Do you sometimes crave Italian food? How about Mexican food? Or Chinese food?
Are there times when you want American food? What do you think of when you hear the words “American cuisine”? Apple pie? Hot dogs? Hamburgers? Pizza?
Just what is American food? Let's explore American cuisine!
If you go all the way back to the early civilizations in North America, you’ll find the original American cuisine was part of everyday life for the Native Americans.
Depending on the environment where they lived, the Native American foods consisted of vegetables, grains, fruit and nuts, and wild game, all available within a few days of home.
Some groups living on the coast or shores of large lakes enjoyed fish and other seafood, while others lived in desert biomes and weren’t familiar with creatures that swim.
So, American cuisine in the beginning was dependent on what grew or lived in the area.
Then, when immigrants began arriving on the shores of what was to become America, they brought their food traditions over the ocean or across the land with them.
People who came to America from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea brought their recipes using tomatoes, herbs, pasta, and seafood.
Asians who came across the Pacific Ocean to California and other western states brought their distinctive dishes.
Latin immigrants from Mexico and other South American countries brought spicy ingredients to create a Tex-Mex flavor.
And other European cultures introduced pies, sausages, and other food forms that have taken on an American flair.
Every culture that traveled to America introduced their homeland foods and cooking methods to the areas they lived, and in turn were influenced by the Native Americans and other cultures already living there.
America really is a melting pot of cuisine!
And even though you can find specific cuisine from specific areas around the world in nearly every corner of the nation, America lends its own flavor and style to each one.
But isn’t apple pie American?
Western Europeans enjoyed cooking meats, fruits, and vegetables inside pastry as far back as Roman times. This is the path our beloved American apple pie took.
But even the apple isn’t American in itself. Other than tiny, sour fruits like the crabapple, America didn’t have a sweet, juicy apple until the Puritans brought over seeds.
And since apples could be harvested and stored over the winter, unlike the wild berries that grew all around, it makes sense the apple pie became popular in America just like it had been in Europe.
It wasn’t until 1902 that an article in the New York Times described pie, no matter what the filling, as a symbol of American prosperity. Eventually the apple pie became that symbol for all.
Other pie fillings can define a region such as pumpkin pie in the north, pecan pie in the south, and Key lime pie in Florida.
Aren’t hot dogs uniquely American?
Nope. German immigrants brought over their sausage-making skills when they came to America. Many of these newcomers originated in the Palatine region of Germany, which is an area around Frankfurt. Some of the sausages were called frankfurters, although they didn’t really begin in that city.
These pork-and-beef or all-beef sausages were very popular among the working classes since they were portable and easy to have for lunch or on the go while traveling.
Many vendors set up carts on the streets of cities to sell what they called “dachshund sausages”. This may have been the origin of the term “hot dog”.
One vendor, named Charles Feltman, set up a cart on Coney Island. He even developed a long piece of bread that made the sausage easy to carry. This was the origin of the hot dog bun.
So even though sausages are primarily of German origin, the Coney Island hot dog is a distinctly American food. Once hot dogs began to be sold at baseball games, the traditional pairing of the food and the sport was born.
Just like pies, different hot dog recipes identify the region where they originated such as New York, Chicago, or the Carolinas.
Okay, so the hamburger has to be American, right?
Well, kind of.
Early hamburgers were patties made from minced meat, vegetables, and breadcrumbs. One recipe came from Hamburg, Germany, via the Russians, hence the name.
In the late 1870s the “Hamburg steak” was offered in fancy restaurants in the US. A decade later, a couple of restaurants put the steak between two slices of bread to create a hamburger, which is certainly an American invention.
Hamburger stands popped up all around the country at state and national fairs. Pretty soon, someone added cheese, and the rest is history.
Pizza isn’t exactly American, but…
Pizza has been served since Roman times and probably began as a piece of flat bread called focaccia topped with random meats and veggies.
Then this Italian staple made its way across the ocean with the immigrants who arrived in America in the 19th century.
But just like other imported foods, America put its own spin on the pizza. Early pizzerias catered mainly to Italians, but when soldiers came home from World War II, they were familiar with the Italian cuisine and began to enjoy pizza with their families.
Different regions of the US offer distinctly different styles of pizza, from the New York thin crust pizza to Chicago’s deep-dish pizza to strange and interesting toppings in every state.
One thing all these foods have in common is an origin outside of the Native American local foods and an influence from the settlers who made America the melting pot of culture and cuisine it is today.