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Mar 21, 2014 02:19 AM

What is American cuisine?

I’m prompted to post this thread because of an opinion expressed on another thread about my own national cuisine here in the United Kingdom. I inferred that the view being expressed was that immigrant minority ethnic cuisines remain separate from the mainstream cuisine. It isn’t a view I’d generally agree with, feeling that the cuisine of some immigrant communities becomes so embedded in the mainstream that it becomes part of “British cuisine”, as the community itself becomes an integral part of society. Not least when, as usually happens, dishes are adapted or created for the Anglo community.

Realising that cultures differ between countries, I wondered if Americans thought that, say, the cuisine of Italian immigrants was now American or if it remained outside the mainstream. Are there cuisines that are now so embedded in American culture that they have become American or are they, as the original remark, always outside the mainstream? Having travelled to the States regularly since 1980, it doesnt seem to be a question a visitor can answer for themselves.

I suppose the real question I’m asking is, for a nation of immigrants, how do Americans define modern American cuisine?

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  1. I'd put it exactly the way you've described "British cuisine" --

    Ethnic food from ethnicities that have been here for generations have been absorbed into the main stream -- but not in their original form. Just as Britain has made tikka masala a very British dish -- it isn't really authentic, but it's an every-day food item -- so is "American" lasagna, chow mein, Wisconsin bratwurst (which are delicious, but don't resemble German brats...) etc.

    In the US, there are still "immigrant foods" that are still very much outside the mainstream, but it varies somewhat by location and where the immigrant populations settled -- for example, food from East Asia is far more mainstream on the West Coast than it is on the East, because of the heavy East-Asian immigrant populations on the West Coast.

    Things like Indian and north African, however, are still not mainstream, because we don't have enormous populations from those regions.

    1. In the purest sense of the word - everything that was not Native American is "Immigrant" cuisine and while spaghetti and meat balls and chicken chow mein are essentially 100% American dishes they still generally come with a foreign prefix.

      There are though some cuisines that I would consider wholly American in that they are truly new cuisines born of region, climate and a mix of influences unique to place - Texas BBQ, Creole, Cajun, Deep Southern ie shrimp and grits, New England seafood etc are all cuisines really born in and from N. American experiences rather than just simple adaptations of a foreign dish.

      I would suppose the dump-a-can casserole and jello-mold is also really a true American cuisine as well reflecting post war prosperity and a heedless march to modernization and love of science.

      as for "Modern" American cuisine what's more American than a Korean Taco washed down by an artisan "German" lager made in Portland? its all about "fusion" while I hate the term diversity is what defines us.

      4 Replies
      1. re: JTPhilly

        You can hate the term, but "cuisine" in the US, even in the subcultures you note, has, fundamentally, always been "fusion".

        1. re: MGZ

          agreed, how do you distinguish the organic development of Cajun Cuisine type of fusion from the chef invented "Mole Meatball Steamed Bun" available at the new Trend-Mex place down the block -

          I would say as a broad generalization traditional American cuisines are based on those organic fusions brought by combining specific peoples and geographies while the Modern American "fusion" is based more on the vast diversity of our cities and the broad array of products, flavors and ideas brought by globalization.

          meh maybe they are the same thing in a different sized world.

        2. re: JTPhilly

          But, even those "wholly American" cuisines associated to specific places you mention (Cajun, etc...) did not develop in a vacuum and were subject to influences to say the least. Casseroles and jello-mold foods have their counterparts high and low all around (I'm looking at you, aspic!). They certainly like their jello desserts in Poland or Brazil, for example. Of course, those countries' cuisines are also the results of fusions, influences, and trends.

        3. "I suppose the real question I’m asking is, for a nation of immigrants, how do Americans define modern American cuisine?"

          Hell, we still haven't figured out how to define "American".

          1. I think this question goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to the issues we have with obesity, food purity, and the Monsantofication of our food. America has never had a unifiing cusine to call their own. A case could pobably be made for Cajun/Creole. I think that is why the food is so good down there. It comes down to respect for the ingrediants. I once heard never to eat anything that your great grandmother would not recognize as food.

            14 Replies
            1. re: jefpen2

              The quote about granny and her food comes, I think, from Michael Pollan's book "In Defence of Food".

              His other great quote which may be from the same book is his recommended dietary advice - "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants".

              1. re: jefpen2

                I think meat is a unifying aspect of American cuisine. I'm sure there are teetotalers in France just as there are vegetarians in the US, but a meatless America seems about as right as a wineless France.

                There can be some meatless dishes in the mix as a change of pace, but a carnivorous orientation is the norm. People who try to rebel against that either don't get what America is or do get it but hate it.

                1. re: FoodPopulist

                  OK, I'll bite. What IS "America"?

                  1. re: MGZ

                    America is an emotion rather than an intellectual process. America is about the triumph of the soul over the brain. America is not something you can't really explain, just something you either feel or don't feel.

                    And you're less likely to feel what America is if you enjoy tofurky or vegetarian pho.

                    1. re: FoodPopulist

                      wait'll my kid reads this and tells his government teacher that none of it's real, and they all just have to FEEL America, rather than study it.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        That's OK. I can think of about 34 countries that "feeled" good!
                        And I'm feelin' better than James Brown..:)

                        1. re: sunshine842

                          I don't know what your kid's being made to study, sunshine, but, in essence, this ain't a bad lesson.

                        2. re: FoodPopulist

                          Fair enough, Populist, though I'd prefer to interpret your basic notion with the caveat that there is no "one" way to feel it.

                        1. re: FoodPopulist

                          It's much easier to eat vegetarian in the US than just about anywhere.

                          1. re: Steve

                            even easier in the UK -- you see vegetarian options *everywhere*

                            1. re: sunshine842

                              Yes, and they're almost all bloody pasta and cheese. :)

                              But seriously quite starch heavy and yes, cheese heavy too.

                              Sorry, but varied and interesting vegetable-based dishes are not exactly the thing of the UK (save for in South Asian restaurants, or London, and even then...) Indeed, certain places in the U.S. (California, the Pacific Northwest, and the North East corridor) offer such a magnificent array of options that I am overjoyed to come over precisely for that. (If my village or places nearby had something even as marvellous as Herman's in Stockholm, I'd swoon.)

                              However, all that said, I've been pleased to see the introduction of meal-sized salads in some places. Over the years, the options have increased in general, and that's been welcome.

                              1. re: Lizard

                                I made no allusion as to quality -- but dishes specially marked as "vegetarian friendly" are far more common in the UK than in the US.

                      2. Going back, I'm sure the cuisine of the Huguenot French immigrants, or Norman French, or Vikings were in some way different from others in Britain--yet today they have all just become British. The same process happens and is happening to other immigrant groups. They will blend in and melt into the overall population over a few generations--historically there are only a few exceptions.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Wawsanham

                          I suppose there's also the expression "as American as apple pie" which owes its origins to British settlers who had brought their pie making skills and who imported the apple trees (or seeds)

                          1. re: Harters

                            I thought that expression referred to German immigrants making apple pies - but I could be wrong.

                            Fun fact: during a large swath of the 1800s, more German was spoken in the United States than English, and there were more German newspapers in circulation than English ones.