What is “American” Food?

Jean Hewitt, author of The New York Times Heritage Cookbook (1980),  stated that “It is unfortunate that a foreign visitor can travel on our superhighways from coast to coast [about 1544 miles], Maine to Florida, and go away with the impression that Americans subsist largely on a diet of hot dogs, hamburgers and soggy French fries.” (p. xv)*

With that comment, Ms. Hewitt unwittingly joined a large chorus of observers  – mostly non-Americans – over the years who stared dumbfounded at the eating habits of “those Americans.” Take a look at the jabs of Margaret Hunter Hall, Frances TrollopeEdouard Montulé, Thomas Hamilton, etc., etc., for more evidence of this disdain.

American food covers a lot of territory these days, thanks to the huge numbers of immigrants still coming here seeking many of the same things my English ancestors sought in the 1600s.

Forget Margaret Hunter Hall’s gripes about eating with knives. Forget shriveled hot dogs and hockey-puck hamburgers and flabby slices of pizza. Forget McDonald’s.

Hey, I only eat hot dogs about once every five years.

That said, I will own up to the fact that a couple of weeks ago I ate every bite of two chili dogs and all of the crinkle-cut French fries at The Weiner Stand in the Roanoke City Market. Those hot dogs conjured up everything despicable to today’s health-conscious food advocates: salt, grease, questionable meat, mass-produced French fries, and corn-syrup-rich root beer.

Honestly? I loved every morsel.

And I feel the same way about the food of my vast and diverse country.  After a few weeks whenever I traveled to France or Africa or the Caribbean, I’d pine away for the food of home, dreaming of specific dishes that set my blood on fire with longing. Like many exiles, I searched for ways to recreate the tastes of home using local ingredients. The recipes I knew served as templates for these dishes, which were not really new inventions, just modified versions of old ways of cooking the things I longed for. Peach pie easily became mango pie in Haiti, cream added to a farmer-like soft cheese substituted for ricotta in Morocco, and a local shortening-like industrially produced fat worked well for flour tortillas in Burkina Faso.

So here’s the question again: Just what IS American** food?

It is easy to say what it is not.

Pundits claim a melting pot exists in the United States.

But that’s not really true.

I suggest that American food rather resembles a composed salad, all the ingredients together, but separate and distinguishable. Our food is very regional, and has been for some time, as Mark Twain*** so aptly noted. It is true that because of a long exposure to British culture, as well as other European cultures, the predominant cooking pattern circled around those for almost 300 years. This makes complete sense, for food habits are among the last things to change when exiles leave their homelands.

David Rosenberg nailed it with this comment in It’s All American Food (2003), when referring to the immigrants and others who stepped on these shores, starting way back when the first Native Americans took possession of their lands: “They worked old ideas into new forms here -.” (p. xiv) In other words, they built on pre-existing ways of cooking.

It’s a complicated subject, is American cooking, compounded by history, geography, technology, class, and race. It’s hard to say exactly when the great shift occurred from a primarily British culinary orientation to an acceptance of other foodways. Certainly the mass immigration that began after the end of the Civil War affected all aspects of American food, because immigrants wanted to eat their own food, although home economists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries strove mightily to dissuade housewives – not native born – to leave their old foodways in the dust and embrace the American way in the kitchen. Yet, as Suky Hutton wrote in Tastes of Liberty: A Celebration of Our Great Ethnic Cooking (1985), “The individual roots and histories of American citizens would emerge from the four corners of the earth, but America’s national ancestry was firmly, unmistakably British.” (p. 101) Rachel Laudan proposed that the influx of German immigrants after 1848 greatly affected American food; this is true, because an examination of German cooking reveals many similarities with British culinary sensibilities: bread, sweets, meat, sausages, potatoes. (p. 263-264, Cuisine & Empire, 2013) As Dr. Laudan says, beef, sugar, wheat.

And that American way in the kitchen changed gradually as the years passed. It’s possible to see this change in the cookbooks that appeared, the types of ingredients available in the markets, focus of advertising, loss of servants, etc. Nineteenth-century cookbooks generally read like their English cousins of the day. But all the while, subtle changes and inroads worked to dilute somewhat the influence of the earliest culinary traditions in the United States.

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, cookbook authors have attempted to codify the unwieldy creature that is now American cooking. Cookbooks provide what I like to think of snapshots of time, practices frozen in the time that an author wrote, not always carried on in future editions or by authors yet to set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. It takes a thorough glance through a stream of cookbooks to see the trends, the changes, the differences wrought by the outer world. The pattern that emerges traces the very British heritage of the food of early America, all the way to the late 19th century, when meat, peas, potatoes, and pie appeared on the tables of the wealthier sorts, while the poorer rungs of society might turn to “hash” or pone. This dietary pattern still exists in pockets across the country, with the famous “meat and three” of the American South as one example.  Mark Bittman included a large number of recipes for beef in his How to Cook Everything (1998), mostly roasts, steaks, stews, burgers, and brisket.

Beef, sugar, wheat.


*Interestingly, Hewitt focuses only on the heritage of immigrants other than the English and includes only four recipes related to the myriad Chinese immigrants of California.

**I admit that calling the food of the United States “American” is not entirely correct – after all, we do share the hemisphere with many other countries, but it suits my purposes. I mean, if Budweiser can co-opt the name “America” for their beer, well … .

***Mark Twain’s list, written in a European hotel room in a moment of deep longing for his homeland and later published in A Tramp Abroad (1880). “It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows:
Baked apples, with cream
Fried oysters; stewed oysters
American coffee, with real cream
American butter
Fried chicken, Southern style
Porter-house steak
Saratoga potatoes
Broiled chicken, American style
Hot biscuits, Southern style
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style
Hot buckwheat cakes
American toast
Clear maple syrup
Virginia bacon, broiled
Blue points, on the half shell
Cherry-stone clams
San Francisco mussels, steamed
Oyster soup
Clam Soup
Philadelphia Terapin soup
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad
Baltimore perch
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas
Lake trout, from Tahoe
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans
Black bass from the Mississippi
American roast beef
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style
Cranberry sauce
Roast wild turkey
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore
Prairie liens, from Illinois
Missouri partridges, broiled
Boston bacon and beans
Bacon and greens, Southern style
Boiled onions
Butter beans
Sweet potatoes
String beans
Mashed potatoes
Boiled potatoes, in their skins
New potatoes, minus the skins
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar
Stewed tomatoes
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper
Green corn, on the ear
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style
Hot egg-bread, Southern style
Hot light-bread, Southern style
Iced sweet milk
Apple dumplings, with real cream
Apple pie
Apple fritters
Apple puffs, Southern style
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie
American mince pie
Pumpkin pie
Squash pie
All sorts of American pastry
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.
Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.

Hot dog king sign rs
Sign at The Weiner Stand, Roanoke, Virginia (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2016 C. Bertelsen


One comment

  • I don’t think anyone would get a good impression of American food if they simply stuck to super highway rest stops. :)
    I think composed salads is probably a good description. It may not be true of all areas of the country, but around here, “American” restaurants often have dishes such as hummus, fajitas, and pasta, as well as burgers and steaks.
    I love Mark Twain’s list. I wonder how many of the items he got and ate when he returned home.


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