Borrowed Foods – The Great Cultural Food Heist



It seemed in the neighborhood, school or church circle, there was always some mother who would not share a recipe when asked. She’d much rather make that batch of her awesome rocky road fudge, than lend over their ‘secret recipe.’   Corporations like Coca-Cola, KFC, and even Skyline Chili have their secret recipes and formulas safely guarded from food robbery.   But in the history of the world, the best food inventions have been stolen.


Distinct cultural groups have travelled from place to place over time, due to wars, repatriation, and discrimination.   Through all their relocations, these groups carry the food traditions of their former homelands, adapting them to their new.   As the world grew, metropolitan trade centers exposed locals to exotic foods from the Far East, which they took and adapted as well.


Two of our most iconic ‘American’ dishes – the frankfurter/hot dog, and the hamburger – were stolen from the Germans.   They’ve been hiding in plain sight for over a century, embedded with the name of the German city from which they were stolen!   They’ve been so assimilated into our culture no one thinks of them as anything other than an American invention.


Our own chicken fried steak is an adaptation by the Texas Germanic immigrants of the schnitzel.   It really should be named Schnitzel Texas.


Anything we consider southern foods we stole from East African slaves – black eyed peas, peanuts, sesame, grits, perhaps even the concept of breading and deep frying proteins, like fried chicken.


The Cincinnati cheese cup is an adaptation of the Austrian topfenstrudel, made with topfen or quark, a type of cheese similar to our cream cheese, only better.


One of my favorite sweets, the Austrian strudel is an adaptation of baklava from Greece/Turkey/Syria.     The concept of thin layers of butter layered dough is the foundation. But the Austrians replaced the ground nut and honey filling with fruit– cherry, apple, peach, or apricot.   We’ve adapted the strudel in America to include pumpkin, and even a horribly commercially available product called Toaster Strudel.


Corned beef and cabbage, which we typically associate as an Irish dish, was actually introduced to them in this country in large cities like New York, by the Jewish, as a cheaper substitute to their bacon.


Goetta and scrapple are adaptations of a huge family tree of slaughter sausages or grain sausages (gruetzwurst in German) like panhas, knipp, and even haggis.


Probably the most nomadic of all groups are the Ashkenazi Jews, travelling from Southern to Northern Europe as they were expelled due to anti-Semitic waves.   Gefiltefish, long associated with Jewish cuisine, was actually lifted by them from Germanic cooks in southern Europe, who had been stuffing fish with its ground and seasoned innards since the middle ages.    The Ashkenazis adapted away from the re-stuffing aspect, boiling balls of fish in heavily seasoned broth.   On the upper east side in turn of the century New York, Jews could discreetly learn where their neighbors originated by asking them if they seasoned their gefiltefish with sugar (Poland) or pepper (Lithuania).


Germans are notorious for their stolen foods.   Sauerkraut, or the fermentation of cabbage, is said to have been stolen from the Chinese.       German lager beer was stolen from the Egyptians who discovered fermentation of grains.   Of course the Germans perfected brewing with their beer purity law, Rheinheitsgebot.


So because of all this culinary robbery, it’s difficult to give credit to some of our world’s best and earliest food innovations.   Who invented the noodle, for example –   Germans, Italians, or the Chinese? Is gnocchi an adaptation of spaetzli or vice versa?   Is the perogi an Asian dumpling with Cyrillic flair?   These topics have sparked great food debates over time, but thankfully not started any wars.   It’s all this variation that brings interesting culinary diversity to our world.


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