Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorialize This!

Memorial Day finds us seated on flimsy folding chairs at a cemented backyard barbecue in Queens County, Long Island – two Jews, fifteen Mexicans, a Bolivian and a Puerto Rican – and though you might say I'm a bad citizen – I'm hard pressed to tell you what it is exactly that we're meant to remember on this mysteriously most memorable of days – I'm giving some serious thought to the concept of "being American."

Because here we all are, hiding from the sun under a black tarp stretched taut against a strong breeze coming off the Atlantic, Coronas in hand, cumbia and tejano blaring on the stereo. Because we are speaking Spanish and English and eating Korean barbecue and topping it with a roasted tomatillo salsa Alma's mother taught her to make in Mexico City. Because nopales mingle with sriracha and generic Kraft barbecue sauce on my plate, and Alma's three year old son Diego is happily covered head to toe in all of it. Because Luis can't get enough of the Vietnamese salad that Sara and I doused in nam pla.

So I have to wonder: looking towards the bright future of their infant country as they celebrated the first of many such memorable days, did the Founding Fathers, or whoever founded this whatever it is Memorial Day, see us – this motley crew slowly baking on a cracked concrete slab in Queens – when they imagined America?

It's possible that this question, and the reality of a place as richly diverse as Queens, has defined the Eastern US more than any other; it's a certainty that the arguments it spawns affect us all. So although the American dialogue is characterized as much by violent nationalism as by an oft-stated, ill-practiced aspiration to cultural inclusion, our character is definite: we are a nation of immigrants and our cuisine shows it.

On this Memorial Day, sharing Korean barbecue with a transplanted family from Mexico City, our plates are a map of East and West, indigenous and imported, rice noodles and nopales and tomatillos. It's clear that these interminglings of cuisines and cultures is what makes us so distinctly American, and for me, this odd, incredible fusion of flavors is the best reason to be here in Queens right now.


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