What is American Food? A World View

We would like to eat American food. You know, you are American, so it would be great if we could try American food with you.” — A dinner request from our Iranian CouchSurfing guests a few weeks ago in Berlin.

Dan and I looked at each other, deer in headlights. American food? What’s that?

The first thing that came to mind was Thanksgiving dinner, one of my favorite meals in all the world. As much as I wanted to be the good host, cooking a full Thanksgiving meal — turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie — in a couple of hours was beyond us.

After a few false starts (hamburgers? tuna casserole? deli sandwich?), we settled on chicken fajitas and refried beans Tex-Mex style. That counts as American food, doesn’t it?

Photographing American Food in Berlin
Iranians are foodie travelers too. Babak photograps our “American in Berlin” Feast

But as we cooked away and our guests queried us about other typical American dishes, we strained: What exactly is American food anyway? A frequently asked question for the American traveler, but one for which we still don’t have a satisfying answer that rolls off the tongue.

American food inspiration in a German grocery store?

In my search for the ultimate American food, I visited a Berlin outpost of Lidl, a German grocery store chain, advertising “America Week.”

Curious. What does “American food” mean to them?

Here are a few examples of the American food I found:

American style yogurt? #berlin
Yogurt, American Style?

I know I’ve been outside the United States for the better part of the last decade, but are these oddball yogurt flavors really the norm these days? Chocolate muffin? Really?

Any Americans here who are caramel popcorn or cranberry-chocolate yogurt fans?

Lady Liberty ought to be shedding a tear.

Good old American food-hamburgers
Microwave Hamburgers. Typically American?

Microwaveable mini-hamburgers. Getting closer to more authentic. Never tried one of those myself, but they do look like White Castle sliders. I can imagine seeing them on shelves across America.

But I’ve also seen similar items in almost every big grocery store in the world. Call it American cultural hegemony.

Does this really count as cheese? #berlin
Is it really cheese?

Bright orange chemicals pressed into a cellophane sleeve and sold as cheese? Getting warmer. But do American stores really sell plastic-wrapped cheese slices expressly for hamburgers?

Barbecue marshmallows in Berlin.
Barbecue marshmallows?

Jackpot! What says American food more than marshmallows? But barbecue(!) ones? There’s a specificity itch being scratched during America week.

Note: Notice the clever branding: McEnnedy. No, that’s not a misspell on my part. That’s a bizarre end-around on trademark. A typo embraced for its uniqueness.

American Food, Our Take

Ask across street corners and in villages across the world about American food. Hamburgers maybe, hot dogs, too. Pizza, too. Everyone’s got that, though. McDonalds and KFC also appear high on the list. Sure, America downs its share of fast food, but show me a country in the world that doesn’t have their own version of hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken.

Though they may be spun with a local twist, those foods have fast become universal.

Happy American Hot Dog in Berlin, Germany
Happy American Hot Dog in Berlin

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tap the usual American food icons Spam and Velveeta (whose generous use of the term “cheese” does not go unnoticed). Tuna casseroles (Hamburger Helper, anyone?). Actually, any sort of one pot meal that combines various packets, cans and some sort of meat could well be characterized as American cooking. (Or is that co-ed cooking?)

Surveys turn up all these usual suspects, but are they really representative anymore?

Maybe I’m missing barbecue (or BBQ) — be it from Texas, Carolina, or Kansas City? Throw in some apple pie, but I often wonder where that was invented.

The reality is that the United States is a country of immigrants, and American food — at least as I have known it –reflects this melting pot. What food Dan grew up with as a kid – poppyseed stuffed pastries, kielbasa, pizza and rye bread – is different than what I grew up with — because our families are of different origins, from different cities populated by descendants from different ethnic groups.

When we think of the food eaten in the U.S. these days, it’s things like pasta, stir fry, tacos, sushi, pizza, curries, deli sandwiches, burritos. The list is long. I could go on.

Or maybe all we need to do is watch the candidates for President of the United States trying to out-America each other while on the stump.

Mac and cheese and corn dogs, anyone?

—-

Help us out here. Next time we host someone who would like to eat American food, what should we prepare? When you hear American food what comes to mind?

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Comments

  1. says

    Nice read! You make some good points, especially about the melting pot.

    I explored the topic of American food in college, when I wrote my thesis devoted to proving that American Cuisine, in fact, exists.

    I blame worldwide fast food expansion for the image of American food abroad. It’s not ALL burgers, hot dogs and fries… (sigh) American Cuisine dates back several centuries, there are great regional varieties (traditionally at least), and it also is a mish-mash of many influences. But it exists and in its non-fast food form can be very appealing. My favorite restaurants in the US are those that serve quality Contemporary American food.

    P.S. That hot dog pic reminds me of one at a hot dog stand near my house in Chicago.

  2. says

    I had been racking my brain thinking of the same thing! I recently lived in Spain with a family and they made all of their custom dishes and I thought…if the tables would turn, what American dishes would I make?

    America is filled with immigrants from everywhere and if you really think about it, when we have our “Italian nights” or “Mexican taco nights” that’s not really us.

    When I think of American dishes I think of the “Leave it to Beaver” type meals like…meatloaf, vegetables and mashed potatoes, BBQ….soul food etc. Funny how that works huh?

    Good post!

  3. says

    I once had a man tell me the reason there is no English phrase equivalent to “bon appetit” or “buen provecho” is that we don’t have any good food to look forward to eating.

    Personally, though, I find this perceived weakness to be a strength. We are made up of immigrants, and the food reflects that. It may not be American in origin, but it is now a vital part of America. Now if our presidential candidates could just remember that…

  4. says

    You hit the nail on the head with this: “The reality is that the United States is a country of immigrants, and American food — at least as I have known it – reflects this melting pot.”

    American food at its best is American regional food–the BBQ and chicken-fried steak of Texas, meat-and-threes of Tennessee, chicken wings of Buffalo, green chile burgers of NM and CO, New Orleans jambalaya, Maine- or Conn-style lobster rolls, NY bagels, etc–and most of the good stuff reflects (a) what immigrants settled in that region and/or (b) what foods have long grown in that region. It’s a shame that American food as a whole is often thought of in terms of our fast-food chains, but then again, that is the American food that’s exported abroad.

    When faced with a question like your CSer posed to you, the answer isn’t straightforward, but likely involves the 2 of you cooking whatever foods you grew up eating in your corner of America, along w/an explanation of why you grew up eating that. It’s a topic I love exploring everywhere I go!

    P.S. Based on my NJ upbringing, I might have served a pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich. Or a sub. Or just PB&J. ;)

  5. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    There are a few good restaurants in NYC/Chicago/Las Vegas devoted to “new American” cuisine. “Craft” comes to mind – by Tom Collichio.

    The thing is, although many of these restaurants are very expensive (and hence not so accessible), they treat American food as food that is made from local ingredients and made well. For example a simple heirloom tomato salad – but it would be worth it having that dish because it is so delicious. Or braised suckling pig, or a porterhouse steak with celery-root mash.

    BBQ is also a topic that well, even in the South, you could argue over it for hours depending on where in the South you are from. For example, would the marinade be dry rub or wet sauce? And then what kind of sauce? In Texas, it is mostly dry. In Tennessee, it is wet. In NC, it has vinegar. In Tennessee if you made a vinegar based sauce, you would be booted out! :)

    California cuisine on the other hand, is a separate animal of it’s own. Unique, made from fresh ingredients. Even pizza there is wierd.

  6. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    And let’s not get started on chili. According to some Texans, if you put beans in your chili, you are committing a capital crime. Chili there is just cubed beef cooked to perfection in a fiery sauce. But then there are other places where you can put beans in your chili. There are still other places where chili is made from other ingredients, not beef.

  7. says

    Love this post. I was just in Finland, where I saw “American style peanut butter” on a grocery store shelf – which made me wonder, is there another style of peanut butter? Now I’m in Estonia and while at the grocery store earlier today, I saw a package of “American cookies” – which turned out to be good ole chocolate chip cookies.

  8. says

    @Pola: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m really intrigued by the topic of your thesis on American Cuisine. I know that I still have a lot to learn about traditional American food. When you mention contemporary American cuisine, what sorts of dishes do you have in mind?

    @Naomi: I had a similar problem when I studied in France many years ago. My American food contribution was chocolate chip cookies and stayed away from the savory stuff.

    Leave it to Beaver type foods – that’s a good way of thinking of it. Although so many cultures around the world grill meat, BBQ (with sauce and such) is definitely very American. Meatloaf and casseroles also work. For me, Thanksgiving is still the ultimate in American cuisine.

    @Betsy: Oh, that wasn’t kind of that guy – I think I would have responded with some nasty comment. There is lots of great food in English speaking countries! I’m with you on the diversity in cultures and cuisines…and also hope our presidential candidates remember this fact.

    @Laura: Your comment and response is so great – it made me want to do a food-themed road trip of the United States. Made me realize how many regional specialties I know nothing about. Now, just need to find a sponsor for this…

    @Sutapa: You’ve opened my eyes up to another style of restaurants and food in the States. Had never heard of “new American” cuisine, but it does make sense that they are focused on the fresh produce close by to be not only American but also regional/local.

    Oh man. The fights that could ensue over “proper” BBQ & Chili- from Texas to North Carolina. One of my favorite chili recipes involves carrot skins from a juicer used as “meat.” I’m sure I’d be chased out of Texas if I ever tried to introduce that there.

    @Matt: Mac & cheese is a definitely a good one – no Italian style pasta comes close. Had to think for a bit on grilled cheese, but you’re right -it’s a different style of hot sandwiches. So, want to make some mac & cheese for us in Berlin when you visit?

    @Katie: If the Lidl grocery store here had served up peanut butter for America week I would have been so happy. That makes sense. As for other kinds of peanut butter…perhaps American style means processed with more sugar while non-American is more natural (Indonesian style)? Although, I’ve never seen “Indonesian style peanut butter.”

    Chocolate chip cookies are uniquely American.

    Enjoy Tallinn! I lived 65 km south of there for 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer, so have a special attachment to that country.

  9. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Audrey,
    Now that you mention it, perhaps the “new American” label is not right : just plain American made from local produce and cooked really well would describe what I was talking about. I got the label from a friend…who isn’t in the food industry and neither am I. :)
    Then there is another movement where they take American comfort food like mac and cheese and take it to another level alogether. Like Danny Meyer’s hamburger joints – Shake Shack.

  10. says

    Very timely post for me because we just had 2 students from Germany as house guests last week and they specifically requested American food, too. We took them to a baseball game where we had loaded chili dogs, and we took them to Ruby’s American Diner where they LOVED the hamburgers, fries, and double milkshakes. I cooked Tex-Mex one night for which they additionally requested cole slaw. For lunch I made quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Snacks were always Doritos, Oreos, brownies, or ice cream (they couldn’t believe the variety of ice cream flavors at the supermarket). Love the comment someone made about there being no expression in English equivalent to Bon Appetit because we actually had that discussion with the German students one night!

  11. says

    @Sutapa: I like the idea of taking comfort food and taking it to a new level, as long as it doesn’t become too pretentious or out of reach in the process. A good hamburger from freshly ground meat can be an almost gourmet meal. Hadn’t heard of Shake Shack before – just looked it up. Looks like an interesting concept.

    @Sonja: Wow, you really went all out for your German students – love it! There is something about “real” American hamburgers that are hard to replicate in other parts of the world. So glad they had a great experience and they will likely never be able to look at a hamburger at home the same way :)

  12. says

    We are getting ready to have a USA table at the International Food Fair at school and you should have seen the list of food items that came up when we tried to narrow down our “american menu” !!!

    I agree with the others that America is SUCH a vast melting pot that there isn’t anything much that is truly American, that didn’t come from someone else’s borders when they immigrated to the U.S.

  13. Elisa says

    Funny you should mention this, because I just read a post by Eileen on Bearshapedsphere (http://bearshapedsphere.com/2011/09/02/the-defining-national-dish-of-the-united-states/) on chocolate chip cookies as the closest to a national dish for the US. At first it seems weird to have a dessert for a “national dish,” but the more I think about it, the more I agree. Other things that would be close to the top of my “American” food list: apple pie (or really any kind of pie – pecan too!), PB&J sandwiches (although it’s often hard to find real PB abroad), pancakes with maple syrup, ham and sweet potatoes, maybe scrambled eggs and grits. But the ham & eggs are more a Southern thing, I guess!

  14. says

    @Naomi: I’m curious – what did you settle on for your American menu at the International Food Fair? I agree that the melting pot does mean that it’s hard to identify something that is truly American, but I do think that we’ve put our own twist on some dishes to make them “American” in nature.

    @Elisa: I’m definitely with Eileen on the Americanness of chocolate chip cookies. I often have baked chocolate chip cookies for foreign guests or hosts. Same with brownies. Pumpkin pie is pretty unique as well.

  15. Renee Summers says

    When in Italy, lots of people told us they liked American food. When we asked what that was, one answer was always given: RIBS!

  16. says

    This made me chuckle a little. But as you rightly pointed out there is no such thing as “Authentic American Food” because the US is a melting pot possibly every culture known to man. I recently did a page on events on Hilton Head Island. You have a Cajun food festival, an Italian food festival and then a Gullah food festival on that one small island! Oh..there is also a wingfest too, we don’t leave out the authentic American, do we? :)

  17. says

    @Renee: Didn’t realize ribs were such a popular food with Italians! I’m trying to imagine them eating a big pile of ribs with their hands, faces covered with BBQ sauce. Last time we had ribs was in Bali – one of the owners of the restaurant was American. Really delicious stuff.

    @Sagar: That is a lot of food events for one small island :) I had to look up gullah food since I had never heard of it. Really interesting. Perhaps “American food” is taking the influences from the home country of the immigrant and then adjusting it for what is available locally. I imagine cajun food to be like that, too.

  18. says

    You are right about how the locals improvise and make new dishes. A good example of this is South East Asian countries. For instance, Thai food is a mix of Indian and Chinese cuisine. I think American food is still in its infancy. I will evolve into something greater and better with time.

  19. says

    This is a wonderful thread.

    Since launching a web site devoted to finding ethnic food in New Jersey, I often have to defend my decision to include “American” as an ethnic food category. For me, like @Laura, it’s the iconic and regional foods that constitute American food. When I travel outside the United States and the conversation turns to food, hot dogs, hamburgers, and BBQ are what everyone associates with America. Unfortunately, people often have the fast-food chain versions in mind. If I’m sharing iconic American food with someone born outside the United States, I want them to try an authentic Jersey Italian hot dog, experience disco fries and a burger at a shiny Jersey diner, or sample all the regional U.S. BBQ variations. (Reading this thread, I might add mac & cheese and chocolate chip cookies!)

    Of course, as others note, American cuisine is really the best of all the ethnic food our immigrant ancestors brought with them.

  20. Marina says

    I am surprised that no one mentioned New England food. Only there will you find seafood (clams), bacon and heavy cream simmered to heart-warming perfection in one big pot of chowder.

  21. says

    It’s a bit like Australian food…it’s a melting pot of different foods. I always think of hot dogs, hamburgers and s’mores! Might have to try those BBQ marshmellows one day…

  22. says

    @Sagar: Even in my lifetime I feel like American food and American taste buds have evolved, in a good way. It will be interesting to see how this evolution continues.

    @Henry: The marshmallows were found a German grocery store called Lidl. They are just regular marshmallows that can be used for BBQ (i.e., grilling), but the labeling was done by a non-English speaker so it’s a bit confusing.

    @Anthony: Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. And, I’m very glad that you included American food as a category and what that means to you. I’ve never had disco fries nor an authentic Jersey Italian hot dog, but now I’m more curious than ever to explore American food when we return home.

    @Marina: Ooh, New England clam chowder. Pure comfort food.

    @Natasha: I’ve never been to Australia, but I imagine the food situation is similar given the background of the two countries. It’s hard to beat a good s’more!

  23. Kristen says

    Great article! When I was abroad I cooked a lot for my host families and it seemed like desserts were always a big hit. I cooked peach pie, apple pie, carrot cake, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate devil’s food cake, banana bread, pancakes… The funniest was carrot cake – people kept thinking it was a translation mistake and they’d say “cake? with carrots? you’re sure it’s a dessert?” but once I made it they loved it. Next time I may have to try smores too :)

    Cooking interesting things helps dispel the stereotypes that we only eat things like hamburgers and fries and peanut butter!

  24. says

    @Kristen: American desserts are usually a hit everywhere! Your story about carrot cake reminds me of pumpkin pie. I taught a group of adults in Estonia and they had all read about pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, but couldn’t imagine pumpkin being a dessert. So I made a pumpkin pie from scratch (i.e., no cans, a real pumpkin) and everyone loved it.

  25. says

    Funny enough I was part of this exact conversation topic earlier. I’m British but I live in Korea and most of my friends are from other countries. It’s very hard to define American food. (For me ‘biscuits’ and grits come to mind!)

    Us Brits have a similar problem. Fish and chips is thought to be our national dish!

  26. Christine says

    This is actually something I think about frequently. If I get too stumped, I ask myself, “Would I take that on a picnick?” Or to a potluck, or any sort of communal dining event. If you would feel comfortable making it as your “dish” on the table, it probably counts. Or, how about a cold meatloaf sandwich on sliced bread? That is not very presentable, but it is uniquely ‘American’ in several ways. Much of our food is designed to satisfy rather than enthrall. We save the raptures for our sweet course, don’t we? Serve it with a milkshake, let them have meringue pie for dessert– is that too much?

  27. says

    @Valerie: It is hard to find good American-style biscuits anywhere else in the world, especially paired with sausage gravy. So unhealthy, but such comfort food!

    Before spending a summer working in London, I would have had a hard time identifying British food. But, the mother where I rented a room would invite me for Sunday lunch and she made some of the most amazing roasts, gravies and potatoes. So, that’s now what I think of as British food.

    @Christine: I like your comment that American food is perhaps designed to satisfy than enthrall. I think traditionally that was true – eating was more of a practical exercise than one to spend hours on and savor. It does seem like this might be changing as people look for more fresh and local ingredients. We’ll see. Like others said, I think American food is evolving…in a good way.

    @Tawny: We figured Tex-Mex was a safe bet – it’s a kind of food that definitely has an American stamp on it. I don’t think Mexicans would look at what we made and call it Mexican :)

  28. says

    I’m American, but I’ve lived in several countries, and I’m also trained as a chef, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this.

    For me, American food falls into three basic types. Breakfast, dessert, and campfire food.

    American style breakfast is definitely unique. Biscuits and gravy, waffles or pancakes and syrup, hot cereals, many of the cold cereals, french toast, muffins, bagels, scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns…. When I talk to my non-American friends, or shop at markets in other countries, these items are unfamiliar or unavailable.

    Dessert is a little trickier, because there are variations around the world. Like cookies — chocolate chip cookies are pretty distinctly American. But there are cookies in other parts of the world, and some of them are amazingly delicious! You can find cake in other parts of the world, but I’ve never consistently seen fluffy cakes with something like buttercream frosting. There are a few specialty bakeries here and there, but it isn’t common. Pies and cobblers, with the way the crust is done (either as crumb or normal pie crust) is also fairly unique.

    Campfire food is perhaps the most uniquely American food for me. It goes back to the pioneer days, when people HAD to cook over a fire. It gives you things like meatloaf, casseroles, stews, green beans, corn on the cob, baked beans, collard greens, corn bread and mush. You could make baked potatoes in the coals. I also think that steak is pretty American. Those cuts of meat aren’t common in the places I’ve been. This kind of food is hearty and satisfying, and it’s made from simple ingredients.

    Of course, there is always the alternative answer… What is American food? It’s food stolen from other cultures and covered in cheese ;)

  29. your REAL name says

    Cook them what you’d eat as a child, rather than what you’d like for them to think that you’ve eaten. Being from Louisiana, what I think of as “American food” (as opposed to “Louisiana food” because, yes, most of us think of ourselves as separate from the rest of you all) is: catsup, casseroles, sandwiches, pasta, little rice, and fusion food. It’s not so difficult to explain to foreigners that the US is a large country and each state, parish, town, neighborhood, and family has their own definition of “American food” based on their own circumstances — it’s not like they’re idiots.

  30. says

    Feels kind of odd not to have a person’s name to respond to with this comment. I do agree with you in that most people around the world understand that there are regional dishes throughout the United States – that’s the same in every country we go do. However, in most places we travel through, there are a few signature dishes that everyone agrees on represents “their” food. For example, plov in Uzbekistan or pho in Vietnam. For the United States, I have a harder time coming up with those signature dishes.

    I like your approach of cooking what you grew up with. I mostly grew up outside the United States and so my memories of eating at home included things like spaghetti, stroganoff, lasagne, curry or grilled cheese sandwiches. I guess I could have prepared one of those for our guests, but as we were the first Americans they had met they really wanted something “typically American.” I just wish we had a grill since BBQ would have probably been the best choice.

  31. says

    @Sarah: I had never thought about campfire food, perhaps because my family never really camped. But there is something about the hearty food that perhaps originate from people moving across the country and cooking over campfires. And you’re right that certain American cuts of steak are now almost like brand names around the world. In Argentina, the cuts of beef were quite different.

    I laughed when you talked about desserts. We had some cheesecake yesterday in Berlin that looked so good, but when we dug into the piece it just wasn’t the same as what we think of as cheesecake in the States.

    With your alternative definition, I’d say that it’s not just any cheese…but something that’s bright orange and is a “cheese product” :)

  32. Madhu Bhardwaj says

    Hi
    I enjoyed reading the article and the conversation that followed.
    I have one question. How about the food of Native Americans? Has it survived the onslaught of all the immigrants?

  33. says

    @Madhu: You ask a really good question. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know anything about Native American cuisine. I imagine it is still cooked in Native American communities, but it is not common in mainstream American food. I know want to research this a bit. Thanks for the question!

  34. kourosh says

    i love anthony bourdain but he just eats, i’ve never seen him cook! mind i wished gordon ramsey did the same..lol.
    p.s iranians are mad on picnic, i’m surprised you didn’t use that as excuse for an american BBQ event.. still, hopefully next time around.

  35. Etsi says

    great post Audrey, I have to chuckle reading this while images of peanut butter jelly, corn dogs, 2 pounder steak with ketchup-based bbq sauce, baked yam with marshmallow and stiletto-high stack of pancake and eggs came to mind. Do people really eat that, really? lol For me, american food is those sort of food I grew up liking, feel good food that do a lot more than to satisfy, beignet, shrimp etoufee, shrimp creole, jambalaya, crayfish cardinal and though not a dessert person myself, would not say no to cherries jubilee or a good ol pumpkin pie. Granted that these are ‘regional’cooking, and being a non-American these are the food particular to America which I am quite fond of. Sure that the English have kedgeree as well as the Spanish have paella, but I think Jambalaya is quite unique to New Orleans. As such the French have prawn remoulade, and yet the creole version of remoulade looks and tastes so different that their french cousin. I used to think that Tex-mex food came pretty close to real mexican, ’til I got to Mexico and I’d say if its not smothered in cheese, and I mean smothered, its probably not mexican lol

    I surmise perhaps just as beauty lies on the eyes of the beholder, true american foods are those that are loved by the people growing up in it, with all the added influence of cultures that evolved within it.

  36. says

    @Kourosh: Well, when the Iranian couple stayed with us in Berlin I didn’t know then (it was before our trip to Iran) that Iranians love picnics! Next time, we’re doing BBQ :)

    @Etsi: Great comment – thank you. Yes, people really do eat all those PB&J sandwiches, corn dogs, sweet potatoes and marshmallows :)

    After all the comments here like yours about Creole food, I need to get myself to Louisiana one of these days since I really don’t know Creole food at all and it sounds delicious! Love your last sentence about true American foods being what people remember and love from growing up and all the additional cultural/ethnic influences.

  37. says

    American food is as diverse as the people who live there and although the USA is seen as the home of the hamburger, there is much more to offer than fast food. Favourite place to eat in America? San Francisco .. Fisherman´s Wharf .. the lobster is amazing.

  38. says

    I’d have to say that of all the food types from our vast melting-pot culture, soul food is probably the most uniquely American. Sure, it has some amount of African roots since it started from slaves making dishes that reminded them of home, but it’s made using ingredients very local to North America.

    I think it’s easy to forget that the vast number of immigrants are not the original Americans. For true American food, we should probably look to the Native Americans, and to foods that are unique to America. We’ve had so many foods transplanted here from Europe and elsewhere that it’s hard to know what is native, Thanksgiving favorites are pretty local. Corn, cranberries, turkey are all pretty N. American. Pumpkins and squash are great too, and peppers, sunflower seeds, lima beans… http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/northamerica/before1500/food/index.htm

    Popcorn might be one of the most genuine American foods, since it is truly an ancient snack.

  39. says

    @Andy: Southern food (be it soul food, Cajun, Creole) seems to be the most distinctive type of food originating in the United States. However, to your point, it draws on influence from elsewhere.

    Your point regarding non-natives is crucial. For true “American” or North American food, we could probably look to native communities in Mexico for a hint. (It occurs to me now: no wonder American diets are so influenced by corn.)

    Popcorn: now there’s an excellent addition to the American food list.

  40. Simone says

    Mac and Cheese and Grilled cheese sandwiches are definitely “American” foods I think… my best friend grew up here and still craves Nac and CHeese (she moved back to Germany when she was 4, so talk about coining tastes… my kids (who are half German, half Ecuadorian and are being raised in New York) love Mc and CHeese and I’m sure will remember that as being “American” :)

  41. says

    @Simone: Other cuisines (e.g., Italian) have variations of pasta and cheese, but there is only one Mac & Cheese that is truly an American creation. It’s one of those dishes that brings back good childhood memories.

  42. says

    We are in China and were literally just asked this question from our friends earlier today! We basically told them the same thing you said.
    The American foods shown in the text books we teach from at our language school show pizza, hamburgers and french fries as American food. I try to explain to the students that because people in America come from all over the world, we eat all kinds of different foods like sushi, burritos, pasta, gyros, and even Chinese food (albeit much less delicious than the original). They think that is pretty cool. We made tacos for some of our Chinese friends and they thought they were great!

  43. Bob Hope says

    ‘Mac and cheese’ is actually not ‘American’ in origin, just like apple pie is no more so. It sort of irks me when people try to say a dish from another country is ‘American’ simply because we popularized it in some way.

    Do not get me wrong, though! I love the food here! I love the amalgamation of knowledge, tradition and technique that have come from other people around the world to contribute to the cuisine that we have today. Even the regional cuisines, such as the variations found throughout New England and the South, make me proud of the vast diversity of foods we have to offer.

    On another note, I just wish people would eat healthier and pay more attention to traditional, home-cooked foods instead of fast food restaurants that seem to be the norm on every corner. Bring back fresh, homemade food.

    Just my two cents.

  44. Agne says

    For me American food associates with corn, steaks, hot dogs and marshmallows. I think American cuisine has a lot of infulence from Italy, Mexico or England. I think a good steak with grilled corn and a BBQ sauce would be perfect American dinner

  45. says

    @Jen: Your story from China reminds me of when I taught English in Estonia to an adult group. Their language books were full of “American food” like hamburgers and hot dogs. But every month I’d invite them over to cook Mexican or Chinese or Italian food – i.e., the dishes I usually eat in America. We are lucky for our diversity!

    @Bob: With the exception of Native American dishes (which I’m embarrassed to say I have very little knowledge about), there isn’t a lot of food that is truly “American” in origin. I also agree that the more we can bring back fresh, homemade food focused on good ingredients, the better everyone will eat and feel (health).

    @Agne: You are right in the influences we have from Italy, Mexico, England and also a lot of Asian countries. For me, the perfect American dinner is Thanksgiving – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie!

  46. says

    @Luke: I hadn’t heard of pemmican before and just looked it up to see what it was and the process of making this mixture of ground smoked meat mixed with berries or other fruits. The initial preparation takes a long time, but the benefit is that you can use it for months and months without going bad – like the first high energy snacks :) Thanks for sharing.

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