Jonathan Gold -- Barbecue as the Real Melting Pot

By Jonathan Gold
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Is there anything more democratic than a big-city park on a hot summer afternoon, the smoke from a dozen barbecues commingling into a sweet cloud of garlic and charred flesh, a dozen picnic tables groaning under the weight of iced drinks and pungent salads, children whose parents come from 20 different countries skipping and shouting and kicking balls across the green grass?

Stews we make in our kitchens, in the bubbling pots synonymous with home and hearth. Pan-roasted guinea hen with white wine and pancetta is eaten in restaurants or among small groups of friends. But grilling, the act of cooking over an open fire, is primal and ancient, and there is no culture in the world without its version of the ritual. Anthropologists write about the differences between pot cultures and fire cultures -- the duties of civilization versus the more fundamental pleasures of snatching bits of meat off the village fire -- but when we're all cooking together, the fire wins every time. Before a smoky blaze, we are all one.

This weekend, even shopping bags made of recycled hemp will bulge with hamburger patties, family packs of hot dog buns and paper napkins that could double as bunting. It's practically a patriotic obligation to grill on the Fourth of July. But in my neighborhood, what makes it into those shopping bags is just a bit different.

Within a few blocks of my house (I live in Pasadena, Calif.), there are meat counters bulging with skirt, ranchera and flap steak pre-marinated for carne asada; Lebanese butcher shops selling quail, lamb chops and lule, the meat-bulgur concoction for the grill; places to get sausages and prepared meats from Guatemala and El Salvador; and markets with Louisiana hot links and glistening slabs of ribs.

When I get in the car, I'm only a few minutes from Xianxiang-style lamb skewers and Vietnamese nem, authentic-enough Argentine bife de chorizo and Spanish morcilla, French boudin and South African boerwurst, Japanese teriyaki and Cambodian beef sticks that look and taste as if they'd been soaked in Hawaiian Punch. There isn't much of a German community left in Los Angeles, but fresh weisswurst and smoked pork chops appear wherever they happen to gather.

The boundaries of the Peruvian diaspora here can be traced by the presence of beef heart, ready to be turned into spicy grilled anticuchos, in the meat cases of local markets; the Muslim diaspora by skewered goat. You don't even have to roll your windows down to know when you've cruised into a Korean neighborhood on a holiday afternoon -- the air is almost blue with sweet, pungent smoke rolling from charring bulgogi, and wads of blackened aluminum foil can be spotted in distinctive backyard middens.

One of the biggest promotions at Dodger Stadium is Carne Asada Sunday, started by former third baseman Nomar Garciaparra a few years ago, when thousands of fans line up for a chance to eat spicy grilled-beef tacos and meet the Dodger players. For the first event, Garciaparra, a Mexican American local hero who grew up in nearby Whittier, supervised the recipe himself.

On Independence Day, the cookout ritual is as vital as the fireworks display. And as German American grilling traditions grew a century ago to become Texas barbecue; as old rancho fiesta menus evolved to become California patio cooking; as African peppery sauces and genius for transforming spare parts drove the menus of pits from Alabama to Kansas City and beyond, the Fourth of July barbecue has expanded to include the grilled ribs cooked by second-generation Hmong in Minneapolis; the small birds grilled by fourth-generation Armenian Americans in Fresno; the garlicky whole pigs roasted in wooden boxes by Cuban Americans in Tampa; and the marinated boar and fantastic lemongrass-scented sausages grilled by Thai Americans in California's San Fernando Valley.

In Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's now-famous 2001 speech delivered at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, she confessed that her Latina identity included Puerto Rican dishes such as blood sausage, pigs' feet with chickpeas, and fried pigs' tongue and ears. At least a few conservative critics pondered whether her pride in her heritage, including her taste in food, might influence her verdicts, wondering whether a justice who preferred pernil to prime rib could be counted on to be impartial and fair.

Food has become inextricably connected with personal identity. But sometime in the 2040s, the United States is projected to become a majority-minority country. Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii and California are majority-minority states right now. Maryland isn't far behind. And the crackling, fragrant cooking of the great mosaic on Independence Day is as authentic, and as patriotic, as the hot dogs and hamburgers withering to a crisp right now on suburban Webers across the nation. This culture of grilling is not just Filipino, or Yemeni, or Polish, or Dominican: It's American culture, as American as pizza pie.

Jonathan Gold writes about food and restaurants for L.A. Weekly and Gourmet.

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