Back in elementary school, my third-grade class performed a play called “The Melting Pot that is America.” It involved each student taking a turn to place international dolls dressed in traditional clothing into a big pot. The play culminated when out from the pot came a Cabbage Patch Doll (hey, it was the 80s) dressed in red, white and blue, much to the amusement and raucous applause of all the parents in attendance. While it was quite literally an elementary interpretation of the “Melting Pot” theory, as a child it was really the first time I can remember realizing how many different people and cultures there were in the world and America. These days, the “Melting Pot” theory which describes the assimilation of cultures, religions and traditions of all immigrants that in turn melt together to create one culture that is American, has shifted to the “Pot of Stew” theory. The “Pot of Stew” theory states that people from various backgrounds, traditions, religions and cultures all contribute to what becomes a diverse and ever changing pot of stew.

I prefer the “Pot of Stew” theory. First, because it has to do with food (stew), and second, because the theory allows Americans to retain our unique traditions and cultures while still coming together and becoming what is uniquely American.  

Even Americans who are third, fourth or 20th generation find companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com which can tell us down to exact percentages what our background is – quite exciting.  While people from other countries may wonder at this American obsession, as a nation of immigrants, it provides us a sense of commonality and community. Some of my strongest memories growing up are of my boisterous Italian-American family gathering at the table while delving into heaps of incredible food. Americans are a nation of motivated, smart and revolutionary human beings who came/come to this country with dreams, songs, clothing, and, of course, food. The food tends to be home cooking, the rustic and comforting kind. It can bring anyone of any ethnicity back to their mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen through the tastes, smells and rich flavors. This is the pot of stew, and it has found its way into every corner of our country. It is spectacularly American.

I found an ingredient to this “stew” when I was traveling this summer, and discovered the most authentic and delicious Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. This food was in a little town, population 345, called Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in a restaurant called Zheng Zhong. Their walls were adorned with family photos from their home back in China and when they weren’t speaking to us in English, Chinese was being spoken. While eating there, or more aptly stuffing my face, I was reminded of another little restaurant in New York where I used to eat.

The restaurant, Bombay Duck Pickle, was run by a woman whose entire mantra was to serve food from countries that were currently in the news for unrest, instability or war. Her goal was to provide understanding through food. But how is that done? I believe it is through common ground. If you look hard enough, you’ll see that most of what we find comforting and consider home cooking have similar dishes in most countries. Most have dumplings, a wrap, a noodle, and even some sort of barbecue.   While sitting down to a meal and learning about one another, perhaps it can help us all be slower to anger, and by breaking bread we can come to deeper understandings and agreements. Seriously, ask a new acquaintance about their favorite childhood meal. I promise a lengthy conversation and quite possibly a friend for life.

In Leavenworth we are lucky to live in a city replete with food from all around the world. We have some pretty incredible options. That’s how we can celebrate our nation this Fourth of July, by eating from the rainbow of foods that make up our nation and meeting the owners of these small businesses.  

Ava from Ava’s Carribbean Cafe is wonderful to chat with. She will talk about all the amazing spices in her food and she is visibly happy to watch people enjoy something new. The ladies at Hyundai Korean Restaurant are always quick to help me find the right ingredients for my experimental Asian recipes in their grocery store and when I call 30 minutes ahead to get my favorite dish, Ojingeo-bokkeum (spicy calamari), it’s ready and waiting for me when I arrive. Like most owners they want to introduce you to the flavors of their homeland, their families and their community and feed you with the same love.   

Here are some of our diverse ethnic restaurants in town:

Island Spice / 325 Delaware St. / Caribbean

Hyundai Korean Restaurant / 749 Shawnee St. / Korean

Baan Thai Restaurant / 301 S. 4th St. / Thai

Wizard of Pho / 210 S. Broadway St. / Vietnamese

Ava’s Island Cafe / 732 Shawnee St. / Caribbean

Acapulco Mexican Grill / 701 Cheyenne St. / Mexican

Tampico Authentic Mexican Restaurant / 215 Delaware St. / Mexican

Luigi’s Modern Italian Cuisine / 418 Cherokee St. / Italian

Mido’s Halal Mediterranean Grill / 301 N. 4th St. / Middle Eastern

Mama Mia’s / 402 S. 20th St. / Italian

The Family Bistro / 227 Cherokee St. / Sushi

King House / 201 N. 5th St. / Chinese

New China Inn / 3519 S. 4th St. / Chinese

China Buffet / 3108 S. 4th St. / Chinese

Bailey’s Irish Pub / 312 N. 2nd St. / Irish