What is American Cuisine?

Ponder this question for a moment. What exactly is American food? If someone asked you how would you answer?

There are some pretty obvious answers, but rather than a unifying theory of food, you’d probably just answer with individual examples. Those examples aren’t going to be totally correct either. Pizza? Nope, that’s Italian. A hot dog? Sorry German. A really great steak dinner? Sorry, but you’ve got France to thank for that one. Maybe, the hamburger? Actually it is also derived from German cuisine. Apple pie? They’ve been making pies in Europe since the dawn of time. And while turkey might be American, the roasting of birds also has a long and proud tradition in Europe.

The only thing you can call “American Cuisine” and be accurate, is barbecue, Pure and simple. Within barbecue there are many regional permutations which resemble the same differences that you find within cuisines all over the world.

The rest of the cuisine is made up of various derivations and bastardizations of the other cuisines of the world. Several factors contributed to this. We lack some of the same ingredients in both character and quantity. Large immigrant populations who brought traditional cuisines to our shores were forced to adapt to different resources. Many of those groups began to interact and their cuisines fused together. Still other traditions were simply lost to history with the passing of generations.

So I guess the answer to the question is the same one we can use when asked what is America?

A melting pot. The ultimate in fusion cooking. I would love to see Outback put “a fusion restaurant” sign out front but I sense that might lead to confusion.

So what connects the McDonald’s hamburger, a steak from Peter Luger’s, Chinese takeout from Panda Express, a burrito from Taco Bell, Domino’s pizza and a Bloomin onion? Aside from sodium, Rachael may have put it best when she said that “I know it when I see it.” That would put American cuisine on the same level as obscenity at least according to the Supreme Court. There are certain foodies who wouldn’t argue with that comparison.

At its most cynical, American cuisine might best be represented by the shopping mall food court. Another way to look at it is that American cuisine is a “new” type of peasant food, since many of the foods that we consider delicacies, used to be the ingredients that were thrown out, or eaten by the very poor. Specifically, ingredients like: veal, lobster, many of our best cuts of steak and portions of BBQ. (Jesse might dispute the inclusion of lobster, but that’s because he grew up in Maine where apparently lobsters roam like herds of wildebeest.)

The best example might be the Buffalo wing, the parts of which used to be reserved for scraps or just for making stock, but which are now so popular there was actually discussion of a chicken wing shortage for the Superbowl. This type of evolution is not uncommon and is very apparent in situations like real estate. In New York City, for example, a section of the west side that was so bad it garnered the name “Hell’s Kitchen” is now one of the more sought after locations on the island, and boasts a great deal of the city’s best restaurants (including “restaurant row” along 48th street).

This diversity and culinary evolution makes pinning down a central theme even more difficult. The best we can do is to say that there is a hearty almost comfort food-like quality that is woven into American cuisine. American food is heavy and filling with stronger similarities to the cuisines of England and Germany than a place like Thailand. Since the beginning of our history we’ve embraced the potato and wheat farming. Our conquest of the western portion of the country was driven (literally) by cattle and our hunting of the buffalo, an indigenous protein source, to the very brink of extinction.

When it comes to food, there's nothing more American than Barbacue.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) the US is the largest producer of soybeans in the world, but much of that goes to exports, and outside of niche diets, soy is not a major part of the average American diet. We’re the leading producer of nearly every kind of indigenous protein you can think of and of corn. Yet most of the corn we produce goes to feeding the animals we are raising.

We are a meat and potatoes nation, almost by definition. Regardless of the regional differences that same thread of hearty substantial food prevails. More indicative are the examples of popular world cuisines and the analogs we have created in America. Italian food in America is characterized by large plates of pasta slathered in rich red sauce often times accompanied by meatballs or sausage. In actuality this encompasses only a portion of actual Italian cuisine. Chinese takeout is riddled with grease and fried meats served atop fried rice that is drenched in liquid sodium. It has only a passing resemblance to a great deal of actual Chinese cuisine, which is light, relies heavily on seafood and has a greater balance of vegetables.

What do these examples show? Patrick remarks that just like how France embraces the trinity of celery, carrots and onions as a basis for much of their cooking, America embraces the trinity of fat, salt and sugar and that those cuisines which create versions of themselves to reflect that are ultimately what we embrace.

So how are we going to evolve from here? Where does American cuisine go in the next 20 years? What will we introduce to the melting pot and what will fall by the wayside? In an ever shrinking world will our hodgepodge cuisine continue to wrangle the best the world has to offer and bend those dishes to suit our own predilections, or will we embrace all the world has to offer and assimilate into the global food conversation?

If this discussion has revealed anything, it is that while our culinary roots may have been written, America is in an unique position. Because of the melting pot of inputs our cuisine can evolve and change easier. We do not have hundreds of years of relative isolation from the rest of the world holding our cuisine in place. It continues to evolve, just as our tastes have. The hearty and comforting “soul” that embodies many of our most popular foods will probably never be replaced. But at its very best American cuisine is where the world comes to cook and it is here where we can keep the term fusion cooking from becoming another “f-word”.

(photos from Mcdonalds.com and thebitesizedblog.com)