• Wed. Jan 27th, 2021

The Foreigners at Your Thanksgiving Table

The foreigners are here. They’re in our supermarkets. They’re in our schools. They may even be in the room with you right now (cue dramatic music). I’m not talking about the hardworking migrant workers who toil long hours to collect the food we eat (and who deserve our support, kindness and respect). The foreigners in this case are the food we eat.

More wheat, corn (also known as maize), rice and soybeans are grown in the fields of the United States than any other crop. These plants are not just on our tables; they’re everywhere, from the starch in our clothing to the fuel that we use to the medicine we take (corn steep liquor is used in making penicillin) to the most intimate aspects of our lives (because cornstarch is used in condoms and other family planning and personal hygiene products).

But most of these foods were first developed in what President Trump once referred to as “shithole countries.” Wheat was originally domesticated by the inhabitants of Syria, Turkey and Iraq roughly 11,000 years ago. Around the same time in China, early farmers developed rice and, later, soybeans. Corn was bred in central Mexico approximately 9,000 years ago and was so important to the Olmec, Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations that they even had maize gods. All of these foreigners are around us in some capacity, and they form the backbone of our great economy.

Foreigners aren’t just found in fields, they are also found in our gardens and in our houses. The people of Peru domesticated the potato and the peoples of Central America gave us chili peppers. Native Americans, whom the GOP routinely tries to prevent from voting, domesticated the turkey we consume this Thanksgiving and the pumpkins we carved for Halloween. Even our most socially acceptable vices such as tobacco (South America), coffee (Ethiopia) and tea (China) have dubious foreign origins. If there was a way to ferment sugars, people found a way to turn it into booze, with some of the earliest evidence of alcohol production found in the first civilizations in the world in the Middle East.

The very food that tempts me at the checkout line, chocolate, can be traced back to a plant that was originally domesticated in South America and refined by the Olmec and Maya of Central America. The candy bars that we give out at Halloween are an un-American combination of chocolate, sugar (sugarcane originally from Southeast Asia) and milk (originally developed in the Middle East). You can thank the Aztecs for our tomatoes and people of New Guinea for our bananas. The Native Americans of eastern North America domesticated the beautiful sunflower, and then the Russians made them even better by developing the varieties with the giant dinner-plate–sized flower heads.  

And foreigners aren’t just in our food; they’re also in our most cherished pieces of children’s literature and film. The popular children’s book Charlotte’s Web and the 1995 film Babe are not gripping tales designed to teach life lessons so much as they are tales of foreigners trying to escape persecution and death in rural America. The entire barnyard is a collection of nefarious characters. Babe and Wilbur’s ancestors were wild boars in the Middle East and China that were domesticated into our friendly, if not slightly troublesome, pigs. All of the chickens, roosters and ducks are originally from the jungles of southern China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Cows first roamed the mountains of the Middle East, India and Pakistan, while horses all come from the steppes of eastern Russia and Mongolia.

In Trump’s America, the beloved sheep would undoubtedly be flagged at the airport for extra screening because their ancestors lived in the lawless mountains of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Even Duchess the Cat, the one animal in Babe who doesn’t seem destined for the chopping block, is not above suspicion because of her ancient Egyptian heritage.

I often envision people, once they realize the origins of their food, repeatedly reliving that scene from Ghostbusters where Sigourney Weaver opens her fridge to discover the demon Zuul living in her fridge. The painting American Gothic by Grant Wood, depicting a stern-looking farming couple is seared into our collective consciousness as what it means to be an American, and what traditional American values are. I imagine that if you pan out from that image, you’ll see the real truth behind America. You’ll see hard-working farmers planting Mexican corn, milking Middle Eastern cows and harvesting Chinese soybeans. Trump and his Republican allies will try and build all the walls they want and scare as many people as will listen. But for this Thanksgiving, the “foreigners” are already here, and they’ve been here for a long time.