What makes food “American?” When I first considered the question, my mind went to the obvious, expected place: burgers and fries, hot dogs, barbecue, fried chicken, chicken wings, meatloaf, biscuits and gravy, the BLT, macaroni and cheese, apple pie…the list goes on.
But aside from being a fairly uninspired and boiled-down caricature of American cuisine, catching myself, I realized that I wasn’t exactly answering the question at hand. It asks not so much about what dishes, but why and how certain dishes have come to be identified as American. Through that lens, the ingredients that have truly helped shape American cuisine are more abstract and ever so slightly less tangible: necessity, adaptability, ingenuity, and imagination.
The Melting Pot
“I think what’s most interesting about American food is that it’s truly the product of synergy, combined effort, and most importantly, immigration,” reflects Noah Fecks, a Brooklyn-based food and travel photographer, and author of “The Way We Ate: 100 Chefs Celebrate a Century at the American Table.”
“The unique beauty of this country is that it’s not only accepted generations of immigrants, it’s been a destination of choice for countless people. When you yourself are an immigrant, you’re likely to be traveling quite lightly; however, one thing that you bring with you is your customs. Both culinary and otherwise.”
You could argue, then, that resources are the key variable in what transforms a dish from “X” to “X-American.” Because sure, you can carry recipes and taste memories from the homeland with you, but if you can’t find that one, signature, “authenticating” ingredient at your new local grocery store (so to speak) you’ve got to figure out a compromise. History offers myriad examples of this: the Austrian and German staple weinerschnitzel becomes chicken fried steak, which substitutes veal cutlet for beef, more widely available in Texas where the dish has ascended to icon status. Similarly, paella becomes jambalaya; the frankfurter is reinvented as the hot dog; Dutch olykoeks become doughnuts; Chinese fish sauce morphs into ketchup.
Necessity: The Mother of Americanization
As Fecks puts it, “Americanization” of a cuisine is “really that thing where you’ve got an individual who was socialized and raised in a unique environment, and they share food, dishes, approaches and recipes with family, neighbors, and friends.” He references a hypothetical example of a Thai immigrant to the United States. “The standard [US] supermarket pales in comparison to the vibrant, dynamic markets in Thailand that explode with color and variety. However, that same cook will find a way to make do with something from the supermarket, and prepare food in a way that is known to them. Light brown sugar becomes a substitute for palm sugar, cinnamon replaces cardamom…However there is no substitute for good Thai fish sauce I’m afraid.”
Examples of culinary cultural appropriation aside, I’d argue there’s also something to be said for a so-called “scrappy” approach to cooking that defines American cuisine. Legend has it that the cheeseburger came to be because a cook at The Rite Spot in 1920s Pasadena burnt the patty he was grilling and needed to cover his mistake. Invented in 1937 at The Brown Derby, the now-iconic Cobb Salad was an on-the-fly, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink amalgamation of refrigerator leftovers. Hell, we wouldn’t have soul food—hush puppies, chitterlings, oxtail stew, hoppin’ john, hoecake, collard greens—without that work-with-what-you-got attitude and sense of creativity.
What also makes food “American,” you might also say, is an eagerness to play along; adapt to a perceived preference. Take the advent of General Tso’s Chicken, for example, with its loose roots in Chinese cuisine, completely adapted for the American palate (and now, ironically, more popular in China than the original today). Or the ever-pervasive California Roll, which came to be in the 1960s/1970s from a perceived Western aversion to raw fish and seaweed—hence its “inside out” structure and creamy avocado and cooked crab supplements.
Long story short, we could go back and forth on the question of makes American cuisine “American.” Is it borrowed? Is it its own thing? Does it exist? Who knows. But at the very least, Fecks makes a great point: “Although this may change in the future, the USA is one of the few places where you can experience cuisine and dishes from practically every other nation on Earth. It positions America in a way that possibly no other country can.” So, you know, I say stop thinking and eat up.