12/01/2010

30+ Uniquely American Foods


It seems a very great hypocracy that the same countries that denegrate us for our food are often the ones that have lines stretching out the doors of the local McDonalds.  I think it's time to look at U.S. food realistically.  Sure, it's often appallingly unhealthy, but is it more unhealthy than Germany's staple, the ubiquitous wurst, or England's staple, fried fish?  I think it's time for Americans to stop being ashamed of our cuisine and to proudly celebrate its meaty, greasy, creamy greatness.

Following is my list of foods that, to me, represent signature U.S. food.  Some of these dishes, I realize, are not technically indiginous, but though they may have sprung in other soil, it is in the U.S. that they have taken firm root and flourished.

Let me know if I've missed any of your favorites!   

  1. Barbeque.  Okay, so the art of preserving meat by adding vinegar or salt and/or smoking is ancient ... but it was here in the US that we figured out how to use slow cooking and molasses to turn what was basically dried meat jerky into a succulent, juicy, "fall off the bones" treat.
  2. Hamburger.  Do we eat so many hamburgers because we raise so many cows, or do we raise so many cows because we eat so many hamburgers?
  3. Fried Chicken.  Just like us Americans to take a healthy food and figure out how to make it more fattening.
  4. Chicken Wings.  Another American gift: figuring out a way to rebrand something no one wants to make it desirable. 
  5. Meatloaf.  For folks who really want a hamburger but can't afford the bun.
  6. Turkey.  One of the best reasons to be an American: Thanksgiving.
  7. Corn.  Indiginous to North and South America, the U.S. has made corn "ours" by virtue of grits, succotash, cornbread, johnnycakes, popcorn, and corn on the cob dripping with butter. 
  8. Peanuts/Peanut Butter.  It isn't a ballgame without peanuts, and it isn't a bag lunch with a peanut butter & jelly sandwich.  Second greatest food pairing of all times (after PB&J): PB and chocolate. 
  9. Pecans.  Pecans are another sweetmeat indiginous to the U.S.  God bless whoever figured out how to transform them into praline candy and pecan pie.
  10. Ice Cream.  Give me a good old fashioned scoop of vanilla over gelato any day.  Other American contributions to the world (you can thank us later): ice cream cones, milk shakes, and root beer floats.
  11. American Pizza.  We all know pizza is Italian, but much like how reindeer evolved to elk when they hit North America, what we call pizza here is far removed from its ancestral origin.  (Food Darwinism - cool!)  So bring on the deep dish crust, smothered in tomato sauce, topped with pounds of cheese, and smelling faintly of steamed cardboard!
  12. Soul Food.  The origin of soul food is slavery, which is makes this cuisine uniquely, though disturbingly, American.  Slaves and other indigent people in the South found ways to turn neglected crops - like black eyed peas, kale, and collard greens - with the neglected bits of butchered animals - chitlins, ham hocks, etc. - to create food that tastes a lot better than it sounds.
  13. Breads.  Of course we didn't invent bread.  But we did invent pancakes for breakfast, hushpuppies, and bisquits drenched in sausage gravy.
  14. Jello.  Other countries have geletin, but we're the ones that figured out how to turn it all colors of the rainbow, suspend foreign objects in it, and mold it into mysterious shapes. 
  15. Potatoes.  Given the number of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to Germany or Ireland, no wonder the U.S. has a love affair with potatoes. Our lasting contributions to the potato genre: french fries, potato chips, and potato skins.
  16. Pies & Cobblers.  We didn't invent pie, but I would argue we've have done more than any other country to expand the pie and cobbler art form to embrace not only timeless classics like apple pie, but also indiginous favorites to include huckleberry, blueberry, and pecan pie.
  17. Macaroni & Cheese.  The ultimate comfort food, although most Europeans are still trying to figure out why American cheese is orange.
  18. Bagels.  Many thanks to our Jewish neighbors in New York for this American classic!
  19. Casseroles (aka "hot dishes" aka "covered dishes").  I'm not talking about Julia Child's casoulets - I'm talking about good ol' American casseroles, the ones that use condensed soup as a base and are inevitably covered with cheese.   Undoubtedly there's a reason no other country is clammoring to claim this unique but dubious American classic.
  20. Cookies.  Especially chocolate chip cookies.  Ours our nothing like what they call "bicuits" in other countries, thank goodness.
  21. Creole Food.  Another food arising from America's polyglut past, creole food blends traditions from the Caribbean, French cuisine and Southern cooking to give birth to uniquely American dishes such as jambalaya, gumbo, and etouffe. 
  22. Condiments.  The world has us to thank (or not) for mayonaisse, catsup, and maple syrup. 
  23. Soda/Pop.  Thank you, Coca Cola, for Santa Claus!  And thanks also for that 70s anthem "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," Super Big Gulps, and our current epidemic of overweight teens.  Root beer is particularly American: I have a European friend who adores root beer and says you can't get it anywhere else.
  24. Iced Tea.  I have it on good authority that many Europeans find absolutely appalling our habit of adding ice to perfect good tea.  I'm betting they live in places where temperatures  don't reach 100 degrees during the summer.
  25. Sandwiches.  Lots of countries lay claim to having invented the sandwich, but Americans have brought more inventiveness to the task than most.  Case in point: hoagies/dagwoods/subs, philly cheesesteak, reubens, and muffulettas.
  26. Hot Dogs.  I'm sure American hot dogs can trace their ancestory to English sausage or German wurst, but our version - plopped in a bun and topped with condiments - is uniquely American.
  27. Chili.  Okay, so we stole the spices and tomato base from Mexico, but it was our idea to add weird stuff like buffalo, pasta, and cinnamon. 
  28. Salads.  America's penchant for eating raw vegetables is looked at with askance by many folks from around the world, as well as most toddlers.  However, we have found ways to make raw veggies more palatable by burying them beneath dressing (see Condiments-Mayonaisse), meat & cheese (cobb salad), fruit (waldorf salad) and fish paste (caesar salad) 
  29. Cheese-Based Snack Foods.  I wince at having to claim this as a uniquely American food, but there's a reason so much of the rest of the world holds us in disdain, and I suspect this may have something to do with it.

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