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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.

                    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."
                    "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."

                    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.

                    1. All cuisine from a given country derives from the type of available food. In the U.S., we are blessed with a huge variety of volume of food. Since the availability varies from region to region, so does the cuisine. While other countries also have regional differences, few of them are as large or varied as the U.S. Also, as a country of immigrants, we can't help but have derivative cuisine from the countries our ancestors came from.

                      I dislike these threads because they end up full of negative stereotypes of American food like talk about steaks, burgers, dogs, big portions, and high fat and high sugar food. Granted, those are a part of what people eat, but they are not our cuisine (as a country's junk food is not a part of its cuisine). Consider the specialties of each region and you come close to what American food is.

                      There is no distinctive characteristic to American food just as there is no one "American" person. We don't have anything resembling a homogeneous culture and therefore have no food culture which we can hang an American flag on and say that's what American is. Most answers you get are bound to do a disservice to American people and their food culture, and some are sure to be insulting and ignorant.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Orchid64

                        I certainly had no intention of insulting Americans or of fomenting negative stereotypes. We do have regional cultures and subcultures. And each person is unique. But just as have a national culture that has a good many qualities that are rare in other parts of the world (and some traits that others may justifiably criticize), I think in our general approach to food we have some national traits. I didn't mean to engage in a moral or ethical evaluation of the way we eat. I simply am curious about what is distinctive in our approach to food.
                        One that seems to be emerging from this thread is that we are curious about the food of other countries so that their distinctive ethnic dishes sometimes go "mainstream" in ours, but often with subtle and not so subtle transformations.
                        Let me take an example. The original quiche was simply a bread dough crust with a custard filling, served as a savory meal. At some point, a pastry crust was used and other ingredients added. We got the quiche Lorraine. In the fifties and sixties it became very popular internationally and various transformations took place. (Elizabeth David laments some of the English adaptations of it.) In the late sixties I had a quiche in Dublin made by a Scot cook that incorporated leftover baked beans and cheddar. Now it is common to find quiches that contain things like artichoke hearts and mushrooms in them. This pattern of transforming food is probably a simple human trait. But we seem to be more adventurous than others in doing it.
                        Honestly, I don't think we would have had the extraordinary revival in artisan baking that has taken place in this country were it not for our willingness to look at other cuisines, our determinitation not to be intimidated by their traditions, and our knack for both historical and scientific research, and our propensity to experiment.
                        I also think that some of these changes are generated in urban centers where different cultures come together. Think of the way sushi and pizza entered U.S. cookery. These places not only introduce other cooking cultures but find a population willing to experience the food of other nations. As the new food gains popularity in these places and begins to be imitated and reported in the media, people in other places become interested in them.
                        But limitations enter in. For one thing, the lack of cooking gear causes us adapt and improvise. For example, not many people have a tandoor. So Indian recipes may be adapted to a grill or broiler. We have taken to stir-frying, but few are equipped to use woks over very high heat burners. So something different results. Or simply time may be a consideration, so we look for prepared foods. And then we extend the range of using them. Moroccan bistiya, for example, uses a distinctive pastry similar to egg roll wrappings but made from wheat. Recipes books suggest we adapt by using phylo pastry.
                        And often ingredients are not available. In my local Safeway in DC, I can rarely find some produce that I could easily get in a rural market in Wisconsin. This is due, in part, to the fact that the neighborhood culture prefers other things and partly due to space limitations. But in some places you can get almost anything. However, I think Americans eat a smaller variety of foods than people do in many other cultures, partly because we live more remotely from the soil and the seasons. I think someone once wrote that a typical American eats about sixteen foodstuffs most of the time. So though our national food culture offers us huge possibilities, our individual household cultures may be more limited.
                        To me, the most remarkable aspect of American cuisine is our genius (sometimes preverse!) for fusion.
                        The downside of all of this, of course, is that at times food names are applied to things that don't remotely resemble the original. (Try getting pasta alla marinara in many restaurants and you get a generic tomato sauce that has no meat in it.)
                        The outcome of all of this is, to me, creativity that enriches much of what we do. Still, I'd like to have more insight into some of the patterns of fusion and transformation. Not to put us down, but to give us reasons to celebrate and perhaps to anticipate.

                        1. re: Orchid64


                          You hit one nail square-on. Much of what was mentioned, just above your post, i.e. Southern, Cajun, et al, was due to "availability." An abundance of certain items, and a lack of others, contributed to the cuisine of these places. One often had limited resources, and had to make do, with what was available.

                          While the above cited (and more) cuisines were honed in America, they are but bit players in the whole scheme of what I consider "American Food." I cannot imagine a definite description of “American food,” just as I cannot imagine a definite description of “European food.” It depends on exactly where, in America, or Europe, one is describing.


                          1. re: Orchid64

                            The other thing too is that America is a really BIG country, with wildly different geography and climate all over. It is not surprising that this would result in a variety of cuisines, rather than just one style. America is almost as large as all of Europe. France is roughly the size of Texas.

                            1. re: mogo

                              One other aspect is the amount of time that it took to explore and incorporate the geography into what we see as the United States. For this discussion, let's omit the earliest inhabitants for a moment. The "settling" of the United States took about 300 years. This was at a time that most of Europe and Asia had been "settled" for millennia. Since much of the rest of the globe had been functioning and developing their cuisine, etc. for so long, the United States was still warming up. Each “new” area to be “settled” was being populated by many from those long-established European and Asian communities. Much of what had been part of their cultures was incorporated.

                              These same aspects figured into the development of the countries (as we know them) in Europe and Asia, however that “frontier” aspect had been homogenized hundreds of years before - that change had taken place so very long ago, that all but the most astute historians (or anthropologists and archeologists) could ever find them.

                              Just another aspect of what we consider the cuisine of America, or the United States, thereof.


                          2. In the eleven years we lived in Europe, the only holiday, I felt a tinge of homesickness was Thanksgiving. The quintessential American meal. Turkey, corn, cranberries, pumpkin pie, red chile. All very American.
                            Tom Swift The All American Boy

                            1. Passadumkeg: Tom Swift, the all over America boy!
                              When I think of American Food I most often think "plain". Perhaps because it's what I grew up with, sitting at many a farmer's table or simple (and likely poor), person's table. The only thing that was en croute was chicken fried steak. Cream gravy was a simple and usually tasteless sauce. Fewer herbs and spices. Casseroles and the like were made out of convenience, with what was on hand and generally uninspired. Why do you think we go ga-ga over exotic tasting Asian or Spanish/ Mexican inspired foods? It's a good thing we didn't get too hung up on German food and some of those close-by cuisines but we sure brought a lot of bland English dining heritage with us to the new world.
                              Thank god for copying and fusion. I used to think Japan was the great copier of American technology but I think we have a great ability to transform other ethnic foods into our own vision. For those that can afford it, meals can be composed of very complex dishes and not much that is raw or just steamed.
                              We are so varied, as one has said, like we are a country of many small countries or ethic food areas. I also think of the healthy people at my health club and my vegan relatives. This may be more about lifestyle choices than it is food but there is a large segment, just like in many other countries, that have very healthy eating habits and eat healthier versions of American" food.
                              I disagree that junk food is not part of our culinary landscape. It is common worldwide, but some of ours is unique and is some people's staple food. Thus, I would say that a component of our uniqueness is mass quantities of greasy, fried, protein and carbohydrate glop. It comes in many forms and has many names. Excess comes to mind; even in high-end, gourmet food. SO has complained a lot recently that she cannot be served a decent-sized portion of food at a restaurant. Tapas and appetizers start looking more sensible to us.
                              On one hand, we have so much bounty and so much to work with, and we can be incredibly creative with our interpretations of others ethnic foods, and then, we can serve up mass quantities of it like there is no tomorrow.
                              Debbie DownerGod

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: Scargod

                                < "Excess comes to mind." >
                                No, that's not a defining characteristic of American FOOD, although it has certainly come to be a problem in current American CULTURE.
                                We aren't content with normal consumption levels in most things. People have houses that are too big for their needs. A four bedroom house with 5 1/2 baths? What? More cars than people because somebody wants a sports car for the weekend. Ten pairs of designer jeans. Maxed out credit cards. Mortgages we can't pay.
                                People expect "value" for their money so restaurants give them piles of food or they feel cheated.

                                It wasn't like this even a few decades ago.
                                Find a group photograph of a third grade class from the 1950s or even the 1960s.
                                How many chubby kids are in that photo?
                                Look at a similar third grade class today. There may even be morbidly obese kids in that one.
                                BOTH groups ate/eat American food.
                                The modern kids are eating too much of it.
                                The adults are the same. Look around your office, church or the bus this afternoon.
                                Or the number of people walking down the street or driving their cars - eating!
                                That is a major cultural change in a few decades.

                                It's NOT the food - that may be only a symptom.
                                It's the people. It's us as a nation. (OK, don't take it personally - you're different.)

                                1. re: MakingSense

                                  Sad to say, the obesity epidemic is not limited to the U.S.

                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                    True, but the most startling thing is the childhood obesity in the US.
                                    It was really rare to see very fat kids in the 50s. Now, in the public schools in our city, it seems that more than half the class is overweight. About 54% of the children in Washington are below the poverty level and that's the group that is most at risk for obesity and related diseases.
                                    Even the expensive private schools have problems with obesity. Although they also hit the other side of the coin with rampant eating disorders, which are just as deadly.

                                    1. re: MakingSense

                                      MS, you are right in that the average fifth grader could be used in a pinch to plug a leaking dike should there be a shortage of sandbags.
                                      Aside from the weight and portion issue, America has been a wonderful venue for ethnic food fusions, between countries steeped in stubborn tradition.
                                      With help from my Chowhound experience, and Sam in particular, I am doing Asian-Mexican dishes on nobody's menu, that I really enjoy. Ginger, soy, and fish sauce have no place in traditional mexican cooking, but I'm eating well.
                                      Melding asian with mexican peppers...that's for another day.

                              2. Bacon, eggs, and toast. Verrry Brrrritish. Corn flakes, just 'Merican.

                                The American credo: Newness is goodness, but bigness is better.

                                1. CHili I'd say was an ethnic American food, along with quite a lot of junk food (burgers, hotdogs)

                                  But realistically, it's difficult to look at a country the size of America without thinking of regions such as Louisiana and Texas

                                  1. >>Behind it was the simple observation that we have a culture,<<

                                    Actually, I disagree with your entire premise. We do not have A culture, we have many cifferent cultures varying from rural to urban and region to region. I don't see how American food as a whole is distinctive in any way. The stereotype just doesn't work.

                                    25 Replies
                                    1. re: AHan

                                      I kind of agree, it's almost like the Chinese American thread; in the UK, we still have a roughly diluted notion of America, partly from Grease and Happy days (IE Diners, Burgers and classic cars) and some of it from shows such as The OC, 90210, Smallville etc.

                                      Obviously that's just scratching the surface, and anyone with half a brain knows America is quite diverse. But shout "American food!" at any UK resident, and without time to think, they're gonna shout back something like "hamburger!"

                                      1. re: Soop

                                        "..they're shout something like "hamburger", and they could be right. The 'Merican Holy Trinity, the Hamburger, The Hod Dog and The Slice of Pizza, amen.

                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                          Indeed. In my city there are at least 2 "American Themed" eateries; one (actually a bowling alley) is retro 50's style and serves corn dogs, the other, again diner classic 50's, serves mostly hamburgers and milkshakes.

                                          1. re: Soop

                                            Soop, funny, I've never eaten a corn dog, but have enjoyed a ploughmen's lunch in many a pub.

                                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                                              Poor ploughmen. A perpetual lunch of cheese sandwiches - has to get boring after a while!

                                              1. re: Soop

                                                Actually, the "ploughman's lunch" in the sense it's used today has a fairly brief history. It was the English Country Cheese Council who came up with the term in 1960 as a marketing ploy to sell more cheese. By the '70s it had really caught on and the younger generation (and tourists) assumed it was a true "Olde English" tradition.

                                                1. re: BobB

                                                  lmao, I knever knew that! That's pretty funny :)

                                                  Also, I always found the name "the British Cheese Board" pretty funny. They must have done that on purpose :)

                                                  1. re: BobB

                                                    I used to eat this at rural pubs in the mid 60's. I don't recall that anyone called it a "ploughman's lunch," though. "Plate lunch?" "Bread and Cheese Plate?" Did not come upon the term until 1972 in a pub in Sussex. Whatever you call it, if the bread and cheese are excellent, it's a great meal.

                                                2. re: Passadumkeg

                                                  How very sad, Passadumkeg. You are a culturally deprived American if you've never enjoyed a proper corn dog. A good hot dog, dipped in fresh batter, and deep fat fried to order. Great with a squiggle of yellow mustard.
                                                  The frozen ones that you find all too often now are pale imitations of a great American classic.

                                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                                    Best if eaten at the shore, i.e., the original Hot Dog on a Stick location at the Santa Monica Pier. Bliss.

                                                  2. re: Passadumkeg

                                                    You're going to have to join Sam and me for some remedial eating at a yet-to-be-determined gas station.

                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      Heater box gas station corn dogs with all the fixin's out in the truck. Jim Beam on the side. Tell each other a lot of lies. Really can't get much better.

                                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                        So... so far, we've bought the teppan grill to make bacon dogs, and now we add some deep fat fryers. But we've upped this venture from a street pushcart in LA (which was actually doubtful, given their silly rules) to a country gas station - presumably with a little diner section. Deep fryers are good. Not only do they open the way to corn dogs, but we can now start doing schnitzels and katsu (same thing - different sauces, I mean we're using panko, anyway).

                                                        OK - so here's where we figure out how to tie ourselves into this $800 Billion give-away. We need to use fresh oil every day - turn the used oil into bio-diesel, which we sell at the gas station, along with maybe a CNG and/or hydrogen setup. Forget the corn ethanol crock of shit - way too controversial - even the politicians are backing away. That's a business plan that ought to qualify for "new energy" $$$$!

                                                        But we'll somehow have to qualify the workers with mandatory experience - old geezers that sit around and want to talk about food all day. And if anybody asks about the Jim Beam, well, obviously, that's where the corn based bio-fuel really comes into play!

                                                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                          It has to be the addition of Jim Beam not the corn dog itself :)

                                                          1. re: c oliver

                                                            In the distant past, I have had both a corndog and also Jim Beam, though never together. Maybe I would have developed a greater appreciation for both, had I tried that combo - or maybe not... [even bigger grin]


                                                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                              Hope you’re ready to drink, lie, and have fun! And, yes, what is needed are the combo of hot box corn dogs with all the trimmings, JB (albeit first your wines as about 10 of us first get to know each other), atmosphere (PU truck in the parking lot of the gas station), and then telling a lot of lies. Thanks, Bill.

                                                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                Just be sure to take lots of photos...

                                                        2. re: pikawicca

                                                          I am a hot dog junkie; Coneys, kraut, Chicago, so I guess it's time to get corney, just as long as the other corm creation, Jim Bean washes it down.

                                                          1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                            But it's deep fried! Hot dogs are not. Can they do cheese corn-dogs? If so, I'm in, but I must have french fries with that and a strawberry malt.

                                                            1. re: Scargod

                                                              I think corndogs are what we call battered sausages. We eat ours with vinegar. (well, I do)

                                                              1. re: Soop

                                                                Maybe I would have like 'em better that way?


                                                              2. re: Scargod

                                                                Tex, Jersey hot dogs are deep fried, it's called rippin' 'em. If yoy really want them well done at Rut's Hut, they're called "Cremators"
                                                                Check out hollyeats.com the Jersey Dog section.
                                                                A whole rack of baby back ribs, some brisket, grits, slaw and Fat Tire last night, after hiking the mojave all day at Hole in the Wall. I lost, better half won & quit at the casino.

                                                                Today hike Red Rock and go out w. nieces & hubbies for Korean BBQ or Greek or?
                                                                Carpe chow!
                                                                Your Pard.

                                                    2. re: Soop

                                                      Well, having American food stereotyped as hamburger is a step up from some of our other colonial brethren.

                                                      Canada: Kraft dinners
                                                      Australia: vegemite

                                                    3. re: AHan

                                                      If, as you say, Americans have no national culture then by your standard neither does anyone else. After all - each country in the world (excepting perhaps Monaco and the Vatican) embraces a variety of urban and rural cultures, regions with varying cuisines and agriculture practises etc. Yet we have no difficulty talking about Italian cuisine and French cuisine.

                                                      I think Fr. Kitchen is asking a very interesting question - what is it about Americans that causes them to so enthusiastically embrace and alter foods from other countries/cultures?

                                                      Perhaps the answer really lies in the many claims made here that we don't have a national cuisine - with nothing to feel bound by we can try anything new. Or maybe it was the infulenec of immigarnts. The term melting pot does make a kitchen come to mind! If your neighbors usean ingredient you're not familiar with and you try their food and like it - maybe you will add a bit of that to your own food, using your own recipe as the base.

                                                      1. re: lupaglupa

                                                        A lot of American favorites are from immigrants, such as pastrami.
                                                        potato dishes are mostly native though, like chips (US) or mashed potato

                                                    4. If one thing unites America it has to be the burger.

                                                      8 Replies
                                                      1. re: AndyGanil

                                                        Which, per its name, has it's origens in Germany.

                                                        1. re: lupaglupa

                                                          Actually, no. It originated in America, though it was probably created by German immigrants.

                                                          The closest thing to a hamburger in traditional German cuisine is the fricadelle, which is more like a flattened meatball, loaded with bread & egg - similar to the Russian kotlyete. I was in fact living in Hamburg when the first McDonald's opened there in 1975 - they put up billboards all over town saying (in German) "McDonald's brings the Hamburger to Hamburg!" And it was immediately very popular, since (believe it or not) it was considerably more wholesome and less greasy than the local standard fast food, the ubiquitous currywurst, a sausage of dubious origin served on a hard roll, doused with a sauce that tasted like cumin-laced tomato ketchup.

                                                          1. re: BobB

                                                            No certain history on this - some people believe the modern day hamburger comes from the 'hamburg steak' which was made of minced meat and was named hamburg for the city. It's said the Hamburgers got the idea from Russain steak tartare.

                                                            Still - no matter the exact origen of the hamburger, it came from European cuisine(s) and didn't get invented here.

                                                            1. re: lupaglupa

                                                              I'm not saying it was an American who first ground up some beef and cooked it, but in this context, we're talking about the patty served on a bun, and that's undeniably an American invention. Hamburg steak as it existed a few centuries ago in Europe bore little resemblance to what you expect when you walk into a restaurant and order a burger today. Exactly who gets credit for inventing the modern burger is unknown, but all accounts point to it first appearing in the late 19th century in the US.

                                                              Interesting side note: in Brussels, Belgium, raw ground beef mixed with raw eggs and seasoning served on a baguette is a popular lunch item, and there it's called Filet Américain. Imagine how well that would actually go over in this land of "I won't serve you a medium-rare burger 'cause you might get sick and sue me" paranoia.

                                                              1. re: BobB

                                                                Bob, the Filet Americain tends not to be mixed with raw egg (never in my experience, and we're talking a lifetime of this).

                                                                The meat itself is known as the filet americain-- it is not always served on baguettes although can be. It is also traditionally served with frites. That is to say, it's a popular item beyond lunch.

                                                                I could go on about the variations, but egg is not traditionally part of it.

                                                                1. re: Lizard

                                                                  Thanks for the correction - I've had it but never made it so I looked up the formula and the first Web hit I found seemed to indicate it had raw egg in it. Further investigation shows that is not normally the case. Still raw beef though!

                                                          2. re: lupaglupa

                                                            Agreed, so one must look at the precolumbian foods like corn, chile, beans, (legumes),potatoes, berries, turkey, and other fowl, venison, wild rice, pumpkin and other squashes etc., hence the traditonal Thanksgiving dinner.

                                                        2. Does anyone here think that fortune cookie is a distinctive "American" food or dessert? It is not served in China, Taiwan,Hong Kong...only served in Chinese restaurants in America.

                                                          6 Replies
                                                          1. re: FourSeasons

                                                            You can get them in the UK too, but they're imported (from Asia)

                                                            Actually, the ones I've seen were, but I just checked, and there are UK companies too.

                                                            1. re: Soop

                                                              Ok, forget about my question then...

                                                            2. re: FourSeasons

                                                              The Fortune cookie was born in America, as a means of keeping customers busy while waiting for a table.

                                                              1. re: Demented

                                                                That's why the fotune cookie is served at the end of the meal? Are you demented?

                                                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                  I was incorrect, as it turns out.

                                                                  Modern fortune cookies are of Japanese origin, first made in San Francisco CA.

                                                                  1. re: Demented

                                                                    Going off-topic a bit, but recently we had a Chinese-inspired meal with friends. The "fortune cookies" came out at the end of the meal. The guests began reading aloud, their "fortunes." In a hearbeat, the hostess jumped up and proclaimed, "those are those danged "dirty" fortune cookies you picked up in San Francisco! Here, these are the ones that you should have offered." It was an amusing situation (for me, at least). Hope that all guests took it as well as I did, and saw the humor in it.


                                                            3. When speaking of American food (cuisine), I think of Italian food, like most places the style, flavors and ingredients can be widely varied.

                                                              Neapolitan and Sicilian cuisine are different, just as the there are variances in the styles and flavors between Messina and Palermo.

                                                              One of the American regional cuisines I'm fond of is Southwestern, which can be broken down into the cooking styles and flavors of New Mexico and Arizona, and to a lesser extent (at least in my mind) that of Utah and Colorado.

                                                              p.s. I've heard said... Catchup is the mother sauce of America.

                                                              9 Replies
                                                              1. re: Demented

                                                                If I were to identify a "mother sauce" for American cooking, I would go with cream of mushroom soup :)

                                                                1. re: mpjmph

                                                                  Cream of mushroom soup is based on béchamel, a mother sauces of French cuisine.

                                                                  Whereas ketchup is use as a sauce and as the base for other sauces in American cuisine.

                                                                  1. re: Demented

                                                                    But chile pods used as a basis of a sauce is truly American.

                                                                    1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                                      I thought that would have been adapted from Mexico?

                                                                      1. re: Soop

                                                                        Almost of one half of the US of A WAS Mexico, from Texas to north of California, and we took it. My sister-in-law's family predates the pilgrims by 40 years, but my in-laws descendants were Spanish, so they don't count.

                                                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                                          Oh, yeah I see. I automatically think America and USA are the same thing. Oops!

                                                                          1. re: Soop

                                                                            I'd more think of it as the USA has part of Mexico in it rather than a distinction between USA and North America. What a history we had(?) of raping, pillaging and plundering :(

                                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                                              While I'm cooking Mexican scrambled eggs for breakfast in Las Vegas (trans. the meadow), I'm listening to Bobbie D's "With God on Our Side".

                                                              2. I think to establish what makes American food distinctive, you have to think like someone from another country. I have plenty of friends in Europe and have traveled outside of the US many times. People think of American food --- and it may be a cliche --- as cheesburgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, sub sandwiches, apple pie, etc. Classics, yes. Some version of another older culture's food? Yes, but most foods are that, no matter where you look.
                                                                Inside the US, however, we have regional food like New England seafood, spicy Southwestern, Caribbean/African-influenced Southeastern, and on and on. The same is true in other countries. We can't define Italian food as just spaghetti and meatballs right? French fries do not make up all of French food. England is not just pasties.
                                                                We in the US aren't that different than any other culture. Sure we have our share of immigrant cultural food that blends into our own, border food in the North and South. Many regions are influenced by locally available foods. For example, Key Lime Pie, that ever-bastardized dessert, came about because all they had was dough and lard for the crust, key limes in the backyard, cans of sweetened condensed milk because real milk was too hard to transport and store, and pelican eggs because that's all there was within reach. Someone in the New England in the 1800s, if asked to make the same pie, would have come up with something completely different.
                                                                American food is ingenuity, just like every other culture's.

                                                                1. To put it most simply: I think a cultural baseline would be American diner food (breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, of course) without the Greek overlay that is or was formerly common in some parts of the US.

                                                                  12 Replies
                                                                  1. re: Karl S

                                                                    Eggs sunny side up! Hash browns!

                                                                    1. re: Karl S

                                                                      What would be an example of "Greek overlay"?

                                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                                        In NY, for example, there is a "Greek diner" tradition (many diners owned by Greek immigrants), where spanikopita, gyros, spinach and feta omelets are as much a part of the standard greasy-spoon menu as burgers and flapjacks. A "Greek overlay."

                                                                          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                            And moussaka and pastisio, and huge flavorless cookies, among other things.

                                                                            1. re: Karl S

                                                                              And sausages made with a hint of orange (loukaniko).

                                                                            2. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                              Connecticut has the Greek diners too. Gimme a good ol' 'Merican diner gyro for breakfast any day.

                                                                              1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                                                I am not saying the Greek overlay is not good in any way. It's just not the baseline for 'Murkin food....

                                                                                1. re: Karl S

                                                                                  Yes. I know, I'm just not a big 'Murkin food fan. Just a poor dumb Pollack.

                                                                                  1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                                                    How did we get into furry (murkin), food?
                                                                                    NYT's just did an article, with recipes, that would fill the bill for your odd breakfast cravings: polenta "pizza" with spinach and pancetta. Sounds like a 'Merican invention to me!

                                                                                    1. re: Scargod

                                                                                      Had t-bone steak and eggs for breakfast yesterday morning in Parumph, Nv, next door to Heidi Fleiss's bordello. Couldn't concentrate on the food. One last taco binge this morning on the way to the airport.

                                                                            3. re: c oliver

                                                                              Florida also has the "Greek overlay" - specifically in the Tampa Bay area. There is a very large Greek community. Tarpon Springs in northern Pinellas County originated as a sponge diving community and is still home to the local Epiphany Festival!

                                                                          2. Seems to me what Father Kitchen was getting at was principles, rather than examples of American food. The same way that, say, Italian food and eating can be characterized as an emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients, prepared simply; French can be (over)simplified as dependent on sauces and certain techniques; and for both, of course, there are traditional ingredients that are traditional because they are what was available. And techniques are influenced by history: in France there was a relatively early emphasis on haute cuisine, with rigorous techniques and classifications set more or less in stone, and on the other hand the non-haute cuisine, aka the peasant food, for which almost as rigorous rules existed. So maybe in the French soul there is a tendency to develop and apply rules to their food - it has to be a certain way, or it's just not correct.

                                                                            In the US the same thing applies. Many Southern dishes were created by slaves, who did much of the cooking in the antebellum South, more or less directly from African dishes - think of the stews, gumbos, spicy dishes; and the ingredients: peanuts, okra, collards - all African. I've heard the same about fried chicken, though I don't know if that's true or not.

                                                                            So as a framework to explore the question, we can start with the postulate that food distinctiveness is based upon history and availability of ingredients. The US has a short but complex history, with different groups settling in different areas and in different mixes and proportions, and at different times, each group bringing its own food ingredients and preferences with it. And yet there is an overarching American culture that shapes each immigrant group experience, sometimes subtly and sometimes otherwise - so it's a two-way street, at least. And I don't think you can discount junk food and the national chains; like it or not, these are a part of the culture, and a pretty significant chunk of where people get their food these days.

                                                                            The fundamentals, then, are that we have a lot of stuff, number one: meat, poultry, vegetables, and so on; and we have a lot of diversity, both in types of food available and in types of people preparing it. And yet some things are easier and cheaper to get than others, so this exerts a homogenizing effect. These principles interact in very interesting ways, but maybe if we think about it long enough we can come to some conclusions.

                                                                            24 Replies
                                                                            1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                              Historian David Hackett Fischer makes the case that frying - chicken and many other things - was brought to the Southern US by the English settlers to Virginia. They came from an area in Southern England where frying was common. Similarly the East Anglians who settled in Massachusettes Bay brought the boiled dinner with them.

                                                                              1. re: lupaglupa

                                                                                Thanks. I am skeptical of the African origins of fried chicken myself; don't remember where I heard it, but I probably thought it was an authoritative source. Gotta admit, frying is fairly common in England, at least nowadays....

                                                                                1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                  We got it from the Moors, or from Jewish travellers settlers iirc. They used olive oil, whereas we used the unhealthy, lower boiling point fats.

                                                                                  1. re: Soop

                                                                                    More likely Sephardic Jews who settled in the American South. The second oldest synagogue in the US is in Charleston, and there are many old Sephardic communities in the Mississippi Delta.
                                                                                    During the period of the Spanish Reconquista, many Jews fled Europe and settled in the colonies (North and South America), often masquerading as gentiles. There has been speculation that Columbus was Jewish and was staying out harm's way on the High Seas.
                                                                                    The Spanish Jews would have had access to imported olive oil in the port cities of the South and perhaps their cooking methods would have been adopted locally using the more common rendered pork fat.

                                                                                    Watch out what you say about lard! Recent studies are finding that it's a pretty healthy fat. Most of my family lived well into their late 80s and 90s using lard.

                                                                                2. re: lupaglupa

                                                                                  Though Fisher emphasizes baking as the signature cooking technique for the New Englanders from East Anglia*. Then again, New England had several layers of settlement from different parts of the British Isles - one of the reasons why the District of Maine chafed under the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until 1820....

                                                                                  * E.g., http://sawaal.ibibo.com/food/what-foo...

                                                                                3. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                  The foods of the upper classes in the South were not "created by slaves" or non-slave servants. The cooks were taught the recipes and techniques of the cuisines of the countries from which the settlers had come, i.e. Spain, France, England, etc. The cooks gradually integrated their own touches and the European settlers themselves began to use more and more local products in place of imported goods.
                                                                                  The cooking in the humble homes of those servants was another thing altogether.
                                                                                  Gradually there was a melding of the traditions, but there is still a difference between the foods of the upper classes in the South and what we might call "soul food."

                                                                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                    Of course you're right that the servants/cooks were taught techniques of the folks they were cooking for, but there's always some give-and-take in these kinds of things; the techniques you grew up with are sort of hard-wired in (at least they are for me), and influence the way you do things even if you're trying to do them as you are taught later on. And of course there's spillover from the 'humble home' cooking as well. As you say, there was a melding of traditions. I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong, but I always thought of the difference between Creole and Cajun as an example of the high culture vs. soul food. Are they more different from each other, or are they more different from other cuisines and like each other?

                                                                                    1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                      In a nutshell, Creole cuisine, as the term is used in Louisiana, means the cooking of New Orleans, derived from the French haute cuisine, but using the New World ingredients that the early settlers found when they arrived in the early 1700s.
                                                                                      Classic Creole cuisine is fairly rare these days, mostly found in private homes and a few restaurants such as Antoine's. It's pretty labor intensive.
                                                                                      Cajun cuisine is the cooking of the Parishes outside the City of New Orleans and is usually more rustic in the same way that the cooking of Provence is less refined than French haute cuisine.
                                                                                      That does NOT mean that it is unsophisticated or crude.
                                                                                      The old joke is that you don't need more than one pot to cook a Cajun meal. You need a LOT of pots to cook a good Creole repast.

                                                                                      In practice today, Creole food and Cajun food have become rather sadly jumbled together as the restaurants in New Orleans have tried to please too many tourists and the Food Network makes things up as they go along.
                                                                                      There are some real differences that are deeply rooted in the history of Louisiana but that's for Master's thesis or something....

                                                                                      1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                        Very good abstract of a fairly complicated bit of culinary history. Only thing that I would add to "Creole" would be the additon of Spanish influence, albeit less so than French.

                                                                                        Probably the two greatest differences would be that with Creole cuisine a lot more ingredients were available. With Cajun cuisine (at its roots), the ingredients were extremely limited.

                                                                                        Creole developed into what is commonly termed "New Orleans Cuisine, "today. Now, elements of Cajun, Caribbean, African, as well as "Deep South Cuisine" have become incorporated. These inclusions are not bad, and really do not corrupt the cuisine of New Orleans. My opinion is that they actually contribute to it.

                                                                                        As you say, several Master's dissertations could well come from that discussion - or at least a few different threads.


                                                                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                                                          The Spanish and Caribbean influences may be the ones that actually make New Orleans cuisine unique. Simply adapting French haute cuisine to the local products would never have produced Creole food.
                                                                                          The importance that the Port played was critical. Then as now, it served as a gateway for products from the tropics. The foodstuffs and spices used in Creole food weren't common in the rest of the South. Sugar, rum, coffee, rice, pineapple, coconut, bananas, allspice, nutmeg, etc.
                                                                                          Remember that Napoleon bought Louisiana only because he wanted that port and its Caribbean trade through Hispanola, the home of the Empress Josephine.
                                                                                          We should also not discount the German immigrants who arrived before the French in the area just outside New Orleans in the area called the German Coast, or the huge waves of Italian immigrants whose food had such an impact on New Orleans food in the 20th century.

                                                                                    2. re: MakingSense

                                                                                      Recipes not created by slaves? I think the reality is somewhat more complex than many might imagine. As Karen Hess brilliantly demonstrated, rice in this country is an African import. And a good many rice-based dishes, particularly involving pulses, have a strong African influence, though many arrived indirectly via the Carribean. When I lived in Kenya, I could see a similar transformation going on: European and Asian cooking undergoing a transformation in an African context.

                                                                                      1. re: Father Kitchen

                                                                                        Yes, definitely "more complex than many might imagine." Rice emanated from Africa and Indonesia, but was a commercial staple grain in the coastal lands in the Carolina Territory by the late 1600s. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/...
                                                                                        It's more likely that the Spanish, French, and British settlers used rice in their own recipes, even though some of those recipes do have a Caribbean influence. That would possibly include paella yielding to jambalaya and rice served with the curries of Colonial British cuisine in theCarolinas and Georgia Colonies. There is little rice used in the mountain South for example.
                                                                                        There were large groups of European settlers who never owned slaves, which were after all expensive possessions. Some came as indentured servants themselves and became free after working off their debts. Many settlers lived as sharecroppers, or had small landholdings that they worked themselves. Their cooking became an extremely simple combination of original "old country"style and living off the land.
                                                                                        The gradual introduction of crops by African and Caribbean slaves certainly expanded the foodstuffs that were considered part of the standard diet of everyone from the Upper South around the Chesapeake, Appalachia, the Blue Ridge, Piedmont, Low Country, Panhandle, Gulf Coast, Ozarks, all the way to Texas, but it was more likely the foodstuffs themselves rather than having a black cook in the kitchen "creating the recipes" since they had no cooks.

                                                                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                          Rice first came from continental south and southeast Asia. Although Oryza glaberima originated in west Africa, I think the slaves brought with them Indica rices. I'll re-check.

                                                                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                            The slaves probably did bring it.
                                                                                            It was still a subsistence crop until the planters began cultivating it on a large scale in the Carolinas and made it a commercial product.

                                                                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                              Sam, from my reading it is a mix of both. The strain of rice raised in South Carolina originated in Madagascar, and it was an Asian rice. But the technology of rice cultivation was developed in Africa in the cultivation of O. glaberrima. The slave traders brought both worlds together. They brought the Asian strains, and they raided coastal West Africa for slaves who knew how to engineer and manage the rice fields. So the slaves didn't bring with them anything but their knowledge and their crushingl hard work, and they get so little credit for it. Same for the indigo crops.

                                                                                              1. re: Father Kitchen

                                                                                                The Malagasy rices are all Indicas originally from Indonesia. That's an easy one: even the languages in the Central Highlands have lots of Bahasa cognates. But how is it hypothesized that those rices arrived in west Africa?

                                                                                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                  You can probably find out from the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which publishes a quarterly newsletter on the topic. Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, who worked with Clemson University to bring the rice back to commercial cultivation in South Carolina heads the Foundation.
                                                                                                  One of the speakers at a 2005 symposium was Dr. Thomas Hargrove, on “The Odyssey of Carolina Gold Rice from Indonesia to Africa and Carolina and on to the Confederados Amazon.”
                                                                                                  That tracks with what both of you are saying.

                                                                                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                    Sounds OK to me, just don't know how the rice got from Madagascar to west Africa. Tom and I were both at the International Rice Research Institute and later - until he was kidnapped - at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Here in Cali he was fascinated by the Carolina rice origins. At IRRI we was fascinated by an odd hole in a rock down in the waters of Lake Taal. The rice breeder and rice historian, T.T. Chang often didn't agree with Tom, an editor and publisher.

                                                                                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                      Sam and Making Sense, My replies aren't nesting properly so who knows what this will be attached to. My sources are Karen Hess (The Carolina Rice Kitchen) and Judith Carney (Black Rice). Unless I missed something in reading, the Malagsay strains of rice did not come to the U.S. by way of West Africa. The Africans brought nothing material with them. But the traders, who knew indica rices from the international rice trade, did. Just as they introduced maiz to Africa, they brought rice to America, along with the slaves who knew the technologies of producing it and processing it from their cultivation of O. glaberrima in West Africa. I understand, however, that at some later date the indica rices began to replace the native rices in most of Africa where it was still cultivated. (Slaving was devastating to the native rice economies of the coastal and river communities of Africa.)
                                                                                                      Probably equally worth exploring would be the routes of importation of okra and the old world legumes.

                                                                                                      1. re: Father Kitchen

                                                                                                        Father Kitchen, this may be another "Follow the Money" situation...
                                                                                                        It's highly possible the the British brought the rice to the Georgia Colonies and the Carolina Low Country. They had those land holdings and were trying to determine the best economic use, what crops would grow best and could be exported back to other stops on the Trade Routes.

                                                                                                        Okra and peas were never grown as broad scale agriculture. Those were and still are small crops. Those might have "stopped off" in the Caribbean before arriving in the US.

                                                                                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                          That's my read on it. But what is significant about rice is that it was a case of slavers raiding for people who had the specific skills to cultivate and process the crop. And furthermore, because of the extraordinary labor challenges in the Carolina heavy river bottom soil and hot conditions, rice cultivation as a major economic reality ended with the abolition of slavery. Please note, however, that Jefferson, who worked hard to improve American agriculture, experimented with rice at Monticello.

                                                                                                          1. re: Father Kitchen

                                                                                                            CH isn't the place to refight the Civil War but every slave in SC could have followed Sherman when he marched to the sea from Atlanta and then North from Savannah. Thousands did. SC would have lost a large part of its labor force. They lost a huge labor force anyway in the enormous number of casulaties they took in the War. More than a quarter of the adult male population was killed or seriously injured.

                                                                                                            The more important effect of Sherman's March to the Sea was his scorched earth policy of destroying everything in his path. The entire economic infrastructure of South Carolina was gone. Railroads, telegraph lines, bridges, homes, farm buildings, roads, fields, ports, canals, anything that Sherman could demolish beyond repair.
                                                                                                            At the end of the Civil War, South Carolina was devastated and the commercial backbone was broken. There was no capital and no access to capital to rebuild. There was a free labor force which had no raw materials to function. No access to markets. Barely a way to feed themselves.

                                                                                                            Economies can adjust to changes, even the end of an economic input like slavery. They can't survive being systematically destroyed.

                                                                                      2. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                        I thank Bat Guano for bringing the thread back to the original question. I've been taken aback by the direction the discussion moved. Of course we have a very rich and varied culinary scene. But I think there are commonalities in our approach to food. If we did not have them, national food franchises wouldn't work. And these commonalities affect the way we welcome the cooking of other nations.

                                                                                      3. Hmm. Quadrupling the portion size of any given dish, and adding bacon and velveeta?


                                                                                        23 Replies
                                                                                        1. re: linguafood

                                                                                          Actually I think you're onto something. Large portion size does indeed seem to be a distinctive property of American food.

                                                                                          Another is an emphasis on convenience. Obviously there are exceptions, but by and large, all other things being equal, Americans like their food convenient and FAST. Often in a form that's easy to eat while driving, walking, watching TV, or otherwise multitasking.

                                                                                          Think about it. When you think about Americanized foods from other cultures, you're talking about croissant sandwiches, jarred tomato sauce, Oriental Express chinese fast food, nachos and gloopy cheese sauce - food that's been dumbed-down in the quest for convenience, whether it's to accommodate convenient ingredients or a fast-paced lifestyle. Or both. And then the portion size quadrupled, as linguafood notes.

                                                                                          1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                            Are these really uniquely American?
                                                                                            What nationality doesn't like value for its money and consequently, a hearty portion for the price they're paying? Or even just a little extra?

                                                                                            The portion "creep" in the US really started when, all things being equal, food purveyors had to compete on SOMETHING.
                                                                                            They added a larger order of fries, a side salad, unlimited refills on coffee/soft-drinks, or free hors d'oeurves during happy hour. None of this is expensive stuff. Plate fillers. Nothing says that you have to eat it, but it give the impression of value for the money.
                                                                                            There are variations of these in other countries and diners there seek out the values just like Americans do.

                                                                                            In many developing nations, people grab their meals from street vendors (their versions of McD's) or open markets. Prepared food is everywhere. I've never been to a public or street market anywhere in the world where you couldn't eat on the run. If anything, we have less in the US. Vending rules are more strict.

                                                                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                              Street food compared to McD's? I guess it is all prepared, convenient to handle food from the perspective of the consumer. But from the perspective of the ingredients and the creation process, American commercial pre-packaging flies in the face of street vendors in Mexico, Asia, and even Europe. Culturally, we can claim the proud fatherhood of packaged fast foods with little or no contest. Is quality a cultural issue? Are we more willing than other cultures to substitute quantity for quality?

                                                                                              Comparing a schnitzel-brot from a roadside van in Germany or tacos from a stand in Mexico to McD's may be appropriate in terms of handling, nutrition and economics, but the quality of product based on those things that we chowhounds consider most important (flavor, texture) falls on the side of the artisan. The question regarding this thread is what is the cultural difference. Are we comparing American food in the sense of handling, nutrition and economics, or in the sense of preparation, care, flavor and texture?

                                                                                              Is uniqueness a factor? There may be a half-dozen places serving lengua tacos in a marketplace or noodle soup carts in a city square - but everybody has their favorites. Which is your favorite McDonald's?

                                                                                              1. re: applehome

                                                                                                Actually the borscht at the McD's in Moscow is interesting. So is their noodle soup in Shanghai. Both were pretty good.
                                                                                                That's NOT the point.
                                                                                                There's also crappy inedible street vendor food all over the world. Not creative, disgracefully unhygienic. Unappetizing. It would make the worst chain restaurant fare look like four-star cuisine.

                                                                                                We're not talking about what appeals to your CH sensibilities but what distinguishes general "American" food.
                                                                                                So, yeah, there IS "prepared, convenient to handle food from the perspective of the consumer" everywhere - all over the world, just in different guises, from different types of vendors. There are country-specific small chains in some, and even a few entrepreneurs with multiple street stalls. Or multi-country corporations. Then there's Yum Foods.

                                                                                                But grab-and-go is NOT uniquely "American."

                                                                                                1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                  I was living in Hamburg, Germany in the '70s, when the first McDonald's opened there, and put up billboards all over town reading "McDonald's brings the Hamburger to Hamburg!" (auf Deutsch, natürlich). It was immediately very popular because it was so much more wholesome than the most common local fast food, currywurst, a sausage of dubious origin smothered in "currysaus." With a Big Mac you even got some vegetables!

                                                                                              2. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                America doesn't have as strong a tradition of street food as many other places. In fact, except for large cities, street food in the US is almost nonexistent. Yet there is convenience food in the US - and it's not the same as the street food you find in Mexico or China or wherever. Street food in most places is, simply, traditional food that's available on the street. It's often from someone's home kitchen, finished in the kettle or on the grill by the side of the road just before being sold. That's not the case with much American fast food; the key difference is that the food itself, in the US, is altered in significant ways by the desire for speed and convenience. It's simplified - fewer ingredients and simpler techniques.

                                                                                                And of course folks in other countries like convenience and value; it's ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But nobody would mistake a McDonalds for a third-world street vendor's food stall. There are some essential differences, which is what we're trying to get at here.

                                                                                                Sure, some of this may be overgeneralization, but that's done in the interest of developing a hypothesis.

                                                                                                1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                                  You're romanticizing street food.
                                                                                                  In many developing countries, street food exists because many people, particularly single laborers, don't have access to kitchens. There are many countries where rural poverty drives workers to cities and they take their meals from vendors, sleeping in rooms without cooking facilities.
                                                                                                  There are other types of foods available in markets that are cooked in ways that can't be duplicated in home kitchens, such as porchetta in Italy or hornado in South America, because homes have cooktops but no ovens. Even housewives buy their main courses this way.

                                                                                                  American "fast food" is a choice, not a necessity. Although I don't cook certain things at home, I have a kitchen with an oven, outdoor grill, and some pretty sophisticated equipment by world standards.
                                                                                                  So do most Americans.
                                                                                                  Street food was historically more common in the US when American did not have such things, e.g. in immigrant communities, during the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Gold Rush, Westward expansion, etc. Anytime that people were unsettled.

                                                                                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                    Street food in the US is gone mainly due to health regulations - which may or may not be a good thing. These regulations reflect the societal desire to only eat clean things, such as meat that is thoroughly processed and far removed from its origins. Once again, this may or may not be a good thing, but it is certainly an earmark of our current culture. It may be that as any civilization progresses, it brings its food indoors and processes its meats into nicely cookable pieces in factories. It is clearly a part of American culture, today.

                                                                                                    I think that's the problem with confounding fast food and streetfoods into a single aspect called convenient eating. They are clearly very different cultural phenomenon - perhaps natural occurrences at varying degrees of economic development - but very different in the ingredients, the processes, and the final food product. Taco Bell and a street stand in Mexico City may both sell Tacos - one is fast food, and the other is delicious.

                                                                                                    I wonder how well the economic development model fits with the penchant for street carts in Singapore. There are some very well off (at least, they were) bankers and businessmen eating at these carts for lunch. It's certainly not just the poor that eat Sabrett hot dogs or knishes from carts in NYC or Vienna dogs from carts in Chicago. Do we consider the ubiquitous roach coach as the equivalent of carts? They typically cater to job sites that have little choice, so there's a physical reason they exist - but LA is full of trucks that show up and park not far away from Taco Bells during lunch.

                                                                                                    1. re: applehome

                                                                                                      "Taco Bell and a street stand in Mexico City" are BOTH fast food. Deliciousness is subjective.

                                                                                                      Sure, there are carts and vendors in many cities, and in some, they have long been a vibrant part of those cities' food culture.
                                                                                                      In other cities, they serve a totally different function - they're how people get themselves fed.
                                                                                                      Some of those "roach coaches" bring a taste of home to immigrant laborers on those job sites.
                                                                                                      Somehow, both the "roach coach" and the Taco Bell survive because people have different tastes in fast food.
                                                                                                      Again, subjective.

                                                                                                      1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                        Well yes - and you're commenting on my judgment of American fast food as being inferior to many street foods. That is indeed subjective, but it is also manifestly true in that all chains provide a consistent, mediocre product (to hit the lowest common denominator in the market), while non-chains come in both below and above the chains. So clearly, the worst and best products are not made in chains, but by individual proprietors - in this case, in street carts.

                                                                                                        So now you have me conflating American fast foods and street carts within the framework of this subject - what is American? Fast food chains are American, while they exist in other countries, by any measure we are the king of fast food. With street food in carts and stands, we are not the king - other countries, whether because of development (health and economics) or cultural history, have far more (per capita) than us. And while there are worse foods in street carts than fast food chains, there are better foods.

                                                                                                        Therefore, the best convenience foods are street foods, probably not found in America.

                                                                                                        QED... ;-)

                                                                                                        1. re: applehome

                                                                                                          Ain't no QED when "best" will always be subjective.
                                                                                                          Among the world's 6.7 billion eaters, there are more than a few who would likely take issue with you.
                                                                                                          After all, even in this dismal world economy, McDonald's stock is still performing well based on their 6%+ growth last quarter. No small achievement when everything else is tanking. Places you like may well be closing.
                                                                                                          The "best" is what the most people think it is, for whatever reason.

                                                                                                          1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                            Well then, I certainly hope you are heavily invested.

                                                                                                            Did you catch the wink?

                                                                                                    2. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                      Perhaps many have a choice. The grab and go, in a car, may have begun in the US. I have a car and like you said you have a choice; but is it viable and sensible for many?
                                                                                                      Perhaps if there were the demand there would be more sit-down, breakfast places in New Haven. As it is, they are hard to find and access and cost a lot more than a breakfast sandwich at McBox. For many of the youths, whose parents don't provide breakfast at home, and when they find it hard to get out of their area (before school?), I am hard pressed to see where else they can get breakfast. The fast food life may be all they know.

                                                                                                      1. re: Scargod

                                                                                                        Realistically, how many people have ever sat down for breakfast in restaurants? That's for the leisure class.
                                                                                                        Workers have to hurry to job sites. Grab and go has always been the norm not just in the US but worldwide.

                                                                                                        You are right about kids though. It's sad to see the number in the US who stop at convenience stores or fast food outlets even when they have access to free breakfast programs at schools. Learned behavior.

                                                                                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                          "sat down for breakfast in restaurants? That's for the leisure class."
                                                                                                          Hardly. Obviously you have not been to farming communities, where they may have a hearty, early (or late), breakfast at the cafe before going to work. Lots of coffee and gossip, too.

                                                                                                          1. re: Scargod

                                                                                                            Yes, I was thinking the same thing. The small town cafe. Many around here are open at 5 am, are crowded, and one can rub elbows w/ lobstermen and truck drivers.

                                                                                                            1. re: Scargod

                                                                                                              Absolutely. Unlike urban dwellers, their time is their own. "Leisure" doesn't have to denote money. There are other riches in life.
                                                                                                              I have a house over on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. By 5 AM when the coffee is brewed at the tackle shop or the local breakfast places start serving, the locals have been at work for a few hours.
                                                                                                              We don't have a newspaper or a local radio station. Hell, we don't have a local government.
                                                                                                              If it wasn't for those places, we'd never know what the cops were doing down the road, who was sick, who had lost their job in the town up the road, or who was sleeping around.
                                                                                                              Geez, it goes on all day.
                                                                                                              That's WAAAYYY different from why there are no breakfast places in cities.

                                                                                                        2. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                          So you're saying that street/fast food in other countries is NOT a matter of convenience, but necessity? Then that indeed makes American fast food distinctive, because, as you note, here it is a matter of choice, and as I originally hypothesized, driven by the desire for convenience.

                                                                                                          So two distinctive characteristics of American food are the results on the food supply of the desire for convenience and the desire for choice. The choice parameter also manifests itself in the the wholesale adoption of any and every cuisine with a significant immigrant representation in the population, but with the general Americanization of said cuisines - i.e., Americanized-Italian, - Chinese, - Mexican, - Thai, etc.

                                                                                                          Paradoxically, with all the choices available, the resulting mix has become in many ways homogeneous: it all starts to look and taste similar after a while.

                                                                                                          Add in the large portion size, and we're halfway there.

                                                                                                          1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                                            Yep, there is only a small percentage of Americans who have to eat street/fast food out of necessity. For simplicity's sake, let's call all of this class of foods "convenience foods." These are foods that someone else prepares that are not served in sit-down restaurants, nor are they prepared at home from scratch.

                                                                                                            They are carry-out, delivered, eaten in fast food outlets, in the car, office, or on the street. Some are purchased in supermarkets of all categories, from hot delis to salad bars, or frozen ready to microwave or pop into the oven. These can be rotisserie chickens, frozen pizzas, pans of lasagna, sushi, heat and serve garlic mashed potatoes, Caesar salad kits, etc. You can get BBQ ribs or Chinese Orange Beef from the hot bar.

                                                                                                            Yes, you are correct that it has become homogeneous. Everyone is eating the same thing because fewer people cook but nobody wants to eat the same thing within a family in many cases. One person will only eat this. Another kid won't touch that with a stick. Somebody has suddenly become a vegetarian. Mom is on another diet.
                                                                                                            People excuse it as "convenience" and "choice" but they've forgotten how to shop and prepare meals.
                                                                                                            "Choice" and "convenience" have actually begun to narrow American food choices. There is more out there, but people chose fewer and fewer of the items and they all begin to blur...
                                                                                                            It's not just at fast food outlets.

                                                                                                            American food traditions have started to flatline.

                                                                                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                              "but they've forgotten how to shop and prepare meals" How true. I'll never forget visit by a Finnish friend, who upon walking down the isle of frozen food in a supermarket and asked, "Have Americans forgotten how to cook?

                                                                                                              1. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                                Yes, that's the paradox I find interesting: more choices lead to more of the same ol', same ol', both in terms of what is finally chosen by the consumer and the fact that all the choices start to converge into something that contains many of the same ingredients, same taste - basically the same food with mere cosmetic differences to make it seem like something different. Example: Mass-market Fettucine Alfredo with grilled chicken tastes virtually identical to mass-market Chicken Enchiladas with sour cream, and only slightly different from mass-market Chicken Caesar Salad: it's all chicken breast with a creamy sauce, and only the bland carbohydrate base is (slightly) different. These are some of the most popular convenience foods, and they're pretty much all the same thing.

                                                                                                            2. re: MakingSense

                                                                                                              You are wrong. Street food in the middle east, latin america, and asia does not exist because people don't have kitchens -- it's convenience food. People who don't have kitchens can't afford street food. I've been eating this stuff around the world for the last 50 years, and it's certainly never seemed like the bottom of the food chain. Authentic? Yes, Affordable for the huddled masses? No.

                                                                                                              The people who are living in shanty towns/slums are cooking over primitive single-burner stoves or charcoal. They're not eating take-out.

                                                                                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                                                                                The homeless and the dispossessed in the developing world are even less likely than our own to be happily grilling their dinner outdoors. Of course they can't afford to frequent the markets where tourists go.
                                                                                                                The squalid shanty-towns teem with makeshift "fast food" outlets that provide income to the vendors and sustenance to the workers who don't even bother to acquire any cooking equipment - even if they had a place to store it.

                                                                                                    3. The vast multi-ethnic and international scope of our cooking is fairly recent. In the Midwest I had never heard of pizza until after World War II. Bagels and pita were not available in every grocery store as they are now. Yogurt was rare and sold in health food stores, ditto herbal teas. Lasagna became popular around 1960. It often occurs to me that at least 50-60% of what I buy and cook would not be recognized by my Midwestern WASP grandmother: hummos, borscht, felafel, potstickers, baklava, spanakopita, corn tortillas, curries, halvah, empanadas, pierogies, quiche, raddichio, moussaka, mangos, papayas. Now all of these are mainstream foods, just as earlier arrivals like spaghetti and sauerkraut have long been "American". Foods that used to be limited to certain neighborhoods in big cities are now in every convenience store along every rural byway. We move fast to incorporate what we like and thus we nationalize the international. What is truly American? Cornmeal mush and fried squirrel: thanks, I'll take the spanakopita.

                                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                                      1. re: Querencia

                                                                                                        Ha! My grandmother, desperate to eat the "American" foods her Eastern European mother wouldn't cook or allow in her kosher home, used to tell the story of sneaking her neighbor's spaghetti into the kitchen using her neighbor's dishes and silverware. Her mom caught her, threw out the food, made my grandmother ketchup on pasta as her own version of "pa-skets". My grandmother told of choking down the meal and then returning the dishes to her neighbor.
                                                                                                        American foods - to me anyway - is the appreciation of foods from "home" mixed with appreciation for what others eat at home and all made with whatever is available to use.

                                                                                                      2. I think one thing that characterizes American food, at least since the mid-20th century is food that is prepared fast, delivered quickly, and intended to be eaten fast, with an emphasis more on entertainment or efficiency than on the quality of the food.

                                                                                                        Often the food is served in a way that it can be obtained from a car, for example at a drive up window, at a corner convenience store where you can microwave it on site, or even brought to your car by a waitress on roller skates, Attention is also paid to the entertainment value of the restaurants buildings (golden arches, Bob's Big Boy, etc.) and food sometimes is accompanied by toys and other trinkets.

                                                                                                        McDonalds and its siblings like Burger King, Taco Bell, etc., , Car-Hops, TV Dinners, Big Gulps and ready to microwave food in store food from 7-11, huge servings of movie theater food, even Starbucks with their collection of souvenir mugs all fit into this category.

                                                                                                        Like it or not, this all originated in America and has become one clear aspect of food and cuisine that is uniquely American.

                                                                                                        3 Replies
                                                                                                        1. re: taos

                                                                                                          Of course, that means that during the time I grew up in the US, I never ate any American food.

                                                                                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                            Yup. Fortunately, America is the land of options.

                                                                                                            Anyway, it's as much about the food as it is about the preparation and the environment.

                                                                                                            There are a few other food items that are distinctly American, like Coca-Cola or maybe steamed lobster., But the whole make it fast, get it from your car, be entertained by the food and how it's served, don't care much about the nutrition, thing, is distinctly American

                                                                                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                              I guess I didn't, either, and I wonder what I'm feeding my family. Who knew?

                                                                                                          2. I haven't reread the entire thread, but just a thought. Possibly some traditional New England (And of course Canadian, North American Maritime Provence's) foods are distinctively American. I mean the scallop, shrimp, clam, lobster and crab roll, fried full belly clams, New England style white seafood chowders and the shore dinner of steamed lobster, clams, corn on the cob and potatoes all wrapped and cooked in seaweed on the beach.

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