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What makes "American" food distinctive?

In another topic, I think I raised some hackles by humorously referring to popcorn as ethnic American food. Behind it was the simple observation that we have a culture, too, and we have food mores. If we grant that we have borrowed from a great many cultures, we still can note that we often transform, if not transmogrify the "authentic" cooking of other cultures. Sometimes we do this because we have to depend on whatever ingredients are available to us. But more often we do this to suit our own tastes. I heard of pizza for the first time 55 years ago. Now it is supposed to be the best selling food in our country, even though it includes varieties Italy never heard of, like Hawaiian Pizza and Barbecued Chicken Pizza. Salsa has long since outsold ketchup. And our ketchup was very Americanized, too.
So what does our national food "genius" do to the cooking of other countries in making it American? Or, to put it differently, how would other countries identify our ethnic approach to food?

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  1. My first instinct is to say that American's don't have a sense of having a national cuisine and that leaves us open to incorporating any and every thing that comes along into our favorite dishes. Many cultures have iconic foods which they feel strongly about and would feel reluctant to meddle with. We certainly see some chowhounds on these boards insist that certain foods be prepared certain ways (chili without beans springs to mind). Most Americans however are not only open to changing foods to incorporate new tastes, they are enthusiastic about doing so.

    It's interesting that you mention salsa. The statistic that it outsells ketchup gets quoted a lot as a way to show changing American tastes. I'd love to see someone look at the ways we've changed 'salsa' to suit our tastes. Many of the varieties sold now barely resemble the tomato chile salsa that began the craze (and that, Mexican food purists would tell us, was a bastardized product in the first place). You can find fruit salsas, bean and corn salsas, green, yellow and red salsas, chipoltle salsas, habanero salsas, tequila salsas - the list goes on and on. Ketchup is still pretty much ketchup. No wonder it can't compete!

    4 Replies
    1. re: lupaglupa

      Perhaps Americans don't have a sense of having a national cuisine, unless you count apple pie--but we as a nation do things to food that others might call enthnic traits of our cooking. And you've certainly identified one aspect of it: changing foods enthusiastically to incorporate new tastes. I think perhaps other traits could be mentioned. One is our tendency to think that more is better, as in pizzas or hamburgers with everything on it. Not that Italians don't have pizza with lots of stuff on it. Their pizza cappriciosa is a wonderful example. And Mexican cooking produces a surprising variety and spirit of adventure in the use of ingredients. Take a classic mole or a dish like chiles en nogado. They use a lot of ingredients. But somehow, we do it differently. I am reminded of Central American color theory (seen in garments with clashing colors) where each color is expected to "light" one near it. We often pile on flavors without worrying aobut them clashing. Other cultures combine strikingly different flavors, but they often aim at a balance. Another trait of American cuisne is sheer quantity. Also we use a lot of sugar and lately favor a lot of recipes that combine fruits with savory dishes. And our favorite spice, at least for sweets, is cinnamon. I think we also use a lot of bacon and smoked flavors, even if we may feel guilty about it. But I am still not sure I could put muy finger on what makes our food distinctly American, yet I think it is in fact quite distinctive.

      1. re: Father Kitchen

        pretty sweeping. you really think those apply to the whole country?

        1. re: bbqboy

          No, I am not certain about any of this. That's why I raised the question. But having lived in Italy and Kenya and spent some extended periods in other countries, I am aware that we do have a national approach to food that is distinctively American, even though we also have regional or subcultural variations. If an Alexis de Tocqueville were to tour our cullinary landscape today, he might hold up a mirror to ourselves that would enable us to recognize things about our food attitudes and preferences that may have escaped our awareness.

          1. re: Father Kitchen

            well, I've been pondering your question, but haven't given in to the stereotypes.
            Yet. :)

    2. In terms of food, the U.S. isn't one country, it's
      several. New England boiled dinner and
      Texas BBQ beef brisket are both identifiably
      American, but there's nothing in common.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mpalmer6c

        That's true of every national cuisine that I'm familiar with (and that's a lot).

        1. re: mpalmer6c

          Not quite entirely different - they both feature meat not only as the main course, but in large quantities. I think that is one of the trademarks of a lot (albeit not all) american cuisine. Whether it is a boiled dinner, bbq, beef stew, burgers, what have you americans tend to consume a higher percentage of protein in their diet than most other cuisines.

          1. re: KaimukiMan

            Is that a function of cuisine or economic history? Most countries have not chosen to eat less meat - they have had to. The rich in the countries with what we think of as great 'peasant cuisine' traditions ate a lot of meat - but they were the exceptions. Americans at all social and economic levels have tended to eat more meat than people in other countries because, for the most part, Americans throughout most of our history have had access to meat easily and cheaply.

        2. Burgers, fries, meatloaf, sloppy joes, cheesesteaks, pizza, BBQ, egg fu yung, chop suey, white bread, donuts, pattymelts, corndogs, steaks, TexMex, clambakes, pies, cakes ,cobblers, chili and all the greatly bastardized foods of the world. The concept of meat 'n three; the relative and absolute very high amount of meat; the direct consumption of large pieces of meat (i.e., steaks), the (hopefully) previous overcooking of only a few vegetables; the reliance on potatoes and breads as starch; the further development of German. English, and, in general, European foods, the evolution of southern, northeastern, southwestern, mid-American, northwestern, cowboy, Cajun, soul, and so on - all mark American food. As have a lack of spices, use of large quantities of salt and fat. And at present there is a dynamic between the junk, fast, prepared, convenience, chain food America and the cook at home, slow food, locavore, and "authentic" food America! I go to the US and have Chef Boy R Dee and instant noodles and Jimmy Dean and McDonalds and gas station corn dogs because they are American and I'm proud to love and enjoy them, as long as I can go back to where I live to eat healthy and con todo gusto.

          7 Replies
          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            Hi Sam,

            We did not eat this way when I was growing up, and I certainly don't cook these foods on a regular basis for my family. I will eat the occasional pattymelt, but have never eaten a corndog. I don't think that most Americans have ever eaten egg foo yung (have to confess I love it). I think that you are spot-on with your potato comment -- does any other country (even Germany) eat nearly as many potatoes as we do? Of course, I'm Irish, so this is not a problem for me.

            Unfortunately, I think that junk food/processed food is spreading around the globe. Since my return from Puerto Rico last month, I've not been able to convince one friend to try yucca, even though it's available in our markets. I have to say that I'm a bit surprised that Americans are not more open to new foods these days.

            1. re: pikawicca

              pikawicca, I've never had a patty melt. Junk and processed food is world wide. You should come down and eat healthy with my daughter and me; and you and I should go back to the US for a gas station corndog with Jim Beam.

              Irish Japanese yin and yang food would be easy to achieve: food from island (semi- in your case) nations surrounded by cold oceans and long histories.

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Wow, Sam, my mind boggles at the vision of scarfing down corn dogs chased with Jim Beam, while sitting in a pick up truck parked at a gas station -- sounds like quite a road trip!

                Re Irish/Japanese fusion: Sadly, although surrounded by a bountiful sea and arable land, my ancestors were pretty much reduced to eating potatoes. The good stuff went to the Brits. Maybe sushi rolls with mashed spuds instead of rice? Potato tempura? I'm trying to recall if I ever saw a potato while I was living in Japan many years ago, but I don't think that I did.

            2. re: Sam Fujisaka

              I'm still not getting whether 'locavore' is eating on a train or with crazy people.

              1. re: Whosyerkitty

                Is there a dining car on the Crazy Train?

              2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Reliance on potatoes is not solely the domain of the US. Peru aside, I'd ask if you've ever been to the UK. Trust me, I have never seen so much reliance on the potato including treating it as one of your 'five a day'. Same with bread. The UK is the island that Atkins forgot.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  And reliance on meat? Germany has advanced, but have you ever been to Eastern Europe?

                2. I've seen these threads, and they seem to degenerate into "americanized" food, rather than foods that are uniquely american.

                  So, somebody please explain the origins of Soul Food, aka Fried Chicken, collards, okra, chicken n dumplings, etc., not even to mention southern (yes I know there are multiple variations) barbeque as a food culture. I think that South has food culture that is unique- as opposed to Hawaiian pizza, etc.

                  Same with the unique foods of Louisiana/Creole/Cajun cuisine. I know that there are origins elsewhere, but the jambayala, etouffee, muffaletta, define that regions food more than any other.

                  Things like Hawaiian Pizza don't reflect a food culture as much as a riff, but I'm more curious about regional food culture. I think it does exist on it's own.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                    Soul Food? Now after a little research this is what I found. Most of the food comes from slavery. Collard greens and okra were probably not always considered prize vegetables, so they would have been given as scraps to the slaves. Fried chicken would have tenderized the tougher parts of a bad chicken and probably have made it taste better. Soul food tends to include the innards of animals as well, with things like chitlins and hog maw. Few wealthy plantation owners would have chosen to eat those as they were not considered the best parts of the animals. Soul food has spread throughout the nation because after the end of slavery, many former slaves moved elsewhere, bringing their culture and their food with them.
                    http://www.aaregistry.com/african_ame...

                    Barbecue is one of those things that seem to have several different sources.
                    "the most plausible theory states that the word "barbecue" is a derivative of the West Indian term "barbacoa," which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals. Bon Appetit magazine blithely informs its readers that the word comes from an extinct tribe in Guyana who enjoyed "cheerfully spitroasting captured enemies." The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that "barbecue" actually comes from the French phrase "barbe a queue", meaning "from head to tail." Proponents of this theory point to the whole-hog cooking method espoused by some barbecue chefs. Tar Heel magazine posits that the word "barbecue" comes from a nineteenth century advertisement for a combination whiskey bar, beer hall, pool establishment and purveyor of roast pig, known as the BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG (Bass 313). The most convincing explanation is that the method of roasting meat over powdery coals was picked up from indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and that "barbacoa" became "barbecue" in the lexicon of early settlers."
                    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CLASS/MA9...
                    "The history of barbecue itself, aside from its murky etymological origins, is more clear. For several reasons, the pig became an omnipresent food staple in the South. Pigs were a low-maintenance and convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef(Gray 27). Pigs could be put out to root in the forest and caught when food supply became low. These semi-wild pigs were tougher and stringier than modern hogs, but were a convenient and popular food source. Every part of the pig was utilized-- the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible delicacies. Pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings."
                    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CLASS/MA9...

                    1. re: milkyway4679

                      There were no (credibly documented) known cannibalistic groups in the Guyanas. Remember that Europeans at the time of contact were fond of branding people as cannibals (among other mis-characterizations).

                  2. Portion size. Large portion size.