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.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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