How four dishes with roots in other lands tell a story of immigration and transformation.
Gumbo. Chile con queso. California roll. Spaghetti and meatballs.
The names are as familiar as household brands. Yet how much do you know about these dishes? Based on the names alone, with their roots in other languages and other cultures, each dish sounds like an import. In some ways, they are. But each dish also morphed and adapted to its new environment, transforming into something uniquely American.
Some transformed through industrialization. Another required the ingenuity of chefs willing to break from tradition. One adapted, and continues to adapt, to the dizzying constellation of cultures that is New Orleans. Allow us to explain – and to show you.
Spaghetti and meatballs
Millions of impoverished immigrants from southern Italy poured into the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their goals were straightforward: to earn more money and improve their standard of living, perhaps even send a little cash home to family. But in the process, they redefined some of the foods from the mother country. They used their newfound purchasing power to fill their tables with large, garlic-heavy plates that native Italians often didn’t recognize – and routinely ridiculed – but that would soon become beloved staples of Italian-American cuisine. Dishes like spaghetti and meatballs.
As small as golf balls and often served on their own, Italian polpettes are the petite forerunners to the hulking meatballs that would become synonymous with the Italian-American table. Formed with beef, veal and/or pork, American meatballs embraced the bounty of the immigrants’ new land. They were a sign of immigrant success as much as a signal of one’s appetite.
Long feared as poisonous, tomatoes weren’t a regular ingredient in Italian sauces until the 19th century, and Neapolitans did not sauce their pastas until about the 1830s. When Italians arrived in America, they relied on a technique for enriching their simple marinaras. They simmered their meatballs in the sauce, which would become a thickened swirl of pureed tomatoes, meat juices and more.
Adding the pasta
Rarely found together in Italy, the combination of spaghetti and meatballs practically became the definition of Italian-American cuisine in the United States. Why did Italian immigrants begin pairing the two? Restaurants played a sizeable role as they catered to non-Italian diners, including those accustomed to a plate with both a meat and a starch.
A confluence of immigration and industrialization
These Italian immigrants landed in America at the right time. Industrialization, refrigeration and transportation were revolutionizing the production and distribution of many foods, including meats and pastas. Back home, southern Italians may have spent as much as 75 percent of their income on meager provisions. In the United States, they devoted less than a quarter of their wages to food.
“Foods that in Italy were only consumed regularly by the upper classes were in the United States often available to poorer families in what a food historian would call a ‘carnival come true,’ ” wrote Simone Cinotto in “The Italian American Table.”
Poor Italian immigrants who arrived in America would use the bounty of their new land to remake the food of their mother country.
Left: Italian immigrants disembark at Ellis Island in 1900. (SeM/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Such Italian-American dishes as spaghetti and meatballs may have been ridiculed at first – and even come under attack by school reformers and health advocates – but by the time of the Great Depression, Americans had embraced the merits of the cuisine. “Nutritionists reversed their earlier opinions, now arguing that pasta was easy to digest and suitable for all tastes,” Cinotto wrote.
Popular culture would soon get into the act, influencing and reflecting how Americans felt about Italian-American dishes. As the Tramp, Charlie Chaplin sat down to a heaping plate of pasta (and confetti streamers) in 1931’s “City Lights.” More than two decades later, Disney’s 1955 film “Lady and the Tramp” used a shared plate of spaghetti and meatballs to, quite literally, bridge the gap between two canines from vastly different worlds. The symbol could not have been lost on Italian Americans.
Simone Cinotto, historian and author of “The Italian American Table”
Forever blurring of the lines
More than a century after Italian immigrants morphed a few staple ingredients into a plate overflowing with spaghetti and meatballs, the dish has become a permanent fixture in American homes and dining rooms. You can even find it in the frozen food aisles at the supermarket or served from a food truck. The chef or manufacturer may not even label it as an Italian-American dish. To many Americans, oblivious of the plate’s history, spaghetti and meatballs is simply Italian, despite the fact that the combination was nurtured into existence right here in America.
Chile con Queso
Mexico doesn’t have the kind of cheesemaking traditions found in France. How could it? Spanish explorers didn’t introduce cattle to Mexico until the 16th century. Still, the country produces excellent cheeses, including queso asadero and queso Chihuahua, both of which can be used in queso fundido (melted cheese) and the northern Mexican version of chile con queso. The latter, including chile verde con queso, is intended to be more of a side dish, “with the cheese enhancing the chiles, much like cheese melted onto cauliflower,” wrote Lisa Fain in her cookbook “Queso!”
Northern Mexico’s chile con queso, in fact, bears little resemblance to the Tex-Mex version across the border. The traditional preparation might include peppers charred and peeled in the kitchen, tomatoes plucked from the garden and cheese produced by a local artisan. By contrast, the common Tex-Mex version can be prepared in a microwave in a matter of minutes, with a block of process yellow cheese and a can of tomatoes and peppers. American manufacturing and marketing, you could argue, is responsible for one of America’s favorite party foods.
Created in 1918 by the Monroe Cheese Company in Monroe, N.Y., Velveeta didn’t enter the American mainstream until it was acquired by Kraft Foods nearly a decade later. Kraft first marketed Velveeta on its nutritional benefits, which is ironic given that, decades later, the U.S. government would inform Kraft that its product does not meet the definition of process cheese food. None of this matters, of course, to chile con queso fans, who rely on Velveeta because of its ability to melt into a smooth goo.
Ro-Tel tomatoes and chiles
Before industrialization, chile con queso was a dish that could be prepared only when chiles and tomatoes were in season. Carl Roettele and his wife helped change that. In 1943, they opened a facility in Elsa, Tex., less than an hour from the Mexico border, where they canned tomatoes and green chiles for customers in the Lone Star State. Certain that few could pronounce his surname, Roettele decided to abbreviate the brand name to Ro-Tel. It would not be his last stroke of genius.
Decades before Roettele opened his plant, German immigrant William F. Gebhardt had developed chili powder, which he began selling in the 1890s. Like Ro-Tel, Eagle Brand Chili Powder allowed cooks to spice cheese sauces without waiting for chile season. Chili powders were used in early versions of Tex-Mex queso, including Mexican rarebit, a spicy take on Welsh rarebit. But the most famous use may have been in Felix’s Queso, a bright orange glop beloved at Felix Mexican Restaurant in Houston before the place closed in 2008. The queso was “thick and oozing with red grease,” wrote Fain. “It looked frightening but was surprisingly fluffy and addictive.”
‘Cover the nation in queso’
Almost from the start, Ro-Tel seemed to grasp how customers would use its product. Since at least 1949, the company has been selling convenience in chile con queso, according to food historian Robert Moss. That was the year Ro-Tel started running newspaper ads promoting its “Spanish Style Cheese Dip and Spread.” It included just two ingredients: Half a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chiles and a half-pound of American-type processed cheese.
Ro-Tel would later join forces with Kraft Foods, the parent of Velveeta, to solidify the relationship between the two products. As the years went by, and ConAgra acquired Ro-Tel in 2002, the partnership would become an unlikely one between two giant food companies that otherwise compete for business.
Before the invention of chili powder in the late 1800s, queso dishes were typically limited to the hot summer months when chile peppers thrived.
Left: A Mexican official examines chili powder at an American factory. (Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company Records/University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections/Conagra)
Yet the relationship has survived. Several years ago, the companies went on a barnstorming campaign to sell queso outside the primary markets of Texas and the south-central part of the country: Two “queso queens” hopped on a “Quesobago” recreational vehicle to visit football games and grocery stores. The mission? “To cover the nation in queso.” It’s little wonder that, for many Americans, Velveeta and Ro-Tel is queso.
Those Americans do not include Gloria Reyna, co-owner of Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, which offers its own kind of chile con queso convenience.
Gloria Reyna, co-owner of Matt’s El Rancho in Austin
Joe Angel Rico Hernandez, kitchen manager
If Houston’s lack of zoning laws are any indication, Texans have never been fond of restrictions. The same holds true for chile con queso. Countless restaurants have devised their own versions, none more famous than one at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin. This dip was invented in the 1980s when Bob Armstrong, former Texas land commissioner, asked Matt Martinez Jr. to whip him up “something different.” Martinez combined the restaurant’s housemade chile con queso with taco meat and guacamole, and a star was born. The dip has outlived both the chef and the politician. Matt’s El Rancho sells more than 100,000 Bob Armstrong Dips each year, says Reyna – and now delivers nationwide.
It’s a sign that when it comes to convenience, queso knows no borders in America.
Tokyo Kaikan in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo may not have been the first sushi restaurant in the United States, but it’s widely considered the place that served the first California roll, the eager-to-please maki roll that eased countless Americans into the then-rarefied world of Japanese sushi.
The year of the roll’s invention is murky, but at least two books peg its introduction to the 1960s, well ahead of a Japanese chef who claims to have created the famous hand roll in the 1970s – in Vancouver. The motivation behind Tokyo Kaikan’s invention is equally mysterious: The owners and chefs have offered differing rationales. But whatever the reason, chefs Ichiro Mashita and Teruo Imaizumi ultimately landed on a maki roll stuffed with avocado, mayonnaise and king crab, a Japanese-American hybrid that would soon become the most recognizable dish in U.S. sushi restaurants.
Mashita and Imaizumi experimented with a number of ingredients – including beef and chicken – to mimic the lushness of fatty tuna, according to author Sasha Issenberg’s book “The Sushi Economy.” But avocados proved the most workable solution. Grown in California, the creamy fruits could be found at a grocery store next to Tokyo Kaikan. The chefs first served slices of raw avocado atop sushi rice, nigiri-style, but “diners were taken aback by the vivid greenness of the topping,” Issenberg wrote.
If Americans in the 1960s were not comfortable eating raw fish, Mashita and Imaizumi found a way around that. Their roll included king crab, a cooked product shipped frozen from Alaska. The pricey shellfish would lend its sweet, mild flavors to the roll without causing squeamishness. Later, when surimi became widely available, sushi counters substituted the cheap processed fish sticks for king crab. The substitution would reduce the cost of the California roll, increasing its popularity even more.
There’s some debate about who was the first to reverse engineer the maki roll and place the nori (the sheets of dried seaweed) on the inside rather than the outside. In his 2006 book, “The United States of Arugula,” author David Kamp writes that Tokyo Kaikan’s chefs claim to have invented the inside-out roll, but Issenberg says it was a later invention. Whoever devised the innovation, it was apparently needed. Issenberg notes that before the change, Americans were removing the outer nori, like the corn husk of a tamal, and eating only the interior.
The gateway dish
A half-century later, it’s still not clear what motivated Tokyo Kaikan to create the California roll. The restaurant’s Tokyo-based owners have claimed they were trying to develop sushi dishes that would appeal to Americans. But chefs Mashita and Imaizumi have said they were merely scrambling for ingredients, either because fatty tuna was available only in the summer or because the quality and variety of fish were so poor back in the 1960s.
One version of the story makes Tokyo Kaikan seem almost visionary. The other makes the California roll sound like a happy accident.
Maki rolls in Japan were often thinner, with less filling than the thick bundle of lush ingredients that would become the California roll.
Left: Japanese factory workers cut rolls of sushi in the 1950s. (Nakada/Three Lions/Getty Images)
“The California roll proved to be an ideal gateway drug to the hard stuff,” Kamp wrote. “Once you got over the weirdness of a cold piece of something-or-other brushed with wasabi and rolled in vinegar-seasoned rice and seaweed, it wasn’t so crazy to try sushi with uncooked scallops or slices of velvety, high-quality tuna.”
But Americans, always on the prowl for a good value, found other reasons to love the California roll: You can cram a lot into an inside-out hand roll, says Kazuhiro “Kaz” Okochi, chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington. Compared to a traditional maki roll, Okochi says, a California can hold almost twice as many ingredients. “Americans like it,” he said. “No offense, but that’s true.”
Kaz Okochi, chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro
Endless variations on a theme
Soft-shell crab roll. Kobe beef roll. Ham-and-egg roll. Philly cheesesteak roll. Banh mi roll. Even the marzipan roll. These are just a few of the hundreds of fusion rolls that have come into existence since the introduction of the California roll.
“That was the game-changer for the sushi industry in the United States, and pretty much all over the world,” said Okochi, who has been in the business for more than 30 years. If the California roll was once the pioneer of Japanese-American fusion, it’s now the warhorse, the staple required at every strip-mall sushi house in America.
“It’s almost like the hamburger of sushi rolls,” Okochi said.
Few topics are as loaded as a discussion about gumbo in New Orleans. Believed to be based on West African soups, such as Senegal’s soupikandia, gumbo has no clear, indisputable lineage. Historians will tell you that’s because West African slaves, thought to have created gumbo in New Orleans in the 18th century, relied on oral traditions to pass along recipes, leaving behind no evidence of their efforts.
The word “gumbo” is considered a corruption of “tchingombo” and “ochingombo,” a pair of terms that mean “okra” in the Bantu family of languages. The word associations lead some historians to argue that okra is the foundation for gumbo, period. But this narrative is complicated by those who point out that gumbo may have taken its name from the word “kombo,” the Choctaw Nation term for powdered sassafras leaves, another common thickener. Or that French and Cajun cultures have also had a hand in the formulation of this famous soup.
No writer or historian has turned up evidence to suggest the Cajuns, French or Choctaw were the first to prepare gumbo in New Orleans. Yet, each of these groups has left its mark on a soup that, in all likelihood, was lifted from Africa and became one of the city’s most iconic dishes, one flexible enough to absorb the influences of so many cultures.
A staple of West African cooking when the Atlantic slave trade began in the 16th century, okra was forcibly uprooted from its native soil, just like the people who loved it. According to food historian Robert Moss, more than half of New Orleans’s population was African by 1721, and the first known reference to gumbo appeared in a handwritten transcription of a slave interrogation there. That was in 1764, a year before Acadians from Canada began arriving in Louisiana, where their descendants became known as Cajuns.
Ground sassafras leaves
In his book “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans,” journalist and food historian Lolis Eric Elie mentions an old drawing of Choctaws selling “gumbo” in the market in the 1870s, but the product was just filé powder, another name for the ground sassafras leaves used by Creole cooks to help thicken gumbo. “Even when I was growing up” in New Orleans, Elie told The Washington Post, “people would say, ‘Make okra gumbo in the summer and filé gumbo in the winter when there was no okra to be had.’”
Whether a Cajun or Creole recipe, gumbos are now routinely thickened and flavored, at least in part, with some kind of roux, a mixture of flour and fat that’s browned in a pot. Creoles generally prefer a lighter roux and Cajuns a darker one. While roux is French in origin, “no traditional French chef ever served a roux as dark and rich as the ones his Cajun cousins serve,” Elie wrote in “Treme.”
The Prudhomme Effect
The late Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme had a profound impact on gumbo, one that can still cause agitation among those dedicated to African/Creole traditions. Raised on a farm in the small town of Opelousas in south-central Louisiana, Prudhomme took over the kitchen at the haute-Creole Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in 1975 and quickly reinvented the gumbo there. He used roux to thicken the soup. He added chicken and smoked andouille sausage, drawing on ingredients from his own heritage. His gumbo was “down-and-dirty Cajun,” Prudhomme told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2005. “It was what mama used to do.”
When Prudhomme took over Commander’s Palace, he put a Cajun spin on the famous Creole gumbo there, influencing countless chefs in the process.
Left: Chef Paul Prudhomme helped popularize Cajun cooking in the 1970s. (John Dominis/LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
His 1983 recipe for chicken-and-sausage gumbo included not a single pod of okra. It also featured no seafood, and the filé powder was considered optional. Prudhomme’s gumbo, in other words, all but turned its back on Creole traditions.
Prudhomme’s approach, Elie says, has basically become the blueprint for newcomer chefs who pull into New Orleans and want to make their own gumbo. “Which is to say,” Elie told The Post, “that you have a group of very influential and very important chefs whose aesthetic of gumbo is informed from that tradition.”
Lolis Eric Elie, journalist and food historian
Post-Creole and post-Cajun gumbo
Prudhomme died four years ago, but gumbo continues to evolve. The dish has inspired chefs to create new riffs on the soup, such as the Indian-influenced curried seafood gumbo at Saffron Nola in New Orleans. These interpretations may frustrate traditionalists who fear younger chefs have no clue about the African roots of the dish.
But educator and food historian Jessica B. Harris sees the import of gumbo’s ability to accommodate different cultures, much like the country where the soup was created. “That’s the thing for me,” Harris told The Post. “What’s powerful and potent about gumbo is that it does have so many inflections.”
If there’s a common denominator to these dishes, it’s that the people or cultures that first conceived them frequently do not like what they’ve become in America. They shake their heads at the cheapness, the grandiosity or at the ease with which the dish left behind the old world. What the detractors often miss, or ignore, is that these dishes are no longer exclusively Mexican or Italian or African or Japanese. They are American, in all the messy and gorgeous collisions that entails.
About this story
Photos by Greg Powers for The Washington Post. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post. Prop styling by Limonata Creative.
Spaghetti and meatballs video by James Vavrek for The Washington Post. Queso video by Yesenia Rodriguez for The Washington Post. California roll video by Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post. Gumbo video by Erica Corder for The Washington Post.
Reporting and writing by Tim Carman. Art direction by Amanda Soto. Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory. Video direction and editing by Jayne Orenstein. Design and production by Shelly Tan. Story editing by Joe Yonan. Design editing by Danielle Rindler. Copy editing by Jim Webster.