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American Cuisine

The subject of American cuisine is a complicated and somewhat controversial topic, argued from multiple directions by historians, chefs, scholars, and patriots alike - “what is American cuisine?” When the Italians or Japanese are asked to define the basics of their native food, the answers come easily; defining ingredients and dishes are generally well known even by foreigners, and there are centuries of historical information to support the responses. Ask five people individually the same question about American cuisine and odds are you’ll receive five different answers…if you get one at all.

The confusion is justifiable. For centuries now the U.S. has been the destination of billions of immigrant peoples, and as these foreign cultures have adjusted to our society they have contributed as well. Jot a quick list of food items usually considered “American” you’ll find this is true. Hamburgers and hotdogs? German. Pizza and ice cream? Italian. The patriotic dessert found in the phrase “as American as apple pie”? Originally a British treat (mirrored by the Dutch). The mixed lineage of some of our most culturally important foods has caused cynics to claim that America has no native cuisine…but they’re wrong.Our Own Food While American cuisine is widely influenced by its immigrant populations, it is also unique to this country in both content and execution. In rebelliously creating their own nation the early settlers intentionally created their own way of doing things, in part to establish their own identity, but also to make the British mad. Early kitchens are an excellent example: while the British cooked over a single large fire using a system of multi-sized removable grills, many new settlers built very large hearths, or fireplaces, into their kitchens to allow for the use of multiple fires with varying purposes. As a result, the kitchens of first Americans were very different in appearance than their British counterparts of the same time period. The settled Americans also had access to different ingredients than the Europeans because of location. Early settlers found the new world flush with corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, beans, cranberries, wild rice, pumpkin and squash, as well as turkey (there’s a reason these foods appear in Thanksgiving Day dinners) and a wealth of native fish/fowl. It should be recognized that in speaking of American cuisine we are not solely discussing food of the continental United States. South America provided some of the greatest agricultural discoveries of the world – before the discovery of the tomato in South America by Spanish explorers, tomatoes weren’t even eaten in Italy! It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Italians utilized what is now viewed as a defining contributor to their native cuisine. The Americas also delivered vanilla and chocolate to the Netherlands and Spain, peanuts to China, and potatoes to Ireland, in addition to other contributions.

Native American Food It should be noted that our food roots were broadly influenced by the most authentic American chefs, Native Americans. Without their giving nature and patience, which allowed them to share crops, agricultural techniques, and hunting practices with the utterly unprepared settlers, our new nations would have died out within the first few years of arriving. Corn, or maize, was the foundation of the diet, along with beans, pumpkin, squash, and meat obtained from hunted animals. Region also played as great a role in North America as it did in the history of other great cuisines. In landlocked regions meat, like beef, and grains were staples. The populations near the coastlines and major waterways utilized fish like salmon, trout, lobster, crab, and clams.

By using what the new world provided for them, the settlers began shaping food as we know it in America. The young Americans were farmers and travelers, and meals had to be hearty to sustain them. What is now considered “rustic” or “country” style cooking is actually American cuisine in its most authentic form. Corn bread, turkey, stews of root vegetables and meat, bean soup, stewed tomatoes, maples syrup, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin-anything are definitively American. And while apple pie may not be wholly patriotic, Shoofly Pie (made with sweet molasses) is.

State-side Outside Influences Defining meals in America is almost impossible, as every home may house a different cultural and ethnic background with their own specific meal staples and dining guidelines. American cuisine has typically focused on large breakfasts (pancakes, eggs, toast, cereal, coffee, etc.), hurried lunches during the work week, and a large meal at suppertime. However, the cultural diversity spread across the country makes it difficult to make generalizations about the cuisine as a whole.

The immigrants of Europe, Africa, and Latin America definitively added to the styles and dishes represented in American Cuisine. The French and Spanish who settled in Louisiana were the catalyst for Creole cooking, providing us with Jambalaya and Gumbo, while the German population of Pennsylvania Dutch country added salt pork, candies, corn chowders and breads; in the nation’s southern central region, a dish called chili con carne eventually became a phenomenon. Perhaps most influential, however, was the African based cooking, or “soul food”, which has become as synonymous with the American south as BBQ. Even before slavery, and definitely throughout it, African Americans faced poverty and usually had only animal scraps and cheap produce with which to feed themselves, introducing dishes like chitterlings, or slow cooked or fried pig intestines, collard greens, fried chicken or catfish, fried okra, and black-eyed peas with ham hocks to the mix. American Cuisine only continues to refine itself as the nation grows older and chefs more ambitious. And while outside influences will always be essential to the identity of food in America, there are some things that will remain our own: head to Philly for cheese-steaks or the original Animal Crackers, Maine for crab cakes, New Jersey for salt water-taffy, and just about anywhere for ice cream sodas. And if you’re really hungry? Forgo the patriotism, and have a slice of warm apple pie.

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