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A journey through the heartland

 "Frugal traveler" Seth Kugel offers an interesting road trip in the travel section of the New York Times, a south-to-north journey through the nation's midsection, Louisiana to North Dakota. I've traveled the country east-to-west four times, and north to south on both coasts, but this itinerary never occurred to me. He makes it sound very appealing.

Taking the risk of sounding provincial, Kugel offers many interesting observations. The one that most caught my attention is this:

I like to brag about how my New York neighborhood is home to Tibetan, Colombian, Pakistani and Russian markets and restaurants, all within a few blocks. But now I realize an Iowan might rightfully respond: “What, no Dutch letters or Czech kolaches?”

Of course, like New York City, the rural Midwest was the place many Europeans migrated when they came to the New World. There’s just been much less turnover, so more cultural relics have endured. My first clue came in the form of “Dutch letters,” S-shaped pastries for sale at the Downtown Farmers Market in Des Moines. Figuring it was just a one-off, I shrugged. (By which I mean I bought one and gobbled it up, loving the hidden layer of almond paste.) But then I spotted another stand selling almond bread with the pitch “Tastes like a Dutch letter!

Movies and TV shows may give the impression that a sense of ethnicity remains strongest in American life in the Big Apple and a few other big cities. But as Kugel notes, that's not necessarily so, at least when it comes to European ethnic roots. His example of the Dutch is especially relevant to a resident of Brooklyn, as I am. Many of our streets are named after Dutch settlers, and there is a landmark Dutch farmhouse, parts of it dating to 1720, a few blocks from my home. But, it seems, Des Moines has done a lot better job of preserving the Dutch heritage than Brooklyn has.

Is European ethnicity in its twilight in American life, obscured by a process of assimilation, as the sociologist Richard Alba has written? Or is it just expressed in new ways? Perhaps, as Kugel suggests, it continues to thrive in places mostly unseen from the two coasts.

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A great deal of America "continues to thrive in places mostly unseen from the two coasts."

New Orleans French (the Creoles) seem to have very different feelings about our mother country, France, than the feelings of some of the other ethnic groups have about "the old country".  There are reasons.  France gave away Louisiana to Spain in settlement of some European war.  The Louisiana Council proceded to declare Louisiana to be a free and independent country.  (This was *before* the American Revolution, so the New Orleanians were actually the first American revolutionists.)  The revolution didn't last long, and the leaders were executed. The French later got Louisiana back, but Napoleon *sold us* (AWWWK!!!)  to the U. S., which was infuriating.  So Creoles don't have the rosy images of the old country that other ethnic groups have of their original places.  We do happily retain our own Gallic mores (especially the food), but we have no big feelings for the old country.  Maybe that's why the city has always been relatively welcoming to other groups.

If I'm representative of the general trend, it dies within two generations.  My grandfather came from Flanders as a little boy, arrived in the upper-Midwest town that someday would be my hometown on a Saturday, and that Monday was sitting at a desk in a Catholic school that taught only in English, of which he knew only a handful of words.  He spent the rest of his childhood trying as hard as he could to shed his former culture and become an American.  I'm sure, for him, it was a matter of survival; even in those ethnic-Catholic days, people of Flemish extraction were a tiny minority in that parish and that town.

My dad, who grew up in that same neighborhood while it still had an ethnic cast, heard enough of the Belgian language spoken that he understands it even today (at least the old dialect spoken by his family and his old neighbors) without much difficulty - a fact that I discovered only as an adult myself.  But I've never heard him utter a syllable of it.  He's American.

I'm hard-pressed to think of more than two or three items (like foods) that would even represent the heritage.

Most of us look forward more so than backward.  I'm not saying one way is better or worse than the other.  It's just the way of things.

 

That ethnic identity is alive and well in the Midwest is not news to anybody who lives in "the heartland," where the Coast reporters only come when they want to get some hicks in a coffee shop to comment on national or world events because we talk funny, and (bonus points!) sometimes forget to put in our teeth or button a shirt over our tee-shirts.

I have never been east of Pittsburgh or west of Dallas, so I don't know what they do in New York or LA, but It has never been considered impolite anywhere within those parameters to ask, upon being introduced to someone, the origin of their last name: "Say, is that Dutch or German?" This usually results in a convoluted genealogical discussion that may go back several generations and in which the differences between, say, Prussians and Bavarians or Sicilians and Lombardians are carefully parsed, and inevitably leads to a discussion about food. It's the standard ice-breaker at social events.

Not all of the preoccupation with ethnicity and tradition is healthy or inclusive. Western Michigan's Dutch west side, is often at odds with the Irish Catholic northern Lower, the Scandinavian/Italian U.P. and the African American southeast. A variety of very old and long-standing religious and ethnic grievances come into play here.

Whoa! Jim and I come from the same place (roughly). I wonder if there's a generational gap here that accounts for the differences in our responses.

In cities with long-established populations, preservation of ethnic cultures probably has a lot to do with prejudice. Immigrants who are allowed to assimilate do assimilate. Others congregate in ghettos and continue the old ways because that is all that's open to them. In New York, for example, there's Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Chinatown, little Italy, the Grand Concourse, and a lot of Brooklyn. Hell's Kitchen was an Irish enclave until the Irish pushed into the dominant culture.

In less settled areas like the upper Midwest a century or more ago, a large influx of immigrants may themselves become the majority and have no incentive to change. 

For the Dutch in Manhattos, Broklyn, Delaware etc.,  read Russell  Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World. Terrific book. 

About language ==  Although Louisiana became an American state in 1812, Creoles and Cajuns (also a French colonial people) continue to use French as a primary language well into the 20th century.  For instance, my grandparents and three grand-parents spoke French at home, but were bilingual.  Only with my parents generation did English become the primary language.  Yet they were very proud to be Americans.  One of my great-great grandfathers even voted against the Civil War because he felt that his primary loyalty was to the U. S., not the State of Louisiana.  On the other hand, General Beauregard was a Creole, and he, of course, fought for the Confederacy.  Oddly (i'd always though), many immigrants in the South volunteered for the Confederate Army.  

Complexity, complexity.

 

Dutch names were for a time the objects of PETA's wrath.  The animal rights group wanted to change the name of Fishkill to Fishlove or Fishsave - too much violence against fish suggested by the original city name.  Even worse: Catskills.

http://www.cnn.com/US/9609/06/fishy.name/

 

 

Sitting here early Labor Day, drinking my morning coffee, the heavy fog clinging to the tree tops before it rolls back to the Golden Gate later on to reveal the stunning beauty of the Bay area, I can't help my bemusement by this decidedly "East coast" take on how spicey ethnicity only survives a generation at best in our collective cultural American stew.

Back in the Jurassic period when I was a classroom teacher in Massachusetts, trying to assess the students acumen in geography and world view, I asked the kids what was the first state bordering Massachusetts.  Most said Rhode Island.  The next state? Less than a third said Conneticut.  Then the next? Five students knew that New York was next.  After that? I got responses like Ohio, Kentucky, Texas - you get the picture.  Apparently, the world did fall-off a cliff at the Hudson River!

I guess that here in California, settled first by native Americans then by Franciscans in the name of the Spanish Rey, our ethnicity is served up with heaping portions of salsa.  Fusion cuisine is now the California rage adding such spicey Asian flavors.

Having lived in California for more than two decades, I understand better now why the East Coast, and especially "Fly-over country" of the Midwest, just doesn't get it:  America is much better off when ethnic cultures are allowed to flourish and express themselves instead of "anglicizing" and dumbing it down.  

Unlike in places like Syria and the Middle East in general, and in Europe really, here in California - where whites are no longer in the majority - we are forced to acknowledge that it is our differsity that makes us strong.  

Patrick Molloy,

Catskills are mice, no?

Among the many kils in NY State, Wallkil. That's short for walking will kill you.

There's plenty of ethnic continuity on the west coast, including Hispanic and Asian, and there are places like Danish Solvang ...  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvang,_California

Jean - I think you were able to stay rooted more so than I was.  We moved around a lot.  We're both parents of teens - I think we're pretty much the same generation.  But even more so, I think my ethnicity is just one that never achieved the critical mass of immigrants to establish much of an identity in the New World.  Even in Chicago, traditionally a quilt of ethnic neighborhoods, I've never heard anyone mention a Belgian neighborhood or a Flemish parish.

 

It would be interesting see how children ... and grandchildren ... of people born in the US but who emigrated elsewhere succeed in retaining any of their "native" cultural practices, beliefs and shibboleths.

People need to travel more and further. There is a whole wide world full of delightful people, places, foods, celebfations, pageants and costumes out there. We suffer from insularity and isolation. Ask any traveller what they want most of all - world peace and understanding. Right now most Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans just want the fighting to stop.

I live in a city and love city living.  That said, I was raised in the rural Midwest and love that too.  I have met way too many city people who simply have spent their entire lives in cities!  San Francisco (the city I love) has an abundance of insular people who sincerely believe the Chamber of Commerce propoganda.

Until and unless these folks find out that "diversity" includes more than racial diversity, they will continue to be sadly misinformed.

It seems to me tht the very notion of "diversity" strikes at the notin of "my people", i.e. "my tribe", and this is one of the reasons why American have such ambivalent feelings about it.  Sure, we believe that the U. S. is for all sorts of people, but mostly, I suspect, it's for ME.