July 17th, 2011
02:00 AM ET
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Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more.

Last week, Eatocracy invited readers to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011 - ultimately culminating in the fourth edition of our Secret Supper in New York City.

At the supper this past Monday night in Harlem, Eatocracy gathered together some of New York's most dynamic and vocal residents at Red Rooster to not only stuff them with a multi-course meal crafted by Marcus Samuelsson, Suvir Saran and George Mendes, but also to talk about the inextricable bond between food and cultural identity.

The video above and the Secret Supper live blog give a taste of the eclectic menu and vibrant conversation, but there's one ingredient we'd still love to have: your voice.

Each guest was asked to fill out a name tag with how they identify themselves culturally. Answers varied from "Jamerican" (Jamaican and America), "Recovering Catholic ex-suburbanite white girl mutt" and "Harlem-style G.R.I.T.S (Girl Raised In The South) to A.B.C.D. (American-Born Chinese by way of Dr. Dre), "Mysterious American Gumbo of Love" (bless your heart, Don Lemon!) and "The 'Ishes" – Scottish and Irish.

don lemon cultural identity

In the comments below, we'd love to hear about how you'd fill in the blank, and how the food you ate then and eat now reflects that. We'll share some of our favorite responses in an upcoming posts and maybe even at a Secret Supper in your hometown.

More on food and cultural identity:

"Cook from where you are." Chefs on food as cultural identity

Marcus Samuelsson: How I got here

iReport: Rice – the grain that feeds the planet and Comment of the Day: Rice as a tie that binds

Bridging generations and cultures, one blistering bowl of bibimbap at a time

Global grill-out

In Queens, take the No. 7 train to the world's fare

Sweet flavors of home feed expats' souls

Do you favor foreign flavors?

People of America, here's your culinary history on a plate

Moonshine, catfish noodling and a whole lotta laughs

Missing home cooking? Borrow a grandma

iReport: Feeding a heart that's hungry for home

Japan's carnivore girls and herbivore boys relish – and resist – raw meat sushi

iReport: 5 real, fast, delicious meals from around the U.S.

Sundays are for dim sum - growing up A.B.C. (American Born Chinese)

iReport: Veggie-ography of America

As American as apple pie – the origins of picnic favorites

Read up on past Secret Suppers in New Orleans, Austin and Atlanta.

Get more from CNN's Defining America



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soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. ShutUpHippie

    I come from North Carolina; a state known to be torn from within over what kind of barbecue sauce you eat on your pork 'cue. I was born and raised in western NC (tomato-based sauce), but my parents raised me to love eastern NC (vinegar-based) BBQ. Because of this, I'm a stranger in both worlds! People down east automatically assume I like tomato-based sauces, and people here scoff at my love of vinegar-based sauces! IT'S HORRIBLE!! But at least we're not one of those Lexington, NC "barbecue" nuts!

    lol. Ok, so maybe it's not all that terrible. But I can definitely see where one's culinary identity can greatly be affected by their cultural identity. I love regional/local treats like livermush, country ham (for the uninitiated: imagine a chewy salt block), and grits. But then I'm also all about trying new things. As long as it was an animal. No more than 4 legs. Crap. I guess I'm not as open as I thought. Oh well. Pass the livermush, please?

    July 18, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  2. YOOPERgrl

    Being from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, most of the popularion is finnish or swedish. I'm a mix of Irish and Finnish and we were given the name of "yoopers" to identify that we were from above the bridge, originally named "uppers." Not to be confused with those from under the bridge we yoopers call trolls. The U.P. cuisine is that of the early settlers who worked as loggers, miners and on the iron ore ships in the Great Lakes, so its heavy on protein and carbs because they would burn so many calories they needed filling foods. My grandfathers family are "right off the boat" Finnish and served delectable delights like Kropser, Poodua, and the ever famous PASTY. Not to be confused with the pasties that might go on a private portion of the womens body or the pasties that hail from the mountains of Montana. These pasties are meat and potato filled treats where the crust is everything. Can't get the crust right and you will have a horrible pasty. And unlike in Montana we yoopers would never poor gravy over ours and risk sogging down the crust. We like it simple with just a little bit of ketchup. When I met my husband, an accomplished chef from Chicago, he had no idea what a pasty was, so like so many times before we wandered into the kitchen but instead of him teaching me to cook, I was teaching him to make a homemade pasty from my homeland....and he LOVED it! Its the ultimate, simple, mans dish (and woman's). Meat, onions, rutubaga, potatoes and just to bring mine into the 21st Century, I add garlic, sage, oregano and carrots. The U.P. is not just another part of a state that is shaped like a hand, it is another country within this country we call the United States. It is filled with proud people that aren't afraid to be themselves and be self sufficient. Plus, the land is hugged by one of the most beautiful bodies of fresh water, Lake Superior and it just cannot be compared to anything else in the world. It is one in its own. For a peek at pasties, hit facebook and search for the pasty page......I posted a photo of some homemade pasties recently which I learned to make from my grandmother who recently passed away but her food will forever live long in me :)

    July 18, 2011 at 10:33 am | Reply
  3. MNinGA

    My mom is a German-Swedish farmtown girl who married a Native American from the Rez. Unfortunately my Dad was severely disabled in a car accident when I was very young, so I only got the rez food when we visited family and when we attended ceremonies. So I grew up on (I think it's mentioned above as) white bread Protestant fare, with some frybread and bacon grease drizzled oatmeal thrown in. ;-) Hot dishes (casseroles), liver & onions, canned salmon, and whatever we could grow in our garden was the norm. Now that I live in the South I've made it a personal goal to enjoy as many new foods as I can and am known as adventurous, even though I married a meat & potatoes midwestern boy. But that's ok, I experiment in the kitchen when he's on his fishing trips! LOL

    July 18, 2011 at 7:23 am | Reply
  4. G

    Oh, and now I LOVE greens!

    July 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  5. G

    I am Black with a Hispanic surname.

    I grew up in the South eating soul food (including cabbage that was cooked to death). Well, really, nearly everything was cooked to death. Throw in Creole fare, Chinese and Mexican food, pizza from an Italian restaurant, and the occasional fast food hamburger, fries and shakes and that's what I grew up on. As I child, I hated greens and neck bones, was a picky eater, and I ate like a bird unless I went for a visit to the rural parts where food was plucked from the garden and made fresh.

    Now, my favorite foods are Korean, Japenese (emphasis on sushi), Thai, Vietnamese and these are the foods I eat most often. I used to eat more Chinese but the restaurants here are abysmal.

    I actually prefer raw or nearly raw beef, fish, and veggies.

    I love pig's feet either the Korean way or the soul food way.

    I love pho with tendon as the only "meat".

    I've been told that i am strange.

    July 17, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Reply
    • G

      And now I LOVE greens!

      July 17, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  6. Camikainoahu

    Well I from the south but live in Hawaii and my husband is Mexican. We literally have eaten around the world! From German food, swedish food, italian, French food, Spanish food,Mexican food, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Cajun, and so on. It's so weird because we eat many things that my parents would not think twice about eating. My daughter loves sushi. Ask me what's for dinner tonight and I'll tell you cow tongue tacos...... Mahalo/adios/bye y'all

    July 17, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  7. Jeanine

    What is American food anyway?

    July 17, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  8. Viking-turned-international gourmande

    My heritage is Scandinavian (Swedish & Norwegian) I was raised on meat and potatoes, always with gravy. But it wasn't just that. The potatoes were garnished with mom's fresh chives in the summer. I also enjoyed mom's summer cucumber salad made with fresh dill. And of course every viking descendent knows about cardamom which goes in the baked goods. Apart from that I traveled extensively in my 20s and enjoy cuisine from every culture. My favorites are Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Italian...my former Italian boyfriend said I was the only non-italian who ate more garlic than he. So although I still enjoy mom's home cooking, I have come a long way from what my dad would put on his plate. Bring on the spice!

    July 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Reply
  9. Patsy

    I'm a total ? ethnically. Culturally, I was raised in the deep South, Mississippi. No longer live there. My secret shame is that I cook many things with bacon grease when no one is looking. Ummmm. Don't tell.

    July 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      Well bless your heart...no, I mean literally bless it, that lard can stop it up.

      July 18, 2011 at 7:34 am | Reply
  10. Rebseca

    I am from an Armenian dad and a German-Scottish-Irish mutt mom (said in a loving and respectful way), a northerner whose family came to the northeast by way of the hills of West Virginia, so there is a strong dose of hillfolk in there too... And then I surprised them all by going vegetarian. LOL!

    July 17, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  11. Lucky Louie

    I'm a Polish (on my Mom's side) Redneck (Oklahoman on my Dad's side). That meant, on the one hand, boiled potatoes, boiled meat, boiled cabbage and boiled turnips. And on the other hand, everything deep fried. Now I live in California, married to a Norwegian girl, and eat mostly Mexican food. Aiin't America great?!

    July 17, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  12. Fran

    Well, today it's hand-made coffee and chocolate icecream with hand made toffee (I wish I had an icecream maker).

    July 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  13. MikeKenndy

    When are you going to WAKE UP! The rich are buried in money while we work endlessly for them.

    Time to make a change for the BETTER!

    Google the term "SIMPLE STOCK CASH" and click the very first site. Go right to the penny' stock page to see what the rich do not want you to know.

    NOTHING WILL CHANGE UNTIL YOU DO SOMETHING TO MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER!

    July 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  14. Wesley

    Non conformist urban ghetto hippie emo sophisticated satanic socialite lovable guy.

    July 17, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  15. Poe

    I have absolutely no idea how to classify myself. My parents raised me on a very boring three square meal deal. I rebelled when I left home. My meals now jump every day between Indian, Chinese, Cajun, and Mexican foods but above all else... If I have the option I will eat only veggies. Put a vegetable in front of me and it's gone. So I would guess my classification is InChCaMeVeggie :-)

    July 17, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  16. wonderabout

    My heritage is Seneca – Haudenasaunee – or as erroneously known; Iroquois and a bit of Welch mixed in for good measure... the Three Sisters (Corn, Beans and Squash) have always been and will continue to be the foods that nourish me both physically and spiritually.... I was raised by Amish adoptive grandparents so we also ate very simply from our garden and the bounty of our neighbors farms. My grandparents taught us that every spirit who gave itself for our survival was to be cared for with love and respect. The animals that we raised and ultimately became part of the bounty on our tables were taken swiftly and as painlessly as possible. Today the food raised on factory farms has been tortured and disrespected – there is no value and has created much of the disease we suffer from today.... Cultural identity, whether that is knowing what nurtures us nutritionally or what motivates us to be socially responsible citizens is lacking.... We all need to learn to celebrate ourselves and others similarities and differences.

    July 17, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  17. Elizabeth

    I descend from Prusso-Moravian Jews but identify with the Mexican culture I grew up with. Grew up in a Southwest Houston immigrant barrio full of spicy South American food. Attended university in rural Texas, suburban Idaho and Utah where meat & potatoes appeared at every meal. Married an Dutch-Englishman who looks Portuguese. Currently live in semi-rural China where refined carbs and pork rule the table. I am vegetarian [when possible], despite my steak-loving family. Vegetarianism and dietary balance together is impossible where I live in China, so I look forward to fresh AND cheaper produce upon my return to the US!

    July 17, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  18. Rev K

    Tuna noodle casserole with cream of mushroom soup. Jello with fruit cocktail. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A grilled cheese sandwich with canned tomato soup. Ah, the ethnic food of my people.

    July 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • Jeanine

      Hey, I'm familiar with Rev K's food choices. You'd probably like the book White Bread Protestants. It's all about the church food.

      July 17, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  19. Nicole

    I would say that I'm a I'm a Multi-Racial Queer Neo-Hippie Appalachian Urban Ghetto Dweller. And despite the last half of that label, I have spent my entire life hating fried chicken. And vegetables cooked in bacon grease...ick! I think most of my food taste is influenced by the Queer Neo-Hippie part. I'm a vegetarian and love all kinds of fruits, vegetables, beans, weird grains, and anything that features these foods heavily. I've even converted my fried chicken and potatoes loving family to falafel and sprinkling flax seed on their entree salads, despite any vegetable that wasn't corn, green beans, carrots, or potatoes being a dirty word in our house growing up.

    July 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Rebseca

      Ha ha, can certainly relate to the growing up with veggies being almost a dirty word. I am a vegetarian now (although living in the South, that can get tough), and my mom swears if she hadn't been there when I was born (ha ha) she'd swear I was adopted. My entire biological family is supportive, but very, VERY confused. :-D

      July 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  20. Kiele

    In Hawaii we have layers of cultural identity with corresponding cuisines. First, Hawaii has its very own strong culture as expressed in cuisine, Hawaiians have their own foods and so do the waves of immigrants who came here to work the plantations years ago. They all shared their foods, recipes, customs and this is how we eat. Layer upon that our own individual ethnic compositions (to have more than 6 ethnicities is very common here), each with its own customs and foods. Layer upon that the American identity (hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, donuts, etc.) Plus, with so many visitors, we get to try all kinds of other foods here. The one thing everyone we all have in common is there is almost always a turkey on every table on Thanksgiving. Now–the side dishes can be radically different, but that turkey unites us all one day a year! Aloha--

    July 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • Lucky Louie

      An interesting and informative post about your beautiful land and its culture. Mahalo and aloha nui nui.

      July 17, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Reply
  21. Aisha

    Discover your taste with Indian Food with http://discoveryourtaste.blogspot.com

    July 17, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  22. Mary

    I would say I'm "Bulgar-i-can"! My mother was American, with roots in Massachusetts and Kentucky, but my father emigrated from Bulgaria. They met in Washington, DC and created a glorious food mixture of East and West; soups, stews, vegetables, salads, and desserts. The holiday table was always a delightful jumble of foods from both countries, with perhaps an appetizer from Dad's side of the family (something savory wrapped in filo dough), the traditional American turkey and trimmings, and always a pumpkin pie. I am comfortable with one foot in each culture, and have passed on the joy of my multi-cultural cuisine to my American husband and our (1/4 Bulgarian!) son.
    Oh, we also cook in Italian, Cajun/Creole, Tex/Mex......

    July 17, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
  23. Chris

    I'm Korean-American and live in San Antonio, Texas. My family and I eat a lot of Tex-Mex and BBQ in addition to Korean food. Other foods we eat on occasion are Italian (pasta dishes) and American burgers/hot dogs. Fresh vegetables and salads are big in our diet

    July 17, 2011 at 11:01 am | Reply
  24. KellyO

    I'd describe myself as Irish American with a Latin soul. I grew up with bland, standard meat-and-potatoes (always potatoes) fare. My grandparents told me many stories about Belfast and growing up there at the turn of the century, but surprisingly, not much about what they ate. Although many times I asked my mother about it, her answer was mostly "You're American, you don't need to know anything else. Why would you want to eat fried bread anyway?" When I grew up perhaps it was no accident that I married the most exotic person I could find–a Colombian-and started on a long journey of culinary evolution. When we went to Colombia I didn't yet speak the language, so I spent a lot of time cooking my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law as a way to bond with them. Later in my life, after being divorced, I worked in a series of Puerto Rican and Mexican restaurants. A couple of years ago I bought a Colombian cookbook, thinking I would like to learn to cook Colombian food for my son. I thought that I only knew one or two dishes, learned in the early years of my marriage, but I was surprised to find that I already made at least 2/3rds of the recipes in the book without even knowing it. Today I am an activist in the Latino community in my area, living life with one foot in each world. My cooking today is an amalgamation of influences, but with a decidedly Latin viewpoint, appropriate for someone who spent half their life growing up in one culture, and the other half living in another, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Buen provecho a todos!

    July 17, 2011 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • vanessa

      Fried bread is awesome! I grew up almost exaclty like you did. One night it was boiled potatoes, a hamburger, and vegetable, and the next night it was fried potatoes, a hamburger, and a vegetable. Lather, riinse, repeat. I don't even LIKE hamburgers anymore, after 18 yrs of that! I had no idea fried bread dough was an Irish thing, but it makes sense. Perhaps you weren't told much about turn of the century Belfast, because it was a pretty miserable place to be then. The potato-famine in 1845 had lasting effects, and I'm sure that between economic & political upheaval, a strong culinary tradition was not in the cards. Put simply– she probably didn't tell you very much, because it was an unpleasant chapter in her life. like you– I am absorbing as much as I possibly can, about Hispanic culture & food. It's just too yummy!

      July 17, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      Buen provecho a usted tambien...

      July 18, 2011 at 7:30 am | Reply
  25. chickfromthesea

    I've got an islander background (Caribbean), and lived in SC most of my life. Grits, rice, beans and seafood, with a healthy dose of seasonings is how I roll. That is, unless we are eating Asian food. lol

    July 17, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
  26. someoneelse

    The whole idea of cultural identity is archaic. Many still believe in it, because many are small, little people who can't create identities of their own and need someone to tell them what their identity is.

    July 17, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • JoeD

      What a totally unenlightened, navel-gazing, and uninformed by reality attitude. At the very least, food from ones culture TASTES far better than anything from a restaurant or a cook-book. Grandma's hands really do make a difference. I'm sorry for you, if you weren't privy to these joys

      July 17, 2011 at 10:39 am | Reply
    • JoeD

      Oh... and by the way. I've been privileged to have eaten food all over the world [& from all over the world]. My appreciation of it was increased by having a foundation to compare it to.

      July 17, 2011 at 10:46 am | Reply
    • someoneelse

      JoeD, you didn't even get the point of my post... sigh... I'm an expat with two different passports (neither to the USA) and lived all over the world for over 10 years eating cuisines you can't even pronounce. I'm not talking about food. Did you read my post or just start foaming at the mouth without reading.

      July 17, 2011 at 10:53 am | Reply
      • JoeD

        Let's just say something was lost in the translation. The phrase you use "small, little people who can't create identities of their own and need someone to tell them what their identity is" seemed to indicate- to me- that you thought that having a cultural food base was an irrelevancy, & seemed an indication of utter disdain. Glad to see you HAVE some open-mindedness- I try to, also.

        July 17, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
      • Kiele

        BTW–I have lived and worked in Europe, South America, and the South Pacific. I speak four languages and I cook international foods as a hobby. I am so grateful for everything I learned from living with others who had very distinct and different cultural identities. It would have been a very sad experience if every place was homogenized down to franchise restaurants, American TV shows and the English language. Who wants to visit a forest with one kind of tree and one kind of bird? Not me.

        July 17, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Reply
      • someoneelse

        You just don't understand Kiele. Define yourself by what you want to be and to do, not by what everyone else does, which is just what 'culture' is. In every single case, any time someone explains why something is done by saying 'it's our culture' or 'it's what we've always done', it means they can't give a rational reason for doing it and it should be stopped. I don't expect you to understand this though from what I have seen of your posts.

        July 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • Kiele

      I disagree. People who do not understand their cultural roots do not understand themselves. They are at the mercy of the dominant culture for cues about how to behave, what is important, how and what to eat, how to celebrate special occasions, how to express ideas in one language, etc. If you are happy "defaulting" to whatever pop culture surrounds you, then that is good for you. But do not criticize others, especially if you do not understand their experience. Cultural identity never makes anyone small–it is very expansive. Inherent in embracing your own cultural identity comes curiosity, understanding, and compassion for others who are different you, particularly if you are fortunate enough to be multi-racial or multi-ethnic.

      July 17, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Reply
      • vanessa

        I think that might be a touch ethnocentric, but I see where you are coming from. I am adopted, and not knowing my roots hasn't affected me too much– at least not that I can see outright. I would like to know about my ancestry– I guess for the sake of curiousity– but it's not a big deal. As far as food is concerned, I jump at the chance to find truly authentic foods of as many cultures as I can. There is a little freedom in not having a past, I think. I'm not tied to any sense of correct vs incorrect, when it comes to cultural issues.

        July 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • someoneelse

      Kiele, my argument goes to the dominant culture too. Your post doesn't add anything. And I speak five (and have studied the grammars of over 10). Whoopdy do!

      July 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
      • Lala

        @someoneelse, you are a pretentious (and stupid) arse. FYI, communism failed, so let's all move on.

        July 17, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • Jon

      I don't see why an an identity which was influenced by one's parents or culture must pale in comparison to one that is nurtured by whatever other experiences one might have out there in the big, wide world. That's just nonsense. I mean, if your path leads you towards rejection of concepts like family and home, and you find you're better and happier for it, more power to you. But that isn't the way everybody rolls, yo.

      July 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      Whatever, dude. In the meantime I'll spend my Christmas Eve in Puerto Rico eating pit-roast pig, downing an assortment of rum drinks and partying hearty to the rhythm of salsa & merengue with family and friends, while you go enjoy yourself at McDonalds...

      July 18, 2011 at 7:27 am | Reply
    • john

      Cultural identity is not archaic. You are mistaken.

      July 18, 2011 at 7:53 am | Reply
      • The Smart Aleck@john

        ... or they're a spoon. HA!

        July 18, 2011 at 7:55 am | Reply
  27. sir_ken_g

    If you based your identity on what you ate at our house you would be very very confused. A given week might include Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Indian, Italian, country French, Spanish, Middle Eastern. You have to come to find out.

    July 17, 2011 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • Gig

      I'd love to be a regular at your dinner table. I am quite the accomplished dishwasher.

      July 17, 2011 at 10:36 am | Reply
      • sir_ken_g

        My wife is too...lucky for us both. If she wasn't she would not get this.

        July 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Reply
    • iamacamera

      Sounds like fun, when and where?

      July 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  28. michele

    Atomicity

    July 17, 2011 at 7:59 am | Reply
    • Douglas Mckee

      Maybe I am the only American here. I am an equal opportunity eater. Every culture has brought gastronomic treasures with them for me to enjoy. From my Dutch ancestors who arrived here in 1621 to my wife from Mexico have come recipes for the most amazing culinary delights. Eating is a privilege and a pleasure.
      For you grumps complaining about the rich: It is not a requirement for eating well or being tolerant. Get a grip.
      Doug

      July 17, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Reply
      • Mr. Bigglesworth

        I can haz grilled cheez?

        July 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Reply

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