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American food - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
American food
I went to see PotC2 today. Liked it. Will review more in depth later.

On the way home, I stopped at a pub for a beer and had some beef stew, and remembered once when living with an immigrant roommate (Vietnamese), I'd made beef stew and she thought it was the most exotic thing... she asked if I could just make it all the time, because it was so delicious, and she'd never thought of making such a thing. Given that she'd been urging me to try the birds' nests her mother brought for her, because they were healthy and she couldn't imagine why I didn't eat them, it was something of an eye-opener about cultural perspectives.

So I got to thinking about American cuisine. I have a cookbook called The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American,, but honestly--with the notable exception of chicken and dumplings--while the recipes are often delicious, they're no more typical of the American table I actually know than the recipes in his other book on American food, The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors. (And most were considerably less familiar than the Irish Boiled Dinner recipe, which is more or less a pot roast.) I know it's very tempting to say, "Oh, Americans don't have a cuisine of their own!" or, conversely, to trot out the weird pumpkin and cranberry recipes that the Frug found, but I've been trying to think of things that are actually common here... the sorts of things that grocery stores would have in stock anywhere, that people make rather than ordering out, and don't think anything of. I'd be interested in hearing whether other Americans think of the things I'll mention as common things, and where they came from (I expect a rather high crossover with English, Irish, and German cooking). I'll leave out things like pizza and corn dogs, which, though dirt common, aren't generally prepared in the consumer's kitchen.

There's never going to be a recipe book for everyday American meals, because even the unfamiliar would be able to figure out what's in them. Cooking them well is more a question of technique than ingredients. Your basic American home made dinner is a piece of meat (usually broiled or roasted), steamed or boiled vegetables, and potatoes or rice. Sometimes pasta. Season to taste with just about anything, but usually just salt and pepper. There are other very common things, but generally, thinking of dinner means thinking of something along this line. Beef is probably the most common meat (the beef industry's slogan for years was, "Beef--it's what's for dinner"), with chicken a close second, and pork third. Lamb isn't as common, but it's not unheard of, though mutton is, for some reason, quite exotic. (I've never understood that; I've also never had mutton.) Fish is also quite common as a meat substitute, and many families with Catholic ancestry still eat it on Fridays, despite Vatican II. (We joke that my grandmother gets caught in a lie about saying that her Irish grandmother was born Protestant--the rest of her family turned Catholic, you know, after she was married--because despite the family being Protestant, we habitually had fish on Fridays, and it came from Grandma Kelly.) Our ancestors ate more giblets (innards) than we do now, except as invisible parts of sausages.

Among the things that are more "mixed up" than simple meat-veggie-potato combos, I think the most common thing is tuna casserole. Every housekeeper has his or her own recepe for it, I think. Some are very yummy; some are dreadful. The same is true of meatloaf. I'm back and forth on whether or not to include spaghetti and meatballs here, but I guess enough people make the sauce from scratch to count. There's the as-far-as-I-know-unnamed "hamburger helper" kind of meal, which is ground beef thrown into a frying pan with noodles or rice and veggies, then simmered with some kind of sauce, usually just thrown together from whatever's in the fridge. And there will be local favorites--Western New Yorkers tend to eat white hots or polska kielbasa a lot, but I don't see much of either here. (Wings and beef-on-weck are common snacks, but rarely made at home.) Beef stew, as I mentioned, is very common, and chicken-with-dumplings (which is just chicken stew, of course).

Breakfast... when not a wolfed down energy bar, breakfast can be pretty hefty. My aunt specializes in eggs and potatoes with onions. Sausage and bacon usually round it out. Waffle irons aren't uncommon, and pancakes are frequent weekend breakfasts. (My cousin made really yummy ones with blueberries and walnuts while we were visiting.) Both usually go with maple syrup, preference for real, but fake is cheaper and therefore more common.

Hmm. No wonder we're a bit on the large side. We still eat like farmers.

On special occasions, the menu tends to vary more. It's when special family recipes tend to be made, and therefore all of our immigrant ancestors come out to play, and different families will often have radically different traditonal foods, without which holidays aren't "right." Any family "secret recipes" tend to be made at holidays. (Do other countries have this tradition? The basic gist is that there are recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. Some are pretty simple--my great-grandmother had a jello mold recipe that has quite unfortunately been named Grandma Great Mold--and some are complex. My aunt has promised to teach me a kuchen recipe from my other great-grandmother which she will not post even on our locked family site, because it can only go to people in direct descent from Great Grandma W, who used to bake it for a German bakery in Buffalo.) Local picnic favorites tend to top the list on summer holidays, like the Fourth.

For other holidays, the big food item is roast turkey, to a point where all an advertiser has to do to establish a holiday gathering in one shot is to show a roast turkey on the table. Homemade pies are also pretty common--pumpkin pie, fruit pies of various sorts--with homemade whipped cream on top of them. For some reason, sweet potatoes tend to make lots of holiday appearances, though mashed potatoes still rule the starch part of the table. Veggies might be anything; I honestly can't think of one that's demanded, though it's traditional to have two varieties on the table at Thanksgiving. Glazed ham is also a common holiday dinner.

Non-holiday special occasions--meeting the in-laws for the first time, etc--tend to be occasions for roasts.


Does this sound like actual familiar American cuisine to other Americans? And folks from elsewhere... does it sound like traditional fare from places we've come from that we've just forgotten about?
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duncatra From: duncatra Date: July 9th, 2006 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think I've ever had a tuna casserole in my life... Or a casserole, period, unless you count the kugel my aunt forces upon us at Hanukkah.

And hey, what about barbeque and chili? I know we're not the first (well, maybe for chili, if I'm recalling that episode of 'Good Eats' correctly) but they're pretty classic.
endofhistory From: endofhistory Date: July 9th, 2006 02:56 am (UTC) (Link)
We have green bean cassorole a lot on holidays and I know quite a few people around here also have it, but that could be a general Midwest thing.

It sounds like normal American cuisine that I know of.
affabletoaster From: affabletoaster Date: July 9th, 2006 03:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Green been casserole and broccoli with cheese casserole. Sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. Corn. Corn on the cob... (though not at holidays)
From: kristinholt Date: July 9th, 2006 02:59 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm Southern. Texan. With lots of Cajun/Country added for spice.

Don't get me going on foods, because what's normal for my family will probably be exotic and odd to just about everyone else.


I knew how to make a roux from scratch long before I was allowed to ride my bike to school.
austenrowling From: austenrowling Date: July 9th, 2006 03:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I've been nodding my head the whole time reading this. Most of the foods you mentioned are served regularly in our house (some more than others).

Special occassions in my family always include ham (unless its Thanksgiving), and since we're Polish, keilbasa, usually served with saurkraut (Grandma's dad was German).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 9th, 2006 04:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Mmm... kielbasa with saurkraut...

Uh, sorry. Distracted. :)
coffee_n_cocoa From: coffee_n_cocoa Date: July 9th, 2006 03:27 am (UTC) (Link)
This country is so large that it would almost be easier to break things down by region!

The only thing I can think of that could be uniquely American is cornbread of some kind. Whether it's cornbread, corncake, cornpone, corn dodgers etc, I think it's safe to say that every part of the country has a recipe featuring a cornmeal batter of some sort. Pumpkins and other squashes are also native to the Americas.

There's the four main schools of barbecue, all of whom claim theirs is the best: Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City styles. Being from the KC area, I'm obviously biased as to what I like best. You haven't lived until you've had burnt ends swimming in sauce!

There's Southern soul food, Tex-Mex, others. I'd say there is such a thing as American cuisine, but it's much like French cooking, where what's commonly eaten in Calais isn't necessarily the same as what's found on the Mediterranean coast.

And I'm rambling, so I'll stop. ;)
miss_daizy From: miss_daizy Date: July 9th, 2006 03:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Oddly enough, cornbread is about the only food mentioned that I've never had anywhere near home (Philly)!

But the Amish are nearby and I'm pretty sure cornbread is part of their diet.
threnody From: threnody Date: July 9th, 2006 03:30 am (UTC) (Link)
What you said sounds about right from what I understand. We don't do mainstream American, it's always been heavy on the German foods because my dad's from that crazy German-speaking minority bit of Belgium. We also lean very heavily on Indian and Middle Eastern foods (though it's all preference and not background), which I believe is decidedly weird for the US unless you're from one of those areas. In our city of 50K+ people (plus at least that many on the base) there's not a single Indian or Middle Eastern restaurant, and we often have to get our ingredients in Ottawa (north) or Syracuse (south) because they're not available.

Holidays, though, that's where my (American) mother takes over. Poultry (turkey, chicken, cornish hens- whatever's handy) at Thanksgiving, ham (with pineapple and cherries) at Christmas and Easter, pork with sauerkraut and apples at New Year's. The things that really make a holiday meal in our house are gherkins and stuffed olives. Go figure.
miss_daizy From: miss_daizy Date: July 9th, 2006 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Are crab cakes American? I think they might be. Again, regions play into this ~ seafood is very American to me, but I'm close to a coast and Catholic. (Also, I make a kick-ass tune casserole).

My husband is Italian-American and I'm Irish-American and we have very different ideas of what makes up a regular weekly diet.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 9th, 2006 04:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Ha! I'll bet. Yeah, there are definite differences by group. I'm just looking for the kind of "default" stuff that's out there. Personally, I've always considered myself lucky to live in Italian neighborhoods, though I'm not at all Italian (I think Bavaria is the furthers southeast we ever got in Europe). Lotsa good stuff to eat. Then again, I like Irish food, too. I'm not very Irish, but it's a straight matrilineal line, so it probably has a disproportionate effect on our cooking.

Well, seafood's a little rarer in the desert, and shellfish are definitely more common at the coasts, but there are so many rivers and lakes that I doubt fish in general are exotic anywhere.
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: July 9th, 2006 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
what about shepherd's pie? We made it with beef, but....
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: July 9th, 2006 03:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, and holidays:

Thanksgiving = turkey
Christmas = goose
Easter = ham

And leftovers. Are leftovers and doggie bags "American" cuisine?

What about hamburgers and hotdogs? People grill those at home a lot...
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: July 9th, 2006 03:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Pizza, the really greasy kind that can soak through two napkins, is an essentially American food. I've lived in America for ten years and I still don't like it much.

Chinese takeout, on the other hand...

Besides that, your description sounds pretty much like normal American cuisine. The thing you say about Americans still eating like farmers is interesting from an anthropologist's point of view. Though I don't think that's the main explanation for American obesity. After all, even in colonial times, not everyone was a farmer.
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: July 9th, 2006 03:40 am (UTC) (Link)
No, American obesity can be traced to two things:

1) the overwhelming presence of sugar (in the form of corn syrup) in our foods
2) American portion sizes
sreya From: sreya Date: July 9th, 2006 03:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Sounds pretty good to me, and I'll still assert that casseroles are a very American dish, since I can't think of anywhere in the world that does them like we do. Might be a couple English dishes that come close, but we've got such a huge variety of them.

Also I'll assert that just about any recipes that were created with the microwave in mind would be pretty darned American. That's a kitchen tool I've never seen get anywhere near as much use in other parts of the world (though I won't be exactly shocked if an Australian argues with me on that, since I have no experience whatsoever with Australian cooking!)

Does anyone know where hamburger originated? (Not the meat between the bun hamburger, but the specific style of processing beef)
From: hesterlester Date: July 9th, 2006 07:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm from Sydney, Australia, and while most homes have a microwave, it is essentially a warming coffee/defrosting instrument - most people wouldn't use it to cook from scratch.
We have a similar derivative cuisine, (with a few indigenous ingredients). My quintessential American experience was when an American friend in Australia served a main course which included jelly (I think you'd call it jello) with marshmallows as a side dish - we have nothing that would equate with that.
affabletoaster From: affabletoaster Date: July 9th, 2006 04:04 am (UTC) (Link)
Speaking as an Eastern Canadian living in Iowa...what on earth is "beef-on-weck"?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 9th, 2006 04:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Tee-hee. Pure Buffalo yummy-ness that never migrated. Here's the Wiki on it.
crazy_catlady From: crazy_catlady Date: July 9th, 2006 05:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I've never had tuna casserole in my life. Not really a lot of casseroles at all, to be honest. Special occasions? Depends on what occasion and which side of my family we're celebrating with. My dad's side likes big pasta dishes with a lot of sauce, beef, and cheese(yum!)for almost any occasion, whereas my mom's side is usually the "pilgrimy" style food people(Turkey & stuffing, Ham, Pies, etc). Pasta seems really American to me. I know pasta didn't come from here, but we adapted recipies from Italy to make them our own.
keestone From: keestone Date: July 9th, 2006 05:46 am (UTC) (Link)
For another region (California), two of the very common here that everybody eats and most people make are Breakfast Burritos (usually scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, salsa, guacamole, and sometimes potatoes wrapped in a tortilla), ansd Smoothies. I'd say Nachos and Carne Asada fries are probably uniquely American in the same way.

jadeddiva From: jadeddiva Date: July 9th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd say that's accurate - my family doesn't make tuna casserole, but we have a damn good meatloaf recipe. And regional foods...sweet tea, biscuits, Southern cooking...mmm.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: July 9th, 2006 06:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Lamb isn't as common, but it's not unheard of, though mutton is, for some reason, quite exotic. (I've never understood that; I've also never had mutton.)

I guess it's because lamb is milder in taste than mutton, and also more tender. As a kid, i.e. before I became vegetarian and still ate the family home cooking, I had lamb quite often, but my mom almost never made anything with mutton. (In my family we also had these day trips outside the city to watch the newly born lambs from the sheep tending to the dikes when it was lamb season, which incidentally was also the best time to eat the very young and tender ones still suckling. Way to go to give your dinner a face. :/)

I think for a similar reason we had rabbit far more often than hare, because rabbit is blander, whereas hare tastes a bit more like venison (of course rabbit is also much cheaper here than hare).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 9th, 2006 06:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Huh, I never had rabbit. It definitely wasn't in the stores around me. Venison, I used to have pretty frequently; deer hunting was big. I didn't do it myself, but there was always someone I knew, or my mother knew, who'd gotten a deer.
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