Updated: Jul 25
Food is one of the most iconic representations of cultural identity, and eating and culinary traditions are an active process that enables people to reconnect with their culture regardless of geographical location.
The relationship between tabbouleh and the Lebanese cultural identity in the United States cannot be understated, particularly in the context of centuries-long political instability on the international stage and socially reinforced assimilation within the United States.
Be it in the South, Midwest or New England, Lebanese immigrants and Lebanese Americans wanted to be known as “just Americans” or would intentionally reject their ethnic identity to avoid mainstream social or economic exclusion in the mid-19th century up until the 1970s.
Even though the Lebanese diaspora was pressured for generations by geopolitical circumstances and post-Reconstruction racialized politics, I argue that some form of their identity was salvaged largely in part by their ability to carry on the tradition of tabbouleh.
In the mid-19th century, first-generation Lebanese immigrants engaged in entrepreneurial ventures as a means to gain economic mobility in spite of the relative prejudice they faced by the Anglo-Saxon majority.
Before exploring these ideas, we must answer the question: What is tabbouleh?
What is tabbouleh?
Tabbouleh is a tantalizing salad that people across the world have learned to appreciate over the last few decades, however its origins began in the Levant Crescent–particularly Lebanon and Syria. Preparation and consumption of tabbouleh began in the Middle Ages where herbs known as qadb (Medicago sativa) flourished in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria.
While there are numerous variations of the recipe, this delectable salad as it is known today tends to consist of mint, parsley, tomatoes, cucumber, bulgar wheat, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, white onion and Lebanese spices–coriander, cloves, all spice, cinnamon, cumin, white pepper and black pepper.
Within Lebanon and diasporic communities, the first Saturday of July is recognized as National Tabbouleh Day as a way of demonstrating one’s attachment to the culinary culture and eating together with other members of the community.
Beginning of Lebanese Diaspora in the United States
That being said, the inception of the Lebanese diaspora is conventionally known as a result of the Civil War that began in the 1970s, but in reality, this legacy goes back to the days of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century.
The first wave of Lebanese immigrants moved from Mount Lebanon in Syria to the Mississippi Delta in the late 1880s escaping religious and political persecution from the Ottoman Empire's occupation of their lands.
Sociologist Michael Humphrey warns about generalizing the Lebanese immigrant experience because each group’s relationship to the homeland was divergent from one another, particularly between “old” (i.e. first generation) and “new” (i.e. second or third generation) communities.
The first wave of immigration in the 19th century predominantly identified as Christian and defined by their ability to assimilate to American culture, whereas new communities mainly identified as Muslim and mired by the sectarian divides that mirrored the Civil War.
Whether they were multi-generational or first-generation Lebanese, both groups attempted to keep in touch with elements of their faith through community relationships. Be it through the transcontinental networks of colleagues and family or connection to the homeland, maintaining community was and continues to be a cherished component of Lebanese identity.
So, what does Lebanese identity mean in the context of the U.S. Post-Reconstruction era?
Across the United States, Lebanese immigrants sought out to assimilate to white culture out of fear that they would be “other-ized” like other immigrant communities. From Kansas to the Mississippi Delta, many first-generation Lebanese (mostly men) served as traveling merchants and saved up money in order to open up their own businesses in a fixed location.
Cultural historians Jay M. Price and Sue Abdinnour believe that this entrepreneurial spirit that emerged within multiple generations, including and proceeding first generation-Lebanese immigrants, was a means to assimilate to the American entrepreneurial culture that emphasizes individualism.
Take the history of the Ellis family in Mississippi, for example. This Lebanese-American family earned their wealth by selling various wares across the state for some years after which the extended family opened up a mercantile business, general stores, groceries and dry goods stores across Mississippi and Texas between 1892 and the late 1920s.
Culinary Habits & Cultural Preservation
In his analysis of the relationship between consumer culture and participatory politics, Mark Weiner’s research points out that commodities can provide “a shared framework of consumer experience” that allows community members to “reach out to distant strangers, to perceive, however dimly, the existence of an imagined community.”
Also, historian Mark Habeeb points out that by the 1970s, one of the last ties that Lebanese- and Syrian-Americans in the American South had to their ancestral’ cultures was meals like tabbouleh. Even though Lebanese-Americans in the Mississippi Delta spoke less Arabic in public and at home by the mid-1960s,
At the dinner table, Lebanese children gained a love and appreciation of Lebanese food, and in the kitchen they learned to make tabouleh.
Lebanese entrepreneurship in Kansas went through several transformations throughout the 20th century, eventually leading to the popularity of Wichita-based Lebanese restaurants serving, among other dishes, tabbouleh in-house and at civic events, church dinners and sports games.
In Waterville, Maine, Laya–the proprietor of The Lebanese Bakery–served variations of tabbouleh in attempts to appeal to divergent palettes of customers, as well as the high prices of particular ingredients such as parsley which would be compensated for with the addition of more bulgar wheat.
The commodification of tabbouleh, even though some ingredients were altered due to assimilation or market constraints, is a vessel for Lebanese immigrants and Lebanese Americans to protect their cultural identity while gaining economic independence that they have sought after for generations going back to Ottoman occupation in the late 19th century.
Tabbouleh as an Act of Cultural Resilience and Belonging
To summarize, the international Lebanese diaspora is not monolithic in its worldviews and values, but Lebanese immigrants that resettled in the United States–regardless of geographical location–were able to maintain their affinity for communal consumption of tabbouleh in spite of their multigenerational efforts to disentangle from their heritage.
Tabbouleh has been a staple of Lebanese culture for centuries, in part, because of the communal aspect of chopping up the ingredients and eating the wholesome meal with friends, family and loved ones.
Lebanese immigrants from the South, Midwest and New England gained economic mobility through entrepreneurial spirit and once established, continued to maintain their cultural identity not always through language or music, but the preparation and presentation of traditional foods such as tabbouleh.
Families started with few resources, but slowly invested in businesses to gain economic sufficiency. Some, like Laya’s Lebanese Bakery in Maine and Kansas-based Lebanese restaurants, went a step further and shared their love of Lebanese cuisine to the community.
Tabbouleh is valuable to Lebanese culture not only because of its flavor, but how it has stood the test of time.