The Melting Pot Versus The Salad Bowl

I was in Canada last week and had an interesting talk with my cab driver on the way back to the airport about immigration and integration of different cultures. His key misconception was over the idea that America is all about the “melting pot,” where all cultures are mixed together into one.

I got the impression this might be a common one for Canadians. Indeed, I started my keynote at the conference I was at with a pretty funny commercial that used to air in Canada, poking fun in part at American stereotypes of them. You can check it out here (and some background on it here), but this is the key part that goes with my post:

I believe in…diversity, not assimilation,

Now I’m an American, not a Canadian. But you know what? I believe in diversity as well. In fact, that’s what I was taught in school — ordinary public school in Southern California.

In particular, we learned that the melting pot (yep, there’s even a Wikipedia entry on the origins of it) was an outdated metaphor for what Americans were supposed to be. In a melting pot, everyone was mixed together to become one single thing, all Americans — and perhaps without retaining your origins.

Heck, there was even the Schoolhouse Rock video I watched as a kid, where all these various Americans of different origins jumped into a big pot to be mixed together as Americans. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but onto the “salad bowl.”

We were taught that the salad bowl was the better metaphor for us to learn about American and immigrants. In a salad bowl, different ingredients are all mixed together to make one thing, yet each ingredient also retains its own characteristics. They aren’t blended into some bland goo.

While these are two different concepts, I’d also argue that they are also synonyms for many Americans. People I know, if they talk about a melting pot, it’s understood that different cultures, races and ethnicities aren’t supposed to be giving up their identities while also becoming part of a unified America. In other words, people may often say melting pot but mean the salad bowl concept.

You can even see this in that old Schoolhouse Rock video. When the people jumped in, they didn’t get all blended into sameness. The song even ends:

Go on and ask your grandma,
Hear what she has to tell
How great to be American
And something else as well.

Not everyone believes that, of course. There are plenty of Americans who feel immigrants should learn English, become “normal” Americans (whatever that’s supposed to be) and so on. For them, the melting pot is that blending.

For me — melting pot/salad bowl — whatever you want to call it, it’s about a country of immigrants becoming stronger by both embracing the diversity of its cultures but also all feeling they do belong to one nation as well.


  1. Ashley says

    Ha, ha, this article was in my English exam, the county one! I had to write well-developed paragraphs and an essay on it.

  2. cam9976 says

    This is a bunch of nonsense. Trying to “preserve” people’s cultures just pigeonholes them into their own little communities and doesn’t allow them to have their own identity. I’m tired of people referring to themselves as “Mexican-American” or “Italian-American” or “Chinese-American” when they should just be referring themselves as Americans — or better yet, as human beings!

    One of the things that makes America a great country is that people can choose whatever bits of culture they want to. I eat Indian food, have furniture made in Sweden, and posters on my walls written in Japanese. People shouldn’t feel the need to adhere to the dictates of their own cultural background, and the multiculturalists who want to pigeonhole people by their ethnicities are doing the world a great disservice.

    I’m Irish-American but I don’t feel the need to wear green and drink beer all the time, but the multiculturalists seem to think it’s fine for people of Chinese or Korean or whatever backgrounds to isolate themselves by their ethnicities.

  3. says

    after searching Iroquis-> Native Americans-> melting pot-> salad bowl -> pluralism-> i stepped here 😀

    okay… i’m confused, so what to do? not or preserve your culture? being multiculturalist? pluralist? ah well… whichever… its just a perception.

    anyway, god create humans in tribes, nations (more specifically, diff color of skin, hair, height, etc)for just to know each other, you don’t need to know each other if people is exact same copy of you.

  4. Joseph says

    The Salad Bowl concept is a product of the full-on press multiculturalism is doing on the West. Europe has only just begun to realize (or admit) that the multicuturalism experiment is nothing but a failure. It’s only weakened their nations and helped to destroy their own cultures.

    Every democracy has fallen by itself. Multicuturalism does nothing but splinter the people of a single nation. It does NOT promote progress, rather it impedes it.

    The biggest lie told about the Melting Pot is that it requires a full relinquishing of your ethnic/cultural past. Without this lie, the shortsighted Salad Bowl concept would have a leg to stand on. It had to pervert the idea of the Melting Pot in order to claim its superiority.

  5. Dr. Bryan K Hickman says

    I cannot illustrate the excitement that I have in reading these kind words about the melting pot in the Salad bowl theory. however, my question or statement is rather different from the typical questions or statements I am specifically researching who invented the salad bowl.. I have found the melting pot with little to no problem however the salad bowl seems to be a perplexing conundrum. Can anyone help?

    Dr. Bryan K. Hickman the multiculturalist

  6. says

    Dr Hickman, I thought it would be an interesting research challenge to track this down. It took about an hour, but I think I’ve got it. The short answer is Carl N. Degler. The long answer is below, of interest mainly to those who care a lot about search engines (as I do).

    I did a search on Google Books looking for [“salad bowl” immigration] and doing some date filtering to find the earliest reference to this.

    The very earliest I can find is this:

    That’s a 1914 article that talks about a social event where there was an “Immigration Salad” game that was played as part of a program topic on the “Melting Pot.” Interesting, but it was more about helping people at the event learn more about each other than a metaphor for immigration.

    After that, I found this 1961 essay by Franklin D. Scott, as part of a collection of essays. It’s called “Immigration And American History” and has this reference:

    “The process of amalgamation maybe should instead be called the salad bowl. For a piece of lettuce, even after soaking in French dressing, is still a piece of lettuce”

    If I’d left it just to Google Books, this is what I would have thought was the first print reference to the term and likely the origin.

    However, the collection of essays was edited by Henry Steele Commager. I originally thought he was the author of that particular essay, so I did another search for [henry steele commager salad bowl], which lead me to this interesting article:

    The Myth of Americanization or the Divided Heart: U.S. Immigration in Literature and Historical Data, 1890-2008

    That had this reference:

    “Students considered immigration in the light of the “Melting Pot” and were taught that all immigrants would, within reason, meld into one composite “American” whole. Later, we learned that newer emigrants might not lose or relinquish all of their own identity and so we considered historian Carl Degler’s formulation of the “Salad Bowl Thesis” as a more appropriate metaphor to describe how immigrants would retain their fundamental identity with a covering of unique American salad dressing that made us all Americans.”

    In a search for Carl Degler, to find out if he might have originated this, I came across a page about him with this quote:

    “The metaphor of the melting pot is unfortunate and misleading. A more accurate analogy would be a salad bowl, for, though the salad is an entity, the lettuce can still be distinguished from the chicory, the tomatoes from the cabbage.”

    To have a quote like that suggested he was especially well known with this concept.

    Going back to that article I mentioned, I also see that here:

    Carl N. Degler wrote in his widely-used college history textbook published in 1970 that “the metaphor of the melting pot is unfortunate and misleading. A more accurate analogy would be a salad bowl,” Degler wrote, “for, though the salad is an entity, the lettuce can still be distinguished from the chicory, the tomatoes from the cabbage.”

    That gave me the impression that Scott first conceived, or at least wrote about, the metaphor, then Degler helped popularize it through his textbook, “Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America.”

    You can find his quote here as part of that (though it’s the 1984 edition that’s in Google Books):

    Still, there was something bugging me. That journal article said his textbook was published in 1970 — so well after Scott’s 1961 reference. But the footnote to the reference said this:

    “Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America. 1957 (article), book (1970)”

    Had Degler written an article on the topic that later expanded into the textbook?

    That led me to search for [Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America 1957], where listings for Degler’s page on Wikipedia and at LibraryThing:

    Suggested this was a 1959 book. Now, I’d been at Degler’s page earlier on Wikipedia. It gives him no credit for the salad bowl term there, so you’d easily miss this (something that will no doubt change soon).

    So back to Google Books. Why didn’t Google help me spot this earlier reference? Well, Google’s pretty lame, at times.

    As I mentioned, where I found his quote before was from the 1984 edition, and if you look at the cover here:

    Google doesn’t suggest there’s another version. However, if you dig into the About This Book page:

    At the bottom is an “Other Editions” section that leads to this list:

    There, you can see the 1959 edition is listed — along with a 1952 edition! Maybe that one’s some type of cataloging error.

    Anyway, Google clearly knows that there’s a “salad bowl” mention in the 1959 book, as you can see here:

    Though it doesn’t find the exact spot. If you go back to the original quote, however, he only says “salad” and not “salad bowl.”

    Try as I might, I can’t get Google to display the exact quote from the book — searches for words in that quote like “lettuce” or “chicory” yield nothing. There’s probably some backend problem with Google causing this.

    If you made it this far, some bonus links.

    Here’s The Nation reviewing Degler’s 1959 book and mentioning the salad bowl concept:

    Here’s a fairly modern teacher’s guide with the concept:

    It also talks about the “stew pot theory” which is between the melting pot and the salad bowl.

  7. E vd Steen says

    Better not mix up search with research…
    Anyway. a nice topic. Reading original text of Degler’s book, you’ll find four key elements: different sorts of raw vegetables, one bowl, one dressing, tossed.
    Foof for thoughts.

  8. Papa Tango says

    The “salad” bowl metaphor is an invention of the incremental Cultural Marxism that is slowly eroding the core American ideals that make us unique in world history (see: You Tube on “The Frankfort School Marxists”). “Diversity” is divisive and has brought about nothing but class warfare and division between American citizens ( which too many are resistant to call themselves!). Yes, one should be proud of their heritage, but not to put it before their identity as an American citizen and all that implies. No other country’s name implies a set of ideals, and not a particular ethnicity or culture.

  9. dc says

    Interesting, those that seem to think multiculturalism, diversity, and self-identity are so ‘divisive’ and cause ‘class warfare’.

    Maybe you haven’t been paying attention, but we are getting our butts whooped by class warfare…and it is the warfare of those with the most money making sure they end up with ALL the money. It isn’t some commie hippie Occupier creating class where it did not exsist, or inequity where there once was justice.

    Being proud or self-identified as Native American or Irish-American or Hispanic-American is not any more divisive than identifying yourself as a “man”. Are you somehow being divisive because you consider yourself a man and not “just an American”?

    No…clearly, seeing one’s self as a “man” or a “woman” or a “mother” or a “Smith family heir” or a “McCoy” or a “collector of Star Trek memoribilia” and gathering in groups to discuss matters of interest to you or being a proud member of one of these groups in no way reflects on your identification as an American, or lessens the pride in that.

    Trust me. Being an American is not likely something anyone will forget or ignore or just let their membership slide on no matter what else we identify as.

    Chill. Let folks be whoever they wish under whatever names they want to call themselves.