.

  61. "…I feel a sharp envy for people who can eat whatever they want, with no repercussions…"

    Whether American or foreign-born, most of us cannot eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) without repercussions. It is truly sad if we think we can.

  62. I grew up in the 70's and would have given anything to be able to eat like that. My parents were not quite assimilated, our culture still one of immigrants in the small north eastern city where they grew up. We ate rye bread and liverwurst and fruit and salad with just oil and vinegar. There was no dessert and no cool whip! I wanted to eat what everyone else was eating, we had long since moved away from the city they were raised in. However, we were also poor, something that precluded buying junk food. My parents both worked and never spent a cent on 'useless food'.

  63. My mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, loves Olive Garden, and it took me ages to understand why . Sure, she can cook better herself at home, but what says your culture is accepted and part of the mainstream than a chain restaurant that exists in suburbs nationwide, serving your people's food to the masses?

  64. My family thought Wonder Bread, that awful tasteless white stuff, was wonderful; it was rich people's bread AND it helped build strong bodies 8 ways. Regular people ate eye bread.

  65. Rye bread. Spellcheck is American and doesn't know rye bread.

  66. I remember the small loaves of Wonder Bread given to children after touring the Wonder plant.

  67. This is why I have always lived in Manhattan.

  68. Moving from Peru to Southern California, and leaving my traditional home cooked meals of lomo saltado, aji de gallina and ceviche for the wonders of processed food I will never forget eating American Cheese for the first time. I saw this perfect square of multiple cheese slices each individually and lovingly wrapped in its own cellophane wrapper. i thought what a country that would wrap cheese so tightly and perfectly and stack it so geometrically. I was impressed and reassured that our move was the right move to make to this wondrous country.

  69. we were also called the "white bread" world.

  70. Dear Ms Ko, may I humbly suggest that you revisit the term "white" food? As a white Italian living in the US, I resent that all white should be blamed for American junk food. I already have to go by my day witnessing how every traditional Italian food that is genuine and simple is turned into an overpriced hipster phenomenon here. Also, as an immunologist working on autoimmunity, I must warn you that, as much as diet is being actively investigated as an environmental factor, your wording suggests that people living with autoimmune diseases have brought that on themselves, which is dangerous and not true.

  71. They are in quotation marks for a reason.

  72. Actually, when I think of "white" foods, they are rice, potatoes and bread--the foods my mother warned me against. My friends ate spam and tuna casserole. I was served a piece of pan-fried meat, Uncle Ben's "converted" and half an avocado or a serving of chopped spinach. I loved eating at friend's houses because their mothers made stuff that was really salty and greasy like creamed chipped beef on toast. My mom protected me from bad food the best she could and I'm 70 years old.

  73. My father would have opened a vein before he ate margarine, he remembered it from WWII and wouldn't allow it in the house. But, every now and then he bought a can of SPAM and fried it up. He also fried mushrooms and tomatoes, fancied up canned beans and sometimes got all these together after church on Sunday. There may be bacon and sausage as well. Runny eggs and toast. He was serving an English breakfast, a memory from the war. I loved these breakfasts, but also thought they were weird. This year in England, I fell in love with English breakfast all over again. I am now in Jamaica and I pause and stare at the SPAM cans, but so far haven't picked one up. But bacon, mushrooms, eggs and toast, fried tomatoes and beans are on the menu for tonight's dinner. I ate junk food as a kid, but I eat mostly healthy foods as an adult. Every now and again, you just have to close your eyes and eat a hot dog and be taken back to childhood.

  74. Asking my mother, Russian, survivor of wwll, why we don't eat margarine, she said, " I didn't come all the way to America to eat margarine". So I knew butter had to be better. We had butter on rye bread. For breakfast we had butter and sugar on rye bread and tea to drink. Foods are really a special remembrance of our past.

  75. As a 2nd generation immigrant growing up in Jersey suburbs and NEVER given WASP food by my parents, not cuz we ate gefilte fish, though we did eat it at grandma's, but cuz dad was a health nut, i am very very very very very very very GLAD I never succumbed to the feelings of belonging that lots of immigrants, including the ones that vote for sadists like Trump, aspire to.

    As, on top of it all, Dad was a Rabbi, so once we moved to a very nouveau riche place like Great Neck, full then of what are now called 'self-hating' or "mayonaisse eating" Jews (see that Woody Allen film) I felt very ostracized, not by the Goyim, but by my co-religionists. Nevertheless, i did enjoy, on occasion, trading one of my kosher salami sandwiches with mustard on rye, for that very exotic thing my African American buddy Paul brought to school--some kind of bologna on perfectly soft white bread with mayonaisse. What a lubricant mayo is to that kind of much less garliced sandwhich meat and that pure softness. If only he had gotten to have Challah French toast, or the Bagels and Lox delivered to the house sunday morning when he was off in church. RE: the addiction to comfort, i suggest you read the article somewhere on the net from the 20's on "Why Jews dont eat pie." In essence, its too comfortable, and requires so little work or fighting.

  76. Except that mayonnaise isn't an American food... it's Spanish-French.

  77. Mass produced American trash food is a scourge with no nutritional value designed for an unthinking population.

  78. Wow, can I relate to this! We came to the US when I was 10 and growing up, the fancy processed foods were not only difficult to come by but also insanely expensive due to high import taxes that were supposedly to encourage local manufacturing (more like padding someone's pocket). When we got to America, I was astounded at what could come out of a can or box and would almost behave myself for Chicken and Stars soup served with cheese sandwich made with Kraft singles on Wonder Bread.

    The first ever "American" thing I got to eat on our first day in America were Bugles served on the side of a tuna fish sandwich on Wonder Bread and to this day, I see a bag of Bugles, I get the urge to get my hands on a squishy tuna fish sandwich and recall that morning. Luckily, my grandmother came over with us and was an amazing cook who refused to make anything American (Spaghetti was Italian and was fine) and all of my new friends would practically beg to come over and try tabouleh, hummus, falafel which were exotic at the time. We never lost our traditional foodways but God help our Dad if he didn't stop at Gino's for a Gino Giant!

    But I tell you, I would have given anything to have Grammy take a whack at tuna fish salad on bread she refused to buy with those fabulous crispy little trumpets of manufactured goodness.

  79. Whats deemed "white food" was not my experience...as a white guy. White bread fell out of favor in my childhood, and my parents, like most of my friends were all about moderation and restricing access to "treats". Bagged snacks were for special occasions. My school lunch was either tuna or PBJ, fruit and 3 cookies, oatmeal or chocolate chip. And ate hotdogs during the summer, same with hamburgers...unless it was a birthday and that was the dinner request...which wasnt often.

    No matter our financial situation, my parents always made sure we ate good quality food over short-cut foods. We ate a lot of chicken and veggies, but we also had a roast at least 2xs a month, maybe some spaghetti and meatballs, or lasagna if mom was in the mood. All made from scratch. Even though mom worked. Frozen food was an anamoly, and other then some frozen Banquet fried chicken on a Friday night, none of us liked the stuff.

    All of which taught me and my sibs to respect food, and not abuse it. Now as adults, all 50+, none of us have weight issues or any other food related syndroms.

    The Parents knew what they were doing...well ahead of their time when it came food. Eat whole foods, plenty of veggies, and limited treats.

  80. When we lived in LA from 1981-1984, my daughter went to a private school that had a significant Korean population - it was not that far from Korea Town. Her Korean classmates all brought lovely, homemade Korean food for lunch; my daughter, who packed her own, brought applesauce or other fruit, a Mini BabyBel gouda, crackers, and a cookie. Every single day, the Korean girls would bet in a competition to trade their lovely food for her processed, packaged lunch! My daughter has always been an adventuresome eater, so she loved the trade! Those Korean parents would have been appalled - they were NOT into eating American junk just to fit into this country.

  81. We have this issue playing out in my workplace. I'm a fourth generation Californian and I tend toward salads, green smoothies, etc., and I'm not a huge fast food fan. A coworker who is a first generation Asian-American tells me all the time about how much he loves McDonalds, and all things BBQ. We had an interesting discussion about Little Debbie snacks. What we agree on though is how much we both like his native country's cuisine.

  82. Speaking of barbecue -- now, that is a REAL indigenous American cuisine. I don't think it comes from anywhere else, but grew up in the South and Midwest...in fact, we have distinct REGIONAL types of BBQ.

  83. Great article! I moved to the USA in my thirties, from Mexico, and even though in Mexico City we had all the processed colorful Americanized food, I managed to gain 30 pounds living in San Diego, where they call that yellow oozy cheese "Mexican cheese" at tacos shops, in Mexico we call that "American cheese" nobody wants to take responsibility for it... Even the San Diego taco shops are so different from 'real/everyday' Mexican food. We don't eat as much fat and cheese over there... unless you are eating out, well, American food!

  84. This is a very well written article. Many first and second generation American's can relate. However, I am willing to bet that Fireweed is not an immigrant but a white American. An American born here who was also fed these terrible sounding foods and still enjoys them. We now know that many of these foods were not healthy and yes, they might very well cause hives.

  85. Our family is 8th generation middle class and lower middle class Californian, and all we have ever known has been healthy fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains home gathered fresh eggs. The occasion deer, elk, fresh caught salmon or trout.

    Don't own a microwave, make all meals at home and cannot remember the last time we had junk food or fast food. Simply because the stuff is expensive and isn't healthy.

    Yet I dislike that our way of eating has caught on and has been hijacked by some 'foodies' who seek to make big bucks off of what is simply healthy peasant food.

    Getting invited to like minded friends homes whose fare is of their ethnic background is such a joy because those making the food, use all fresh ingredients with a rich tapestry of textures and flavours. Far better than you could get in the most expensive ethnic restaurant.

  86. That's nice but how is this relevant to the article?

  87. Wow. I hope you have not permanently damaged your health.
    My experience was quite the contrary. my mom was first generation Italian-American and I grew up not only eating Italian but also more traditional American food but not junk.
    I thought it was great when visiting my grandparents and all the relatives that there was 20 people making noise at the dinner table with a huge bowl of pasta in the middle.
    That was mom's family, dad was white bread and when visiting his mom she tried to feed us ice cream for breakfast. Even at six I knew better than eat it.

  88. Goodness! Everyone's family is different. There's always some neighbor kid who thinks what you do is weird. If you eat low-fat ice cream they complain it tastes bad; if it's premium ice cream they'll say "My mom says that ice cream will kill you". My brother had a friend over who said our house was the smallest house he'd ever seen. We just laughed and they remain friends. You do you and try not to make everything so tribal!

  89. My childhood was about a generation earlier, in the 60s, but many of observations and experiences are very similar.

    Trying to find "Asian food" -- other than the old-style Cantonese Chinese restaurants ("one from column A, two from column B") was impossible. If I had mentioned sushi or ramen, people would've just stared at me. I can remember being embarrassed to open my lunch when my mother decided that I needed a dose of the "home country" and packed me something Japanese for lunch. I just didn't want to deal with the questions and weird looks from my schoolmates.

    But even when she tried packing something "American", it often came out wrong. I was mortified one day to discover that for lunch, my mother had packed me a can of Vienna sausages -- the ones with the quick pull lids. Who brings that for lunch? Or the times (yes, on multiple occasions), she's just cut me off a hunk of pepperoni and some bread. And thanks to an extended stretch when my mother just fell in love with olive loaf, I can't even look at the stuff without getting a little "throw-up-y".

    Yes, the American experience, as seen through the eyes of immigrants can sometimes be a very distorted caricature of itself.

  90. "Yes, the American experience, as seen through the eyes of immigrants can sometimes be a very distorted caricature of itself."

    That's a lot of guilt for wanting to be American.

  91. my immigrant grandparents wisely called all that "chazerai" which it is (translation: "food for pigs")

  92. A kind of heartbreaking, yet beautiful story about the American immigrant experience. I loved reading this. Thank you

  93. An insightful and well crafted essay on issues very central to the mythology of America -- the "colonization" of its own people through the false promise that rising into or through the middle class will lead someone to a promised land via Cheetos & Lite Beer (crackers & soda, cheese burgers & artificial drinks -- insert your favorite bubbly/salty/sweet/fatty/intoxicating combo here), while all too often the middle class can be an entrapment as empty as the calories promoted by profiteers who co-opt culture with their soulless, amped multi-media pitches.

    "We" were taught to steer clear of "that" (the nonsense promoted by the shameless businesses huckstering unhealthy food and a dangerously shallow version of American) while we deeply yearned to gobble down the products used by homogeneous characters on TV where people smiled brightly and were thin and athletic - attractive - while they consumed the most bizarre combinations of foods, cosmetics, fashions, Hollywood entertainment, etc. - which seemed to point always to a betrayal of our so-called allegiance to freedom and progress.

    You correctly captured that it's a violence of sorts -- a violence inflicted through cynicism and the mean spirited and fearful and power-mongering among us. Seems like you understand our entrenched cultural conflicts in a most poignant and relevant way.

    Good luck braving the snide remarks from those that would wrongly trivialize the importance of these issues to our collective health.

  94. My mother was a working woman in the 1950s and 60s who wholeheartedly embraced the convenience of any food product that came in a box with the instructions: Just add water! We had a standard set of seven dinners with a few variations. I remember marveling at instant mashed potatoes, and thinking her pork chops baked in cream of mushroom soup to be pretty sophisticated dining. She worked as a hospital admissions nurse and many was the holiday that we dined in the cafeteria on institutional food so that she could make double her hourly wage.
    These days I avoid gluten, dairy and am happy to still be eating food we grew last summer! But I too remember those Hungryman dinners, with their tiny portion of apple crisp and I remember my mom with great love!

  95. "though maybe it’s only envy for the innocence of 1986,"

    I thought the end of innocence occurred for the US in 1968. Or was that 1948?

  96. James Baldwin also said this regarding the American way of life:

    “I am not myself terribly worried about color TV and split-level houses, since I consider my life to be already sufficiently compromised by the garbage of this century….A great deal of the energy of this economy goes into creating things that nobody needs and nobody wants and everybody buys. Nobody needs a new car every year, and it doesn’t matter what kind of toothpaste you use…these things are not important….How easy it is as a person or as a nation to suppose that one’s well-being is proof of one’s virtue; in fact, a great many people are saying just that right now…“We’re the best nation in the world because we’re the richest nation in the world. The American way of life has proven itself, according to these curious people, and that’s why we’re so rich.” This is called “Yankee virtue”…think this has again something to do with the American failure to face reality. Since we have all these things, we are robbed, in a way, of the incentive to walk away from the TV set, the Cadillac, and go into the chaos out of which and only out of which we can create ourselves into human beings.”

  97. James Baldwin may have enjoyed or related to the work of another American author, Edith Wharton, who wrote 'The Custom of the Country' where in her novel, Undine Spragg of Kansas has a voracious appetite for consumerism, leaving some of the readers feeling hollow.

  98. "the Cadillac"

    Sounds xenophobic. The global economy introduces us to diverse choices like Lexus, Infiniti, Land Rover and BMW. Cadillac indeed.

  99. thank you, lisa for this insightul essay. when it comes to american fast food, we all might as well be, like your parents, recent immigrants, and such imitation nutrition is the true american tragedy, the most poignant source of incurable bad health and the consequently unaffordable healthcare system, and now metastasized as a blight on the whole world.

    which is why learning to cook you actually like to eat is about the most meaningful and revolutionary act of modern life.

  100. TANG, that's the one that stands out for me: sugar, orange dye, water, drink it up and you too can be an astronaut. Drove my fruit farming grandparents crazy.

  101. i'm wondering what ms ko weighs and what her cholesterol count is....

  102. That's just rude.

  103. i think it's an obvious question after reading about her diet for many years. is she healthy after being subjected to her parents' vision of being a 'real' american when it comes to food?

  104. My second and third generation American parents retained many food habits of their Eastern European Jewish parents and grandparents. I never ate lunch meats, Spam, Velveeta, or peanut butter. We drank ice water, not milk, with meals because essential habits from keeping Kosher (which we weren't) held on. Bread was mostly rye bread from a bakery. Cereal and snack foods were plain (RIce Krispies, pretzels, Triscuits) and we never had sugary fake fruit drinks. My mother cooked a scratch meal six nights/week. Clearly having arrived here at an earlier time without TV to tell them what to eat, my ancestors stuck to healthy eating habits.
    I too have autoimmune disorders and sensitivity to foods, including celiac and lactose intolerance. Whether I got these from my diet, I can't say.

  105. The rejection of white America is palpable in both the article and the comments. There is no such thing as "white" food, and it borders on racism to suggest such a thing.

  106. ask your Jewish friends. not everone is even allowed to eat that way.

  107. Whenever my mom talks about our humble beginnings in this country, she a single mom working hard to make ends meet, she always says "I could only afford a hamburger at McDonalds once a month, maybe once every 2 weeks." It was a rite of passage when I could put my mouth around a Big Mac - my jaw was painfully stretched, but I was so so happy. The inferno of immigrant life was left behind at the paradiso of fast food, Golden Arches our St. Peter's Gates to the good life. No, I don't eat it anymore. I guess we made it into the heaven of Trump's America.

  108. hind sight is 20/20. did you have these deep thoughts when you were enjoying that Mac and Cheese?

  109. What a great column. My American parents came of age in the 1950s, and processed food remains a staple of their diet. Spam was served with French toast. Educated people, and some others, no longer eat like this, thank goodness, but, boy, what a couple decades of fantasy snacks like Pretzel Combos will do to the health of a nation. F minus minus to those packaged food companies and their lobbyists.

  110. So - I guess we are still comfortable with the whole "white" labeling thingy when we know we would excoriate any white writer who used a different yet similar descriptor for characterizing another culture's food.

  111. Oh for heaven's sake, everyone's family is different. Kids are used to what they eat at home and find other foods strange. I could not get my nephew to eat Chinese or Indian food. I have a friend whose son would only eat miso. soup, pizza bites and French toast. I remember being horrified at the thought of cream cheese and jelly on white bread.

    People seem to think foods are either magically healthy or poison. My 42 year old neighbor whose parents were immigrants never ate processed food and was strictly organic as an adult. She eschewed "western medicine" and relied on herbs and other foodstuff as medicinal. She even became a homeopath. She has inoperable Stage 4 colorectal cancer. Should we blame her diet? Of oourse not. Get over the food obsession, people and give thanks you have choices.

  112. I'm 3rd generation Chinese, my grandfather migrated to Hawaii. My father had a bar restaurant and a little market in Waikiki during WWW II. Fortunate for me at home we always ate Chinese Cantonese home cooking. My mother was adventurous and would take us out to Japanese, Korean and Hawaiian restaurants. My father warned about eating too many hamburgers and hot dogs because he knew how they were made. He also discouraged soda pop. Owning a market, he would bring home cases of fresh oranges for us to make fresh OJ. I was very very fortunate. I also attended the best "white" school, Punahou, and ate lunches in the cafeteria, I enjoy making fried rice using spam as the meat component. I would much rather eat in the foreign local restaurants that Anthony Bordain features than a fancy one. Bangkok has really good street food, in the 70's Singapore did too.

  113. Great writing. Powerful insights. Thank you for this. Would love to read more by this writer!

  114. Many of these comments are quite fascinating in that they reflect people's anxious desire to signal virtue in what they do or don't eat. I guess an essay like this takes everyone back to childhood. My mom, the child of Depression babies, still loved her some canned meat products when I was a kid ... I actually remember deviled ham on white bread with some fondness. Like many New England kids, I also ate my fair share of Fluffernutter sandwiches. On the flip side, we also ate quite a lot of fresh vegetables -- my parents had a good-sized garden in the summer and we canned a lot of the output -- so hopefully it all balanced out in the end. Balance can be hard, though, especially when you are trying to achieve it in a much wider sense when finding your way in a new culture and place -- exactly the point, it seems to me, of Ms. Ko's essay. (I don't think she really needed the faux-concerned comments hoping her health isn't ruined for good, etc.)

  115. American food, with a side of diabetes.

  116. The connection to Ronald Reagan is illuminating, since he based his political appeal on a tasty combination of nostalgia and denial -- nostalgia, that is, for an America that never existed. (Remember, his campaign slogan was "Make America Great Again.") I think of him as America's first Spam president, but he's obviously not the last. You didn't want to know what went into the heavily processed final product (and you knew it probably wasn't kosher), but it was packed with loads of tantalizing flavor enhancers.

  117. That is so true, that the people in this society find it very important to be at ease, and always strive to be at ease. It's a concept unfamiliar to immigrants, and other outsiders, who are rarely at ease.

  118. "After all, my family had the privilege to remain superficially apolitical, to attempt to distance ourselves, mentally and geographically, from the devastation of the Reagan years. "

    The Carter years were most devastating to my family (with LBJ years coming in a close second - see Model Cities). Inflation was running away and contrary to popular belief not all folks were members of a labor unions that had annual COLA factored into their paycheck.
    BTW, those same labor unions used to say regressive, xenophobic and deplorable things like "Buy American!" and "Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign.". But they're a dying breed and soon will be gone from the landscape.

  119. My Irish grandmother was a fabulous cook who made Irish stew, pot roast, chicken, cooked potatoes and other vegetables. She baked Iriish bread, date nut bread, muffins and wonderful desserts. What I wouldn't give to have some of her excellent dishes right now. My mother's meatloaf and scalloped potatoes were to die for.

    i considered the food I ate whether my grandmother's or my mother's to be very American. I never considered them to be the food eaten by white people. I assumed all families ate similar foods to me and that there was no label attached. I wonder why the author had to even include this in her article. I guess she wanted to add a bit of drama and controversy.

  120. Grandmothers, many illiterate in their new languge, know more about food, food prep, food storage, nutrition and tastiness than any clinician, physician, dietician or weight loss coach. At least ours sure did. None of us are obese, none of us have allergies, auto-immune issues, or dietary restrictions. We were served simple meals, often meatless, and always delicious. We were a working class household that did not eat out - ever - and we never went hungry. Working spouses, "fast food", hyper-active days. You are killing yourselves as you sacrifice your families' health and enjoyment of life on the altar of "having it all", which so many of you do indeed have, except for health and happiness. Hurry now to your next appointment with that starbucks pastry in hand.

  121. When Lucy Ricardo asked Bob Cummings how he managed to stay so youthful looking, Bob Cummings said,
    "I never eat anything white...
    "white flour, white milk, white cream, egg whites, white sugar, white potatos, white rice, etc."

  122. This is a smart essay, well written, I love that it goes beyond mere recounting of the personal and engages in smart analysis and cultural context. I'd love to see more from this essayist.

  123. Jiffy Pop popcorn...u caint get no whiter than that

  124. These articles seem to get less and less relevant as time goes on with this newspaper.

    Different families, different cultures etc. etc., all eat different things, so what?

    I'm really having a hard time reconciling why I still pay for this paper.

  125. And that's the least of it...

  126. What is really sad is that the world sees American cuisine as nothing but processed, fake junk that makes you sick. What is sadder is that some people actually feed that stuff to their families. What is horrifying is that consuming that garbage is viewed as being "a real American."

  127. It's not garbage, that's a gross distortion and misrepresentation of the history of industrial food production, without which modern society wouldn't exist as we know it.

    God the fuzzy-minded thinking in these precincts...

  128. In my view, food is food, all the rest is constructs and culture. It's true hot dogs are basically like Spam, so is bacon. It's also true that even the "best" Chinese food I've had is often loaded with oil and salt. I doubt any one set of foods, even the commercially debased versions modern society needs to function, is better than other other from a health standpoint. What's more important I think is how much is consumed and trying to balance the food groups. Even frozen vegetables are vegetables after all.

  129. I thought this column would be about white potatoes, white rice, pasta and bread made from white flour, A1c levels, and Type 2 diabetes.

  130. Being, like Lisa, the first in my family to be born in the U.S. (only minutes before my twin, who was born minutes later) I too have many first-generation food stories. My very favorite is how our dad, an artist, showed us how to take a slice of Wonder Bread and scrunch it up into a tight ball of dough. It could then be used as a charcoal eraser which, we were informed (& still believe) was the only thing it was good for. We'd then walk to the closest Jewish bakery and get a large loaf of still-warm seeded rye.

  131. My parents were East European immigrants and my mother made sardine sandwiches for me to take to school for lunch, while other kids ate hot dogs.

    At our 50th high school reunion a few years ago, I was presented with a can of sardines! People still remembered!

  132. The reason America had some many outstanding "non" American options for food is because immigrants bring their food to America and make it American. Mexican, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Russian, Turkish, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean restaurants are all made possible by immigrants refusing to give up on their comfort food. Maybe not as good as the real thing, but a good substitute for international travel. As a result America is a better place to live and eat.

  133. I grew up in New York, moved to Boston and ended up starting a family in Philly prior to relocating overseas. While still in America we matter of factly enjoyed the full gamut of American Ethnic dining.
    Then, moving to the south coast of the UK- all gone! No bagels,no decent pizza, the only Chinese akin to some horrid version of 1960s suburban stuff- chow me in, echo study, egg foo yung . No more dim sum, .no more soup dumplings.....I could go on and on but I have no time- Sunday's is my day in the kitchen- recreating the food diversity I love and miss from my American past.

  134. from an earlier time...the first loaf of non-bread "tip-top" it was called, with its "star-end wrapper,"
    appeared on our table only days, (a day?) after leaving the grandma's (nonna's) home in the "ghetto" for the 'burbs', on the journey toward assimilation...the protection of one's original culture was not a cause, nor was respect from others yet politically correct).

    there was little if anything in the local markets that would have sustained nonna'a "scratch" kitchen, certainly no shop where one could select a chicken from a live lot and have it ready to go on the swing back after all the other shopping (cheese cut from the wheel on the counter, prosciutto from that hanging hock, etc.) was done and the bags we carried with us long before plastic came and half-went, were filled with warm bread from the bakery, next to anita's laticini from whence came riccota, mozzerella and all the dairy stuff.

    on weekend visits we brought back as much as we could, but still, could not survive the flow of soda pop and velveeta, and that oh, so white bread....

    to be sure there was produce, and strictly seasonal at that, (though the frozen food cases were just making their way onto the market floors.

    on the darker side, the stern registration lady at the school, "name, address...nationality" would not allow "american", "no you're not" said she said...