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What's American food anyway?

I'm an English teacher for a study abroad program and am having a hard time convincing my students from Asia, Europe, and Latin America that McDonald's is not representative of food in the United States. However, I'm having a difficult time defining what sorts of dishes actually qualify as American. Certainly regional specialities are important, but I'm specifically looking for time-tested dishes that cut across cultures and states. Ultimately, I'd like to compile a "things you must try in America" list for my students (with an addendum for California foods, of course!)

Rather than rely on internet sites and cookbooks that were compiled by individuals -- often years ago --, I thought I'd put the question to the Chowhounds:

What's American food?

I'll start discussion with....macaroni and cheese.

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  1. Real barbecue. Bagels. Hamburgers. Hot dogs. Lobster rolls. Baked beans and brown bread. Grits. Spam. Soul food taken as a cuisine.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Professor Salt

      And, to be clear, barbecue means marinated, smoked meat cooked long and slow, as opposed to meat that is just grilled on an open flame.

      Bob

    2. Apple pie, turkey and dressing, fried chicken, country ham, chuck roast with veggies, chicken fried steak, crab cakes, meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

      This is hard, because so much food is regional. And that is American. We are a mixture of peoples that cross cultural lines.

      1. Buffalo chicken wings, steak and baked potato, celery sticks and bleu cheese dressing, banana pudding, strawberry shortcake, milk shakes, _homemade_ hamburgers, potato chips.

        1. Corn on the cob. Fruit cobbler. Sundaes and sodas and floats. Biscuits and muffins. Pancakes, waffles, and french toast. Hash browns (almost interchangeable with Swiss rosti). Corn bread.

          And that most American dish of all - chili con carne. Served with corn chips in one form or another, or garlic toast.

          1. I live part of the year in Europe and I spend a lot of time dreaming about American food...

            ...like being back in LA or NYC and have really good and authentic chinese, regional chinese, regional mexican, salvadorian, cuban and dominican, thai, vietnamese, korean, japanese, persian, indian and armenian food, all within a mile proximity to each other.

            that is truly american. i've found no other place that can provide that degree of authentic variety.

            i don't know how many times i've had to listen to europeans give me lectures on how food in the states is terrible. i just smile because i know that i eat better in NYC and in LA than in any other place in the world.