One of the first things I did upon my arrival in the United States some nine years ago was to try an American hot dog. The scene is recreated now in my memory as it never existed in reality. I know that it was the end of summer and the streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan heaved with the stored heat of another hectic day. Yellow taxis zoomed by and the Statue of Liberty peered between the Twin Towers at her new arrival. The vending cart was made of stainless steel and staffed by one such as I, a dreamer from a far-off shore. The regulation red and yellow plastic condiment bottles stood guard to witness the impending loss of my virginity. There was the shuffle of plastic, the splitting of the soft bun with the metal tongs, the opening of a lid and the rescue of a swimming red cigar. Self-consciously replaying a stock-scene from Matlock, I padded the sandwich with some sauerkraut and painted it with mustard. I turned out across the open waters in front of Battery Park and bit into my first American hot dog. The pickled taste of the sauerkraut and the sting of the mustard spread across my tongue. My teeth pressed through the soft bread and bit down on the meat, feeling first the resistance of the skin and then the unchanging consistency of the compressed beef within. I was unimpressed. The bread was not the crunchy banquette that I had tasted in Paris but that soft sweet air-filled bread I associated with cheap hamburgers. The meat was boiled and bland, not grilled and juicy. This was most definitely not good eats.
But over the years since that day things have changed. The textures and tastes remain the same but the feelings I associate with them are now distilled, potent, transubstantiated. America is not perfect – the bread is not crunchy, but always cheap. When I eat a hot dog today I am consenting to play a role in a great experiment. Millions arrive on this shore with wonderful cuisines, a myriad of languages and a single hope. And somehow we arrive at a messy, sometimes unsatisfying compromise. But when you think of the differences in our cultures and backgrounds, when you think of so many individuals with their own ideas, standards and desires, isn’t this peaceful compromise, this constantly evolving negotiation, a worthwhile, remarkable and rare achievement? The world is full of ridiculous conflict and yet the same people that kill each other elsewhere here work together, perhaps begrudgingly, perhaps with secret prejudices, but nonetheless effectively. Some come here for a while, some forever, some to recreate what they once had and some to forget. From each is asked a compromise, a contribution of moral capital to the idea of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, meritocratic republic. And sometimes the deal seems barely worth it, but yet sufficient enough to keep investing. The rule of law is available to all but lawyer’s bills often mean that some are more equal than others. Medical miracles can save the life of a loved one but the cost can destroy a family. You can achieve anything if you really want to but often it will be your children that will see the promised land of your imagination. You can grab a meal for two dollars, but the meat is factory-processed and the bread is soft.
On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke of how at that time America was engaged in a great civil war, testing whether a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are born equal could long endure. For many arriving on this shore there is that same internal struggle between prejudice and idealism, remembering and forgetting, evolution and loss. Stretched thin across two cultures, we each stumble through the twilight between past and future, reality and our dreams. And there is no answer – only, after a while, the realization that we are all stumbling, but still standing, and the value of that. Then this becomes our common bond, our compromise and our foundation. For me, as for many others, the American experience is the immigrant experience and I cling to that because it seems to me that it is in that light that America is at her most noble, her most beautiful and sublime. I have eaten many fine meals in countries ruled by tyrants and despotic cliques, salivated in lands infused with fear and complicit silence. And so, when I eat a hot dog today, I bite down into a humble, imperfect, democratic, noble experiment and consent.