11 April 2010


Identity is a funny thing. It is one of the most interesting subjects for me to study in history and something that I think about often. It's also something that I never thought about in relation to myself until I moved to London. Throughout history and certainly now, identity and labels only become worthwhile and take on meaning and importance when in opposition to others. So when I first moved to London, I often had to proclaim that I was not a British citizen and was, in fact, an American. Perhaps it wasn't really that formal of a proclamation, but certainly one of the first things people asked about me. (And I always think that my accent pretty much gives it away that I am an American, but of course you cannot always tell just by an accent.)

Side note: A strange thing about the US is that people are constantly reaffirming that they are American and try to almost out-do others in American-ness. I wonder if this is because the idea of an 'American' has been created with a purpose, not grown organically, and anyone can still embrace this identity and make it their own. Some need to project their identity on to others I suppose, even when surrounded with those of the same identity, though I have found this more in the US than anywhere else.

Growing up, I never thought about being American. I celebrated Independence Day and cheered for the US in the Olympics but I did not sit down and think about what it meant to have to claim something that I have been given since birth. At the beginning here, I chafed at the idea of having to constantly label myself for everyone to lump with all other Americans, especially at a time when America was not too favored in the rest of the world. Although my citizenship has been with my my whole life, I had never had to identify myself under a citizenship label and I was not sure that I liked being burdened with this identity. What if I wanted to be known firstly as an educated woman, or as a historian? Why was this label of identity so important?

Over time, I have come to accept and embrace my American identity all over again in a pro-active and involved way that I never imagined could take place. Nothing has changed about me except that way that I interpret this label and what my American identity means to me. It means my values, upbringing, accent, family, and everything that goes with a culture and these are not parts of me that I want to forgo, but I want to carry them with me and share with others.

I wonder too about the labels of origin in food much the same way as people. Just because a dish now is known for being American does it mean it has always been that way? Maybe one culture commandeered a dish and made it famous even though it originated somewhere else. (I like to think of French fries this way though hardly a commandeering.) I suppose food is supple and can take having many labels, never minding what the labels mean or their association.

So today I made a traditional 'American' food: chilli and cornbread. Chilli is made thousands of different ways across the US and it seems like every family has their own recipe for it. We do too, and that's what I made.

Brown onions and mince meat/hamburger meat in a large pot. Or a pretty, new blue pot!

Then add kidney beans, chopped tomatoes and tomato passatta until a thick, but still soupy, consistency. You can also just add stewed tomatoes and a little tomato paste to boil down into a thick soup, but this will take a while.

Don't forget the chilli powder, which gives this dish it's name and a nice warmth.

At the same time, I made some cornbread to go with the chilli. Some eat chilli with rice or perhaps something else (noodles?), but I like it with some sweet cornbread. This type has butter, sugar, an egg, milk, flour, baking powder and cornmeal all mixed together with little ceremony.

Then pour into a pan and bake!

Really simple and it comes out beautifully springy, like cake.

At this point, the chilli has been simmering for a at least half an hour and can probably be eaten with some warm cornbread. Mmmmm.

Make this and you can feel more American too, if only for a meal.


In case you are interested, this is a really good recipe for cornbread that does not require buttermilk, which most seem to. Enjoy!

1/3 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 and a bit milk
1 cup and a bit flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 full tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in order, then pour into a greased pan, ideally square and not too deep. Bake on 400 F/ 200 C for about 22-25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean from center. Makes 6 servings.


  1. Cornbread was one thing I made while I was living in Wales that was TOTALLY foreign to everyone else. Everyone really liked it, but they had never had/heard of anything like it before.
    Nice one for a post on being an American.
    peace, lovely.

  2. I like your blog, I was an American from Berkeley( originally from LA) living in London, now am back in LA, but I am still writing about London in my blog Sabrina's London Diaries. I am going to check out your chili recipe. I would like to subscribe to your blog as a follower, but there is no link to do so. Please put it up, your blog is fantastico !

  3. Thanks and glad you like it! I think I have now added a subscribe gadget to the right hand column to follow hte blog through feeds. Let me know if this isn't working or the right one- I'm still pretty new to blogging and learning the ropes as I go :)

  4. I find very interesting the topic of identity and identity as 'national', as imposed, as constructed, sought, hijacked, manipulated, etc.

    And the cornbread! Yum!