Photograph by Jules Gervais Courtellemont
Read Caption
A collection of native fruits from Bangkok, Thailand.
Photograph by Jules Gervais Courtellemont

Vegetables Remind us of our Multicultural Origins

In Vermont, it makes a difference where you happened to be born.

In fact, there’s an unwritten rule: if the event took place outside state borders, you will never truly be a Vermonter, even if you’ve lived here for 45 years, are registered to vote, and own a pick-up truck with a snowplow blade.

The issue of birth tends to crop up annually at town election time, when thunderous letters to the newspaper point out who’s a native, who’s a foreigner, and who, therefore, deserves a seat on the town council. We all know what foreigners are like. They move up here from New Jersey and start complaining about the state of the roads.

Like everywhere else, though, Vermont is changing. We’re all on the move: sample any population these days and almost everybody seems to come from somewhere else. There are Japanese in Brazil, Germans in Argentina, South Africans in Pennsylvania, Norwegians in Peru. Vermonters now come from Africa, China, Mexico, the Philippines. We have friends down the road who are Italian. They’re not at all like our family. They yell; they roar; they kiss on both cheeks; they talk loudly and fast, and while they’re doing it, they gesture with both hands. Beside them I’m conscious of being the descendant of a long line of inhibited ice fishermen. You can pick us out of a crowd. We’re all bony, pale, socially backward people, with an enormous concept of personal space.

Immigration is a hot topic in the news right now. Demographics are shifting; neighborhoods are a lot more heterogeneous than they used to be. Caught in all this international flux and scramble, how to manage? How do the newly relocated define themselves? How do their neighbors view them? Who assimilates with whom?

These are questions best answered by—yes—food.

The Modern Garden is a Melting Pot

The average backyard vegetable plot is an exercise in multiculturalism. The cucumbers came originally from India, the carrots from Afghanistan. Onions may be natives of central Asia, though the earliest written record of them comes from the Middle East, on a 4,500-year-old cuneiform table complaining about misuse of the temple oxen. (A city official had co-opted them to plow his onion patch.)

Cabbages and asparagus hail from the Mediterranean. The pea—a foodstuff so venerable that nobody is quite certain where it originated—probably came from the Middle East, though there are a few votes for China. Watermelons are African; potatoes are Peruvian. Spinach is Persian. Tomatoes, native to South and Central America, were picked up by Spanish conquistadors and taken to Europe, from where they eventually bounced back across the Atlantic again to the North American colonies. Corn and kidney beans come from Mexico.

The modern garden is a melting pot. Without immigrants, our soups and salads would be insipid meals.

Assimilation is a two-way street. Combine, say, the New World tomato and the Old World eggplant, and you’ve got something new and different, something neither could have managed on its own. There’s a lot to be said for mixing it up. After all, it’s cooperation among botanical out-of-towners that gave us salsa, chowder, minestrone, piccalilli, moussaka, carrot cake, California rolls, pizza, and spaghetti.

Adopting the Best of Each Culture

Newcomers to Vermont assimilate. They learn to snowshoe. They go to town meeting; they buy cordwood, long underwear, and maple syrup. They change. But they change us, too.

Every once in a while these days I find I’m laughing a little louder than I used to, and hugging people more, and even, occasionally, gesturing with both hands.

I think— just maybe—I’m becoming a little bit Italian.

An earlier version of this piece (“Transplants”) appeared in GreenPrints magazine, Summer, 2004.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.