Americans love to flaunt our immigrant heritages (it is said that there are more Irish Americans than there are Irish in Ireland) but the United States has historically not been terribly fond of immigrants themselves. They tend to be poor, don’t speak English, and practice bewilderingly different customs, so we are hesitant to welcome them into the melting pot for fear they might ruin the meal. For well over a century, Americans have engaged in cultural imperialism in their efforts to quell the threats (real or imagined) posed by immigrant groups, and this is an issue that we are still figuring out how to talk about.
In Anzia Yezierska’s 1927 novel Arrogant Beggar, she explores the difficulties that Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their children in New York City faced in establishing themselves as successful Americans. She highlights the tensions between wealthy German-American Jews and poor Russian and Polish Jews as her heroine, Adele Lindner, goes to live at the Hellman Home for girls, a charity institution that ostensibly helps young single girls from immigrant families lift themselves out of poverty and the squalid Lower East Side tenements.
Adele soon discovers is that the purpose of Hellman Home is really more about keeping these young women in lowly positions than helping them. Adele is pressured into learning domestic service in as her benefactor hopes that she will “become a leader among [her] people…[and] teach them that the joy of living consists in serving others.” 
She becomes disillusioned with the Home after she overhears the affluent women who run it preach to each other how the girls in the home must learn self sacrifice and economy while they drip with diamonds and pat themselves on the back for helping the poor. Adele even learns that her wealthy employer is paying her less than fair wages in the interest of “economy.” The women who run such charitable organizations subscribe to a sort of social Darwinism which “scientifically” says that it is the place of the lower classes to selflessly serve their betters. Yezierska brutally exposes the so-called charities that take advantage of the poor immigrant communities and only “help” insofar as they try to make unfamiliar peoples unthreatening and servile.
More cultural imperialism in the United States’ treatment of immigrants can be found at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” Megan Elias explores the roles that food played for immigrant communities by looking at two families represented at the museum: a German Jewish family from the 1870s and a Sicilian family from the 1930s. She discusses how the development of the science of nutrition was prejudiced as nutritionists tended to define the healthiest food as American food that was often unfamiliar to immigrants. As such, during the depressions of the 1870s and 1930s, the food relief provided to poor immigrant communities could be alienating; Elias notes that “for many families on relief the supplies added a new problem to already suffering households – how do we eat this stuff? – and a painful sense of suspension of normalcy.”  Further, Elias demonstrates how eating like an American was associated with upward mobility and belonging for immigrants. When Esther Levy published the first kosher cookbook in America in 1871, she acknowledges that many American Jews abandoned rules about keeping kosher in favor of adopting American eating habits and so includes several recipes that are both American and Kosher. 
With such a history, the Tenement museum seeks to facilitate meaningful dialogues about America’s fraught relationship with immigrants and immigration through a program called Kitchen Conversations. With this program, the museum hopes to encourage visitors have open discussions about contemporary immigration issues and to recognize the roles they can and do actively play in those issues. 
Has immigration to the United States changed all that much in two hundred years?
 Yezierska, Anizia. Arrogant Beggar. 1927. (Reprint, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 46.
 Elias, Megan “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” The Public Historian 34, No. 2 (May 2012): 13-29. 26.
 Elias, Megan, 21.
 Abram, Ruth J. “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” The Public Historian 29, No. 1 (Winter 2007) 59-76, 61.