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Apr 12, 2010 09:18 AM

What is American cuisine?

This is really a part of another thread, but f I put it there, I could imagine things getting way off topic.

The issue is in discussing a specific cuisine, what are really the boundaries to gaining a true insight?

To say Americans eat hamburgers and fries with catsup, steaks, fried chicken or apple pie says nothing and offers no insight into American cuisine. It is a high level caricature.

Sure, a good many of us eat those foods. To me there is more to a cuisine than largely common food.

Let’s suppose to define American cuisine, I were to write about an average middle-class family over a period of months.

For the sake of simplicity of this thread, I’m not going to include melting pot foods, despite that being a BIG part. I am going to exclude regionalism as well, Southern food, New England food, etc. I hope you get what I mean further down.

I would write that most Americans shop at least once a week at large supermarket such as Safeway, Piggy Wiggly, Stop and Shop, etc. The markets have meat departments with pre-cut packaged meats, often a deli offering sandwiches, salads and hot food. Many have in-store bakeries. And so I would walk thru a supermarket discussing what, in general, is sold there.

Look in the shopping carts at those markets and there is often coffee or tea, juice, soft drinks such as Coca Cola, cereal such as oatmeal, corn flakes or sugar coated children’s cereal, bread, sandwich meat, canned fish such as tuna, eggs, yogurt, frozen food, etc, etc, etc.

I would describe the trend towards farmers markets and what one would find there and how people used that food in meals.

During the work week many Americans start the day in a hurry and for many, breakfast will be a cup of coffee and muffin or scone at drive thru places like Starbucks. For others it might be a McDonald’s egg McMuffin or something similar. Office workers might patronize local coffee and baked goods places.

On the weekend the breakfasts are more relaxed and substantial. For those not eating egg dishes, pancakes or French toast at home, those similar items can be ordered at restaurants which can range from chains like IHOP to artisan or more upscale restaurants which may include alcoholic drinks such as mimosas, a mixture of sparkling wine and orange juice.

I would describe a little about what it is like to sit at an IHOP and the type of people who go there. I would talk about the artisan breakfast experience and those customers.

Isn’t the cuisine more than about what is on the plate? Isn’t it also about why some people choose chain food and others the latest and greatest new chef’s hot spot?

Many people still attend church of various denominations some of which include food as part of the social experience. That might include pancake breakfasts or regional variations such as crab feeds in the SF Bay Area and then I would describe attending one of these events.

At a pancake breakfast it is often in a church hall, the space filled with long tables where families sit while volunteer church members, often women, cook the pancakes

Doesn’t that give more insight than just saying churches have pancake breakfasts?

For entertainment Americans might go to the movies or sporting events. Originally at baseball games there were vendors selling soft drinks, beer, hot dogs, ice cream bars, peanuts and cracker jacks. Currently there is a trend toward different food such as garlic fries

At movies people often order popcorn with butter in huge paper tubs washed down by equally gigantic soft drinks. Large boxes of candy such as Jr. Mints, Milk duds and Jujubes are sold.. Some sell hot dogs or pizza and the trend is to add more café type of foods.

I would describe that cities and towns have local neighbor hood businesses like bakeries, coffee shops, delis, small corner markets, ice cream shops, meat markets, produce vendors, etc. I would describe what is sold at these places and what if feels like to walk in and the look.

I would discuss that in suburbs businesses centered mainly around shopping malls with food courts. I would write about how Costco fits into the American life style.

I would describe the typical street food such as pretzels or hot dogs … keep in mind I’m trying to stay away from melting pot food right now so I’m not including Italian ice, tacos, etc, etc.

I’d describe country fairs and the food served there such as kettle corn, funnel cakes, etc.

And, if while writing this thread, the family was living in SF or Dallas or New York, would this really be put on those regional boards. It really isn’t about where to eat. It is about how people eat and despite some regional differences, there is a commonality across the country

And it goes on … too vast to cover in one post. However, day after day or week after week, following an average American family one would have a good feel for what American cuisine really is and what the typical American eats.

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  1. BBQ. Not stuck in one region, but has unique aspects depending on where in America you are. Cooking pork with smoke (or beef in Texas) and slathering it with a spicy tomato-based sauce. That's American.

    1. Pasta. It is also not stuck in a particular region. Weather it is in Mac & Cheese, a Tomato-based sauce, Scampi style, Goulash, pasta salads, etc., it is made many ways and from coast to coast. Its also an economic way to stretch a budget.

      1. I'd add burgers and pizza, b/c that IS what a lot of Americans eat on a regular basis, or sandwiches in general. Casseroles & lots of convenience products like hamburger/tuna helper. Prepared frozen foods.

        3 Replies
        1. re: linguafood


          I was going to say sandwiches. Most of the people I know eat a sandwich at least a couple of times per week, and is one of those "go-to" foods we resort to when we don't know what else to make.

          We also have many cookbooks devoted entirely to casseroles.

          I would also say that "skillet meals" are another, with their own cookbooks. I would almost classify them with casseroles, in that they are quick to put together, often used to use up miscellaneous ingredients one has on hand, and usually include a protein, vegetable, and starch in one dish.

          1. re: linguafood

            burgers , pizza, and casseroles? Really?
            The question is bogus without including regionalism.
            Pretzels are more exotic and foreign than tacos, at least where I grew up.

            1. re: bbqboy

              Yeah, really. It's what I see people eat here all the time. And don't forget the sandwiches.

          2. As a non-American I think it is quite an easy question to answer as there is definitely an American style of food that is quite common across regions.

            To me things like he chopped salad with ranch or blue cheese dressing served between courses is a good example. Or the sides you get in restaurants like creamed spinach or macaroni cheese. Then there are the quite simply cooked steaks, ribs, chops and seafood: big portions of good quality produce. Sandwiches, including burgers, and chicken, and club, pastrami served properly as part of a meal with all the trimmings.

            The American breakfast is a thing of legend, when it is good it is outstanding with a great range of foods especially the stacks of pancakes. Us outsiders also think of the US as the place to go for Mexican derived foods, much like people think of Britain for a good curry, outsiders think the US as a place easily try the food - when we get more adventurous we head down to Mexico for the real deal.

            In the main American food is not complex or highly sophisticated, instead it is big and generous, it is perfect for enjoying good company with, it is food to share with friends. True, American is home to some top chefs who do cook outstandingly good and complex, sophisticated food (Thomas Keller etc), but this is the rarefied height of American cuisine rather than its big heart.

            1. hmm. i think i might live in a different america than you do. excluding regionalism from a discussion of american food doesn't make too much sense.

              omissions to consider:

              uniquely american baking, desserts in general-- pies, cakes, ice cream, cookies, candy

              products like cheese or bread or pizza that become american or regionally american

              ethnic foods that become mainstream american foodstuffs (can't get away from the melting pot entirely)

              american public school hot lunch/american institutional eating in general

              wild foodstuffs and game, seafood regional freshwater fish, etc.

              traditions of food preservation including canning, smoking, bbqing, curing, pickling

              the fast food/qsr model in america, heat & eat, processed foods

              10 Replies
              1. re: soupkitten

                well, i'd argue that desserts and pastries, save for particularly american things like oreos or brownies, are just as prevalent in other countries. your so-called national dish of apple pie originated in germany, me thinks.

                game and regional seafood is prepared all over the world, so not by def american. same with preservation, canning, smoking, bbqing curing an pickling. not exactly sure what's specifically american about any of those.

                1. re: linguafood

                  so are you saying americans don't eat any of these foods? i thought that the op was looking at how/what americans eat, not the country of origin of an archetypical food item that then morphed into a multiplicity of dishes consumed by americans. . .

                  i also was not saying that folks in australia or north africa or sweden or bulgaria or what have you *do not* eat locally caught game or fish, or make pickles, wrap a filling in pastry, or cure a piece of meat--- just that americans *do,* and historically have. it's part of the way that americans eat at this moment in history, which is what i thought we were trying to discuss. . . i wasn't aware of this being a discussion of "i'm from the motherland/my country is better/my country had a variation of food x first"-- i wouldn't be interested in responding to that kind of a thread.

                  if we talk about food in america but exclude any foods that have their origins in other counties we're basically having a talk about corn on the cob. i'm exaggerating, to be sure, but trying to say americans can't talk about eating catfish or venison because lots of folks around the world eat carp or antelope? americans apparently don't eat burgers, pizza or ice cream because these foods also happen to be consumed in other countries as well? i don't think it's helpful or accurate to try to exclude discussion of common foods in the american diet just because people drink soft drinks or eat bread or meat or pastries elsewhere around the world.

                  caveat: i'll definitely note though that with bbq i'm definitely going by the american definition of the term as smoke/pit cooking methods and the foods that are produced by these methods--to be absolutely clear, i'm not at all referring to how nationals of other countries use "bbq" as a synonym for open-fire grate cooking, or even the grills themselves eg: "i've got some sausages, time to fire up the ol' barbie." that's another whole can of worms. talking about two completely different things. very unfortunate conflation of terminology which results in endless confusion. discussed ad nauseum on this forum. but surely most/many folks would agree that american bbq and its regional variations is very much "specifically american."

                  1. re: soupkitten

                    so are you saying americans don't eat any of these foods? i thought that the op was looking at how/what americans eat, not the country of origin of an archetypical food item that then morphed into a multiplicity of dishes consumed by americans. . .

                    no, that's not what i'm saying. i guess i really have no clue what exactly the OP is talking about here. if it's food that is eaten all around the world, what makes it american? i mean, why even bother if we all eat the same stuff anyway?

                    1. re: linguafood

                      The title is "What is American Cuisine" which IMO is very different to "What do people in America eat".

                      The first is the food that defines the nations culinary image, it is the food that reminds you of home when you are away. The second is far less defined and in effect covers everything as a result of immigration etc. For example people across the world regularly eat burgers, but they would not include them in a description of their national cuisine.

                      1. re: PhilD

                        eh ... do not to need to get technical.

                        As I mentioned, this was part of another thread. So the reason I excluded regionalism was to simplify.

                        I guess the question really is how is a cuisine defined ... american or otherwise. It is more than the signature dishes.

                        If you followed a typical family in any country day in and day out, I think that really defines local cuisine ... and part of that is more than just the food on the plate, IMO

                        1. re: rworange

                          "If you followed a typical family in any country day in and day out, I think that really defines local cuisine" I think that depends on the country. Families in "the west" all shop at supermarkets, are time poor and buy global brands like Nestle or Kraft. The result is an homogonisation of food culture with the same (or very similar) products being consumed in the US/UK/France/Germany/Australia etc. Thus it is the food consumed on special occasions that define the local culture.

                          1. re: PhilD

                            Could be

                            Popsicles or paletas, raspados or slurpees, or whatever there is a commonality.

                            Where I am in Central American substitute potatoes for beans, white bread for tortillas and you pretty much have the American diet ... pretty much. I had liver and onions yesterday ... with tortillas ...and beans.

                            An American would die ... literally ... with all the eggs eaten here. In a land of tropical fruit, I have yet to eat an orange and fruit plays a small part in the diet. And so it goes.

                            However, there are differences. People have stovetops but no ovens ... to hot. So baked goods are bought outside. There is more than just holiday fare that is different.

                            1. re: rworange

                              I think, for a comparative approach, it is better to define the cuisine top down rather than bottom up like the OP. If you do a bottom-up definition you find that a large proportion of the foods across geographies are quite similar. But if you do a top down approach you highlight the points of difference. For example Szechuan food compared to Cantonese, the former is fiery and hot from chilies and schezuan pepper, the latter is subtle and complex with lots of fish. But a bottom up perspective they are both rice based, both use stir fried techniques ect.

                              The reason I focussed on special occasion food is that is the time traditional foods often come out and/or people make an effort to cook. France is a good example, they like many countries are time poor, as a result it is McDonalds biggest growth market, and many French people eat frozen food from Picard, but we don't think of these as bedrocks of French cuisine.

                              1. re: PhilD

                                Here is a link to a BBC program in the UK that talks about American food, it is only 10 mins long and starts off being quite rude about US food, but stay with it for some insightful conclusions.


                                1. re: PhilD

                                  Why do I feel I was listening to Dr. Lecter?
                                  Clarise, the pie. :)