America is a nation of immigrants. That’s not news, per se; yet in looking at America’s culinary identity, the scope of its diversity comes into focus. Historic gastronomist and blogger Sarah Lohman’s book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, brings the long-asserted melting-pot metaphor to life.
Available today, Eight Flavors identifies the flavors that define the American palate — black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and sriracha — and explains how each took root on American soil. None of Lohman’s eight spices are native to America; they’re all consequences of convergent immigrant cultures. Soy sauce and ketchup are closely linked; sriracha is made in California from peppers grown mere miles from the Huy Fong Foods factory; and garlic was shunned until the late 20th century due to resentment toward Italian immigrants for their unwillingness to assimilate to American culture.
Accompanying the histories of each flavor are traditional recipes that highlight traditional usage and interpretations of each ingredient, like Martha Washington’s “Black Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies” and “Country Captain Chicken,” an artifact of the British East India Company that migrated to the American South by way of Anglo-Saxon immigrants during the 1800s.
Across all eight seasonings, one factor stands out as a catalyst for culinary cross-pollination: war. Throughout history, international conflict has always been “a great propagator for new culinary movements,” writes Lohman, from black peppercorns in the wake of the American Revolution, to Huy Fong sriracha after the fall of Saigon. From exile stems exchange, and with it, the infusion of one culture — and culinary identity — into another.