News & Politics

The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine

A superb job of storytelling. . . . After reading this, you’ll want to head to the nearest ethnic restaurant or market.

Who knew that a Minnesota-born Italian who wasn’t fond of Chinese food founded Chun King and that a German immigrant in Texas invented chili powder so he could offer chili—then a seasonal dish relying on the spring pepper harvest—year-round?

Joel Denker—who teaches American history at George Washington University and has written for The Washingtonian—interviewed ethnic-food merchants around the country to weave a collection of stories about immigrants who brought their homelands’ cuisine out of their kitchens and into the mouths of Americans.

Denker does a superb job of storytelling, covering much ground from yogurt peddlers to hot-dog vendors such as Nathan Handwerker, who started selling nickel franks at a Coney Island stand to beat the competition:

“Nathan wanted to call it ‘Handwerker’s Hot Dogs,’ but the name was too long for the sign. At that time, Sophie Tucker, a Coney Island saloon singer known as the ‘Red Hot Mama,’ was belting out a new tune, ‘Nathan, Nathan, Why You Waitin’?’ Customers told Handwerker, ‘Hey, Nathan, you’re getting famous. We keep hearing your name sung in that song all the time,’ son Murray recounted. His father then named the business Nathan’s Famous.”

“Immigrants in America do not confine themselves to tidy compartments,” Denker writes, “and neither . . . does their food.” In a visit to the Georgetown restaurant George’s Townhouse, Denker notices that Middle Eastern food’s popularity has changed the lunch counter: Locals eat falafel next to Kuwaitis and other immigrants discovering Philadelphia cheese steaks.

After reading this book, you’ll want to head to the nearest ethnic restaurant or market to savor an unfamiliar flavor and perhaps explore a bit of history.

Joel Denker

Westview Press