Melting Pot

December 11, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: If the human stomach is a melting pot, the way to a tranquil democracy may be through it. That hope is raised by the recent business news that four new bagel chains have gone public in the last year. In all, at least seven bagel retailers or manufacturers or their parent companies trade publicly, according to the Wall Street Journal.

They include such names as Big City Bagel, New York Bagel Enterprises, and Big Apple Bagel. Bagels are big. This was not always so. When I was kid, bagels were merely the secret doughnuts of the Jews. If they were not secret, they certainly weren’t rolling all over America. They went unmentioned in the press, as did holidays, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At the winter Solstice no one on radio or on television wished my people a Happy Hanukkah, as they do quite regularly today.

In fact, the religious and cultural events of all minorities are warmly acknowledged these days, which suggests at least a desire to stir the melting pot, even as extreme multiculturalism and segregated bilingualism threaten to tug the nation in the opposite direction.

But the most promising instrument for stirring the melting pot in America is the one that goes straight to it: food. The bagel burgeons. The tortilla thrives.

Pita bread shows not the slightest sign of petering out. Sushi is the diet food of choice. Walk through the cities, not necessarily the big ones. Feel like eating Ethiopian or Tibetan, Hungarian, German, Russian, Indian, Cuban, Vietnamese? Scan the menus. Once exotic food names have become an ordinary part of the language.

What person under 40 does not know what you mean if you mention blintzes or blinis or jalapeno peppers? French and Italian, always popular, now have grown plus grand, magnifico. As for Chinese, the grand old mandarin of minority food, it has gotten diverse and specialized. Send out for Chinese food? What part of China are you interested in?

While this rich and open market has become richer and more open, word has come from non-culinary quarters that the country has never been more divided. One may enjoy Korean and soul food on the same gustatory day, but try combining Koreans and African-Americans in the street.

On the city block you can nosh on a knish and falafel, then pick up a paper and read about another deadly riot in the Middle East. The Middle East has not been brought to rest in anything but one’s middle. Food, it seems, does not go to the brain.

The substance is not sufficiently substantial to affect everlasting peace. That’s logical, but it’s a pity, nonetheless. There’s more to the bagel than the whole. At least business is booming. And if nothing more lofty is accomplished, it is a tickling sight to watch the country become a thickening mulligatawny soup of mix and mixing identities.

The nation has grown into an unending food fare. And this has all happened within the past twenty to thirty years. You had to grow up in an America where everything foreign was hated, ignored, or condescended to, to appreciate the difference. You had to grow up in an America where every food was white bread. Now look at the table. How much more lively? How much more fun? How much more food? Have a bagel.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.