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Patriotic: Melting pots, salad bowls, chocolate fondue

by xyonent
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This is my attempt to resolve all the issues regarding the common identity of Americans in under 1,000 words. It was published in 2013. Opinion articles (Minnesota) Star Tribune newspaper.

“An Analogy for America: Beyond the Melting Pot”
Timothy Taylor

Melting pot or salad bowl? For decades, these two competitors have been vying for the metaphor that best describes how America’s cultures and peoples blend. But I like to think of America as a chocolate fondue.

The popularity of the “melting pot” metaphor is credited to a very popular, sentimental, and sentimental play of the same name by an immigrant named Israel Zangwill, which premiered in Washington in 1908. The melting pot metaphor is a way of expressing “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one), an old saying that was adopted on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 (and can also be found on the back of the one-dollar bill). “E pluribus unum” has also been featured on United States coins since the 18th century.

The traditional criticism of the melting pot has been that what is special about American culture is not its homogeneity, but rather its ability to absorb elements of many cultures and communicate them to everyone. For example, John F. Kennedy wrote in his 1958 book A Nation of Immigrants: “One writer has suggested that a ‘quintessential American menu’ might include the following dishes: ‘Irish stew, chop suey, goulash, chili con carne, ravioli, knockwurst with sauerkraut, Yorkshire pudding, Welsh rarebit, borsch, gefilte fish, Spanish omelette, caviar, mayonnaise, antipasti, baumkuchen, English muffins, Gruyere cheese, Danish pastries, Canadian bacon, hot tamales, Wiener schnitzel, petits fours, spumoni, bouillabaisse, yerba mate, scones, Turkish coffee, minestrone, and filet mignon.'”

A common complaint is that in our multicultural, individualistic age, this trope suggests that Americans should abandon their cultural and ethnic identities. I think this criticism is overstated. It’s true that the culture of the country you live in is restrictive. But what characterizes modern America is the loosening of these restrictions and the multitude of options available.

But it bothers me that the crucible metaphor is a relic from a past when melting different metals was common for many industrial workers. It also bothers me that melting different metals would only produce the desired result if you followed a formula. Bronze is copper and tin. Brass is copper and zinc. If you just throw different metals into a crucible, they’ll be flawed and brittle and less strong and useful. When proponents of the crucible metaphor start talking, they often turn out to have a clear mental formula for what it means to be American. And it’s not necessarily my formula.

The idea of ​​America as a salad bowl was likely popularized by the noted historian Carl Degler, whose book Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America was a popular textbook from the 1950s through the 1980s. In the 1959 edition, he wrote:[S]Some habits from the old country were not abandoned, and in those cases the children of immigrants maintained their differences into the third and fourth generations. Given this lack of blending and merging, the metaphor of the melting pot is unfortunate and misleading. A more accurate analogy would be the salad bowl, for while the salad is an entity, lettuce and chicory, tomatoes and cabbage can be distinguished.”

The salad bowl metaphor has a healthy, crunchy, “eat your veggies” ring to it, but it also seems odd to me. After all, who’s the pale, crunchy iceberg lettuce? Who’s the arugula? Who’s the artificial bacon bits? Who’s the anchovies? Not all salad ingredients are the same.

Salads always tend to fall apart, and it’s nearly impossible to get just the right amount of all the ingredients in your mouth at once. Imagine a giant modern salad bar with several types of lettuce and vegetables, as well as seeds and nuts, tuna salad, slices of chicken and ham, bean salad, hard-boiled eggs, crackers, popcorn, soup and dessert. To see America as a long buffet of ingredients that we add or remove depending on our momentary appetite of the day is to miss the cohesion and uniqueness of America.

My suggestion is that America is chocolate fondue. Our different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are strawberries, pineapples, cherries, graham crackers, cookies, pound cake, brownies, Rice Krispie Treats, marshmallows, popcorn, and peppermint sticks. And we are immersed in America, swimming in America, and covered in America. Because Americans can come from any ethnicity or race, we all look like Americans.

Of course, chocolate doesn’t always taste the way we expect it to. It can be grainy, rancid, burnt, or bitter. Some people can’t taste chocolate at all, or have allergic reactions to it. America often falls short of its expectations and ideals. But when I think of all the other humans who have lived in different places and times around the world, I feel truly lucky to live in modern America.

There’s an old story about when heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis decided to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1942. One of his friends objected, saying, “Joe, this is a white army, not a black army.” However, Joe Louis had seen the Nazi propaganda machine up close and personal in the wake of two epic fights with German Max Schmeling (who was not a Nazi, but whom the Nazis tried to use), so Louis told his friend, “There’s a lot wrong with America, and Hitler isn’t going to fix it.”

In that spirit, while America has many problems, often the best answer to what’s wrong with America is to think more of what’s good about it. On the Fourth of July, I choose to sit down with my family and friends and savor the texture and sweetness of our shared American experience.


Timothy Taylor is editor-in-chief of the Economic Perspectives journal, based at Macalester College. St. Paul.

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