Food, eating habits and cusine of The United StatesFood is at the very heart of every culture, and the United States is certainly no exception. Food gathers people together in times of happiness and grief, to laugh, to cry and share stories, and sustains us by providing the energy we need to carry on. If you think about it, food is not only a reflection of who we are, but also of where we have been. As a country formed and shaped by immigrants of various backgrounds, the cuisine of the United States bears a close resemblance to the history of its people.
As we begin to look more closely at American gastronomy, we must first determine a working definition of American fare. Naturally, the image that comes to mind is often that of the characteristic American meal: burgers, hot dogs, French fries and a shake. Or perhaps it is southern fried chicken with macaroni cheese. There is no doubt that these foods are all deeply American, and can usually be found throughout the country, but they do not entirely encapsulate or represent the ethnic and cultural diversity of the United States. The type of food regularly eaten by Americans is largely dependent on the particular region in which they live. In fact, if you were to ask a cross-section of Americans what constitutes American cuisine—people hailing from different regions across the United States—the responses you’d receive would no doubt be quite varied. One explanation for this, of course, is the availability (or non-availability) of certain foods in specific areas, but it also depends on the history of the region and the ethnic and cultural makeup of its people.
In the following article we will take a tour of America’s kitchens and restaurants with the goal of developing a true definition of American gastronomy, one based on the various regions of the country and the people who inhabit them. We will begin with the cuisine of New England, where this fairly young nation was first formed.
American Gastronomy: New England (Northeast)The New England region of the United States, comprised by the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine, is located in the country’s northeast corner. As one of the early English settlements, this area has a long and storied history of culture and cuisine. From the first pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, settlers in the New World began to adapt recipes from their homeland to the new ingredients found on the lands they settled, to create a uniquely American gastronomy. The wide variety and seemingly endless supply of natural resources found in the New England colonies greatly influenced the food and culture of the region, and the bonds between natives and colonists helped to fuse together the new and old world traditions to create the variety of splendid dishes found in New England today.
Thanksgiving, a U.S. holiday that revolves around a large feast, was first celebrated in New England in 1621, and while the natives and pilgrims did not share turkey and pumpkin pie at first, many of the dishes we consider traditional Thanksgiving fare are based on foods that originated in New England.
In terms of gastronomy, New England is perhaps best known for its seafood, dairy products and certain types of fruits and vegetables, particularly blueberries and cranberries. These ingredients have been mixed and matched to create many classic meals now considered American fare.
As a coastal region, New England is perhaps best known for its fresh seafood. The state of Maine, for example, located in America’s far northeast corner, is the country’s largest producer of lobster. This abundance has led to the creation of a variety of dishes, including the lobster roll. Found at lobster shacks throughout New England, the lobster roll is a type of lobster sandwich, served in a hot dog bun and often mixed with mayonnaise or butter.
Clams are also a specialty of the New England region and are prepared in a variety of tasty ways. One such dish is the New England clam bake, a medley of various types of seafood and vegetables, baked with seaweed in salt water over hot stones. Clam chowder is also a favorite in New England. Here the chowder is prepared as a cream-based soup, containing clams, seafood, and potatoes, traditionally served with crackers, bread or biscuits.
New England is also famous for its pancakes, locally known as Johnnycakes. These cornmeal griddle cakes were first introduced to the New England settlers by the indigenous Algonquian tribes, probably first in Rhode Island. Today they are commonly served in New England’s restaurants, usually as a side dish or for breakfast. Many people choose to top their Johnnycakes with butter and maple syrup, the latter of which is very plentiful in the region. That’s because the New England state of Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States, producing nearly 6 percent of the world’s total—nearly 1.2 million gallons last year alone.
Baked beans are another dish that originated in New England, a dish taught to the settlers of New England by the Native Americans. Baked beans are normally stewed navy beans, also known as haricot beans, sweetened with brown sugar and often flavored with bacon or ham.
The New England region, especially Vermont, is also known for its dairy and dairy products, particularly cheddar cheese and ice cream. Dairy farming comprises the majority of the region’s agricultural income, though in recent years the number of farms has been steadily declining. Vermont cheddar is well-known throughout the country for its high quality and unique look. Unlike most cheddar, which is orange in color, Vermont cheddar is white cheese, which is properly aged to give it a very sharp and pleasing taste. Ice cream, of all flavors, is also big in New England, and Vermont is home to the world famous Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, a company started n 1978 by two New England natives.
American Gastronomy: Mid-Atlantic RegionThe Mid-Atlantic region is made up of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. These coastal states share many of the same dishes found in the New England region. However, no recap on American gastronomy would be complete without mentioning some of the iconic American foods found in the states of New York and Pennsylvania.
New York Cuisine
New York is one of the largest cities in the world, the cultural capital of the United States and a world leader in entertainment and business. It is also home to some of the best food on the planet. From 1892 to 1954, New York was a popular entry point for immigrants, and even today the state, and particularly New York City, continues to reflect this multicultural diversity. In New York City one can find almost any type of world cuisine, from Italian to Chinese to Pakistani.
The quintessential American cuisine found in “The Big Apple” includes pizza, hot dogs and other street fare, as well as ethnic foods like Chinese and Jewish dishes. The ethnic and cultural diversity here has created a melting pot of food fusions that reflect the city’s history, people and lifestyle.
Like some other major cities in the U.S., New York has its own special brand of pizza. Here the pies are made very thin (thin crust pizza) and topped with mountains of creamy mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. The hand-tossed crust, made thick and fluffy at the edges but super thin at the center, is the signature of a New York pizza. Many pizzeria owners swear that the secret to the perfect New York style crust is all in the city’s water, which is used to make the dough. Nevertheless, it is not an uncommon sight in the city to see New Yorkers folding this special pizza in half (eating it like a sandwich) and thoroughly enjoying this profoundly American treat.
Hot dog stands and other street food carts are a regular sight in New York, enabling the busy people in this bustling metropolis to get something fast and delicious on the run. With almost no overhead, street vendors in New York can make a very handsome living, which is why you will find carts serving almost every type of food imaginable: hot dogs, bagels, gyros, burgers, fries, ice cream, etc.
The City is also home to a wide selection of multicultural cuisine, including Middle Eastern foods, like falafel and kebabs. Falafel is an Egyptian dish, made from ground chickpeas formed into a ball and then fried. These are often served in a pita with vegetables and hummus. Kebabs are a combination of meats and vegetables, served on a skewer after being grilled, fried or broiled. Other ethnic specialties include arepas, from Colombia; tamales from Mexico; and adaptations of several dishes from Brazil, Bangladesh, Germany and more.
Pennsylvania is another state renowned for its delicious and unique cuisine. As one of the earliest European settlements in the New World, the immigrants that settled here brought foods and traditions from their homelands, and have innovated and invented many specialties that reflect the modern, or in some cases the conservative, lifestyles of the people of Pennsylvania.
The people known today as the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated in the 19 century from Germany and Switzerland and settled in the south of the state. Among other cultural contributions, they brought with them a cuisine consisting of many delicious specialties, such as Chow-Chow, a medley of vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, beans, and peas, which are canned and served cold. Chicken and Beef Pot Pies, which are both very popular throughout the United States, originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. However, unlike the standard version of the dish, which is covered by pie crust, the “bot boi,” as this dish was once called, is a mixture of noodles and meat stew, served without the top crust.
If you had to pick one city in Pennsylvania that best reflects the gastronomy of the region it would have to be Philadelphia—home of the Philly Cheesesteak. This iconic sandwich is made up of thinly sliced steak served on a roll and smothered with melted cheese. Although the dish is truly American, it was invented by Italian immigrants to the United States, brothers Pat and Harry Oliveri. It was first created for their hot dog cart as a way to serve more variety, and the rest is history. Restaurants and snack shops throughout the state have the delicious Philly Cheesesteak on their menus, and people come from far and wide just to get a taste of this American classic.
Other foods enjoyed in the Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic region include Pennsylvania Pepper Pot, a stew of beef tripe and vegetables; giant soft pretzels; Philadelphia-style porter (beer); and Hires Root Beer, first introduced at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.
American Gastronomy: The Midwest RegionKnown as the heartland of America, the Midwest region is known for its hearty comfort food. Very few fancy dishes will be found here, and their absence can be seen as the product of a down-to-earth culture that revolves around family and community.
In the mid to late 1800s, immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia and other Eastern European countries such as Poland surged into the country and settled in America’s Plain states and around the Great Lakes. This strong wave of immigrants, trying desperately to assimilate in America, adopted many regional dishes already in place, and adapted them to their own tastes, fusing them with the tastes and traditions of their homelands.
Some of the popular dishes in the Midwest Region, many of which can be traced back to the early immigrants, include:
A region known for its large families, church get-togethers and pot-luck suppers, the Midwest’s food has been adapted over time to mesh with the lifestyles of the people. Casserole, also called “Hot Dish,” is a Midwestern staple and represents a noteworthy slice of the American culture. Casserole is an all-in-one meal, invented for its convenience and ability to quickly feed large groups of people. The ingredients in this dish vary, but a typical casserole would contain starchy foods, like potatoes, pasta or rice; meat (beef, chicken, tuna, etc.); vegetables; and a liquid, often a creamy soup, to bind the ingredients.
Loose Meat Sandwich
A close cousin of the Sloppy Joe—an American favorite—a loose meat sandwich consists of lean ground beef, cooked and crumbled, and served on a hamburger bun. The only difference between this Midwestern favorite and the Sloppy Joe is that with the latter, the meat is combined with ketchup or tomato sauce to somewhat bind the meat. Other names have been given to this sandwich over the years, including “loose hamburger,” “tavern,” and the brand name, Maid-Rite, an Iowa restaurant that first opened in 1926 and popularized these messy yet delicious sandwiches.
Also known as Cincinnati Chili, Skyline Chili is a favorite among the residents of the Midwest. This type of chili is made without beans, but it differs greatly from Texas Chili, largely due to its sweet seasonings, which often include cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and even chocolate. This scrumptious meal was first served up by Greek Chefs at a Cincinnati restaurant known as Empress, followed by the opening of Skyline Chile in 1949.
Last but not least is the pierogi, a true Midwestern favorite. Pierogies are dumplings, akin to pot stickers or ravioli, which are generally loaded up with ground meat, potatoes, cheese and sometimes sauerkraut. There are also dessert varieties of pierogies, filled with a variety of fruits. Once filled, the dumplings are boiled and then baked or fried to a golden brown, and usually served with butter and/or sour cream. Pierogies are so popular in the Midwest that some parts of the region closely identify these dumplings with their regional cultural identity, like Whiting, Indiana—a town that plays host to the annual Pierogi Fest.
American Gastronomy: The SouthThe home-style cooking of the American south is at the core of the American culture. From fried chicken and macaroni and cheese to cornbread and collard greens, America’s southern region is home to a variety of unique foods and flavors, and some of the most classic and traditional American meals. Hearty comfort food is at the center of Southern cuisine, and despite being considered a bit unhealthy, with many of the foods being fried, these dishes have become a significant piece of the South’s cultural identity.
At the heart of Southern cuisine is meat, particularly pork products, including country hams, sausage, pulled pork and bacon. Raising pigs is popular in the South, largely because it is inexpensive and easy. Also popular is chicken, served barbecued or fried. The regional seafood here includes such favorites as catfish and shellfish like crawfish and shrimp, which are found around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Some of the dishes popular in this proud U.S. region include:
Meat and Three
Most of the restaurants in the South serve a meal known as “Meat and Three,” consisting of at least one type of meat and three side dishes. These sides can range from mashed potatoes to collard greens to macaroni and cheese to fried okra. The meat options are many, including pulled pork, beef brisket, fried chicken and fried catfish. Added to the Meat and Three meal is often cornbread or biscuits, along with the quintessential Southern drink, sweet tea.
Originated in the region known as the Deep South, Soul Food is comprised of classic African American dishes, with roots dating back to the slave trade in Europe and North America. Many soul foods have been the result of combining African cuisine with available foods in America. Though many traditional soul food favorites arrived in America during the transatlantic slave trade, like okra, American slaves learned to make do with the foods they were given, which included discarded foods like greens (the tops of vegetables like turnips and beets), and seldom-eaten animal parts, including pigs’ feet, chitlins (pig intestines), tripe and ears. The New Year’s Day feast in the Deep South, consisting of chitlins, pigs’ feet and black-eyed peas, is said to bring luck and prosperity in the New Year.
The incorporation of indigenous animals and plants in Southern food, like corn, can be traced back to the settlers’ early contact with the Native Americans. Corn, in many forms, can be found in a variety of Southern dishes, including cornbread, hush puppies, hominy and grits. Grits are comprised of hominy, or ground corn, made into porridge. They can also be served as a side for supper, particularly when cheese is added to form cheese grits.
Popular desserts in the south, such as peach and berry cobblers and sweet potato pie, make use of the native fruits and vegetables of the region. In addition, Moon Pies—chocolate-dipped graham crackers stuffed with marshmallow cream filling, are very popular throughout the South. They were first made in Tennessee in 1917 as a portable snack for the coal miners, and are often served up with another southern specialty, RC Cola.
American Gastronomy: The SouthwestAs we move to the southwest, in states such as Texas, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, we begin to see a cuisine that was and continues to be highly influenced by Spanish, Mexican and Native American cultures. The result has been a delicious fare, with many similarities to Mexican food, only with a uniquely American twist.
Southwestern cuisine borrows from the early Spanish colonists who settled in the region and the Native American tribes, particularly the Navajo who shared the land. Native Americans cultivated chilies, corn, beans, tomatoes, avocados and squash, all of which are infused into the American Southwest cuisine of today. The Spanish added ingredients from their homeland, including cheese, lard and rice, and even more influences came later from the Mexican settlers and the cowboys of the south, further changing the cuisine we know today. Today, New Mexican cuisine is one of the more popular types of Southwest fare, followed by the cuisine of Arizona known as Sonoran. Some of the more popular Southwestern dishes include:
The American Southwest, particularly New Mexico, is renowned for its many chile dishes. In fact, one of the state symbols, or rather the official state question is “Red or Green?” This refers to the two main types of chiles cultivated in the state, with the difference being the point at which the chili is picked. Chiles not yet ripened, or green chiles, are used to make dished such as green chile stew, while ripened, or red chiles, make the hotter red chili stew. Both types are regularly stewed into sauce, and used in a variety of other ways. They are added to spice up Mexican dishes, such as burritos and enchiladas, and even to American-based foods like cheeseburgers, fries and even pizza.
A dish that originated in Mexico, Chilies Rellenos are very popular in Southwest cuisine. The dish consists of hatch green peppers or Anaheim peppers, stuffed with meat and cheese. The chiles are then coated with a batter of egg and flour and then fried, melting the cheese in the middle. Most Southwest restaurant offer this favorite on their menus, and usually serve it with a side of red or green chile sauce.
The cheese crisp is a favorite throughout the Southwest, especially in the state of Arizona. This tasty snack, which is very similar to a quesadilla, consists of a tortilla (usually flour, not corn) with cheese and butter sprinkled across the top, then placed in the oven until the cheese melts and the butter crisps the tortilla, making a crunchy appetizer. The major difference between cheese crisps and quesadillas is that the former are not folded over or covered like a quesadilla; they are served open-faced instead. Popular toppings for the cheese crisp include onions and cilantro and sometimes salsa or chile sauce.
American Gastronomy: The WestThe Western region of the United States includes California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and several other states. The cuisine in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska) is known for its seafood and its healthy, fresh local foods, including apples, stone fruits, berries and mushrooms. Some may argue that this region has no particular cuisine, and foods served in this region are typical of the United States as a whole. This may be somewhat true, due to the relative youth of the region, but there are many influences present in this Western cuisine, including those of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Italians and Greeks. Below we will outline a few of the popular dishes found in the Pacific Northwest, and wrap up our article with a separate section on California cuisine.
Seafood, caught fresh off the coast, plays a major role in the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Cold water varieties of seafood, such as Pacific salmon, King crab, halibut and cod are offered at most high-end restaurants in the area and are all found in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. King crab is especially popular in Alaska, where most of it is caught. These crabs are much larger than other varieties of crab, often reaching six feet in leg span and up to 20 pounds. Crabbing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, and its limited availability has made King crab popular throughout the Western region.
Pronounced “gooey duck,” geoduck is a strange-looking soft-shelled clam with a long neck that is found in the muddy waters of the Pacific Northwest. The clam can reach a maximum weight of 14 pounds over its potential 150-year lifespan. The dish is served throughout the Northwest region (and Japan). They can be cooked in a variety of ways: boiled, served as chowder, or as an ingredient in seviche or carpaccio.
Hunting is one of the more popular recreational pursuits in the Pacific Northwest, where there is no shortage of large game. Some of the animals hunted for food in the region include moose, caribou, elk, and bear, and while these types of dishes are much more common in Alaska than in the lower 48, many restaurants in states like Washington, Montana and Idaho include these specialties on their menu.
California is home to some of the richest farmland in the United States, and its cuisine is typified by fresh produce and other ingredients from the fertile Salinas Valley, known as America’s salad bowl. The north-central part of the state is also known for its acres upon acres of wine grapes, and California wines regularly rank among the best in the world.
California is a melting pot of many ethnicities and cultures, and over time the influences of these various groups have merged to create a number of dishes unique to the California region. Some of the more classic California fare includes:
In the San Francisco region of California, sourdough bread has been a staple of the cuisine since the Gold Rush of 1849. San Francisco’s sourdough bread is renowned for its intense sour flavoring and dense texture, and is difficult to reproduce anywhere else in the world. That’s because the starters for this bread can only thrive in the mixture of environments found in the San Francisco Bay Area.
California is one of the most health conscious states in America, and in the last decade sushi has become a very popular favorite among the state’s residents. The California roll is a fusion of American and Japanese influences. It consists of crab meat, avocado, cucumber, rice and seaweed. The roll has helped make sushi accessible to many people who were timid about trying sushi for the first time, wildly increasing the food’s popularity throughout the state and around the world.
Mexican food is very popular throughout California, particularly in the southern regions like San Diego. “Taco trucks” are a common sight on street corners, where patrons can order and enjoy a wide variety of Mexican-inspired dishes, including ground beef, carne asada and chicken tacos; meat and pork burritos, and tortas—a type of burrito sandwich served on a bun. Other favorites include enchiladas, tamales, quesadillas and chile rellenos.
Like the states in the Pacific Northwest, California is a coastal state and its cuisine relies heavily on fresh seafood from the Pacific. One of the dishes that make use of the wide variety of California sea life is cioppino. A dish that also originated in San Francisco, cioppino is a seafood medley stew. It was first created by Italian immigrants to the city; fisherman who arrived in the mid 20 century. It was once made using the leftovers from the daily catch, thrown into a pot to make a stew. Today there are many varieties of cioppino, using a number of different types of fish and other seafood. When using shellfish as part of the stew, it is typically served with the meat still in the shells, making for an even messier, yet very delicious California treat.