Ask ten people to define American food and you will probably get ten different definitions. Finding a universal answer to the question “What is American food” has proven puzzling and nearly impossible for many. In a country as vast as the United States, many regions have formed distinct cooking traditions, such as the South’s love of barbeque or the Midwest’s enthusiasm for casserole. These clustered eating habits make nailing down a definition to satisfy all Americans from coast to coast incredibly complicated. In addition to regional variety in flavor, other factors such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status further complicate the search for a coherent approach to American cooking.
To better understand how to construct a definition that captures the essence of American cuisine, I interviewed a close friend and food enthusiast, Cari Bonilla. Cari hails from Houston, Texas, the most diverse city in the country. She has been surrounded by flavors from other parts of the world her whole life. The daughter of immigrants, her relationship with food has been particularly informed by her mother’s Colombian heritage. Her perspective not only offered insight into what flavors and dishes she considers uniquely American, but also the differences in American’s relationships with food compared to her parents’. My interview with Cari revealed how the way Americans think about food is even more telling than the flavors they consistently prepare. American food is best exemplified by two distinct branches of cuisine: one that utilizes innovation and a fusion of cultures and one that rests on bland, simple flavors as well as food processing; however, the way Americans prioritize convenience in their interactions with these types food makes them uniquely and unequivocally “American”.
The first facet of America’s culinary identity stems from the notion of America as a “melting pot”, particularly in the “New American” food movement as it pertains to the restaurant industry. When I first asked Cari to try to define American food, she described the New American food movement, which demonstrates the strong link between the two. This type of food takes from different cultures and kinds of foods from all over the world, fusing them together in often unexpected ways. In addition to just being representative of America as a country of immigrants who have been able to incorporate themselves culturally, the way chefs often innovate with methods of cooking also relates to the New American style. A powerful example of New American dishes Cari provided came from a New American restaurant in Houston she worked as a waitress in two summers ago. She recalled “Baja tacos with barbeque sauce” and “wok fried French fries”, two of the most popular dishes on the menu. Both of these took an element from Mexico and Southeast Asia, respectively, and “Americanized” it by fusing it with other cultures’ flavors, exemplifying the New American tradition.
America’s history as a colonizing force also relates to this facet of American cuisine. The New American movement embodies the unattractive American tradition of what Cari powerfully described as “taking from other people and shaping it in our own way without some regard for the original significance.” This comprises the next distinguishing aspect of American food, removing foreign dishes from their cultural context and making them into something else. “Things like General Tso’s chicken or most Mexican restaurants in the U.S. are not representative of real Chinese or Mexican food”, Cari said, “so those would actually be American foods to me”. Sarah Lohman would agree with this sentiment. Her book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, demonstrates how a nation of immigrants have influenced national cuisine with flavors from all over the world. For example, she explains how Mexican flavors were brought to America when soldiers invaded Texas in the 19th century. Over time, this has evolved into the “Tex Mex” dishes of nachos, hard tacos, and fajitas that most Americans think of as representative of traditional Mexican food, even though that is not the case. American cuisine has a history of taking from flavors brought by immigrants and transforming it into something distinctly American, and this tradition continues today as epitomized in the style of “New American” cooking.
While American cuisine is known for blending and transforming complex flavors from different countries, they are also known for toning these intense flavors down for a much more bland, simple style of cooking as demonstrated by other typical American fare such as comfort food and processed snacks. Even though Cari’s first instinct when defining American food was to mention the influence of other cultures, when asked to choose the most American meal she could think of, she described “a double cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate milkshake”, calling attention to the other set of flavors in American food. The cheeseburger meal she cited gets at the second subset of American cuisine: bland, simple flavors. Using comparison with other cultures helps isolate what makes this kind of food so American. Cari explained how compared to the very deep and complex flavors you see in Southeast Asian and Latin American cuisine, hallmark American foods such as mac and cheese, the hamburger, tater tots, apple pie and meatloaf do not often have more than one or two dominant tastes, namely, salty, fatty, or sweet. Paul Freedman in his book, Ten Restaurants that Changed America describes how American palates have often been formed by “convenience, uniformity, and blandness”, something he attributes to the way Americans have attempted to profit from eating and therefore produced foods that appeal to a wide range of people.
These three characteristics also could be applied to American’s snacks and grocery store items, a distinct category within the blander side of American cuisine. Foods such as “potato chips, goldfish and gushers”, three products Cari described as American, can all be found in virtually any grocery store in America. Each of these snacks exemplify the concepts of convenience and uniformity Freedman identifies as distinctly American, and also suggest the Americanness of highly processed foods. Thinking of the way American food is considered in other countries points to the American concept of processing foods and making them easy to consume. The list of top selling items at an American food store in London, England contains Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle soup, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup in chicken flavor. Each of these items can be hot and ready to eat in approximately 20 minutes, consist of highly processed ingredients, and have been removed from any cultural tradition in their packaging and branding, making them some of the most American foods around.
Given the American culinary traditions of multiculturalism and mass production that tends to remove ethnic identity from the food itself, identifying a collective of dishes or flavors that would be considered indisputably American by all Americans would be impossible because there is so much variety. However, examining the way Americans interact with their food reveals the unifying element of American cuisine: convenience. This notion of convenience acts as the bridge between the inventively multicultural and blandly processed ends of American food spectrum.
The way Americans consider food preparation and meal time separates American cuisine from other cultures’. Cari’s biggest observation in her own experiences with American food compared to her mom’s traditional Colombian cooking wasn’t actually the way the food tasted, but the way the food was prepared and the significance it held. In her house, compared to those of her white friends growing up, each dish that was brought to the table held some distinct meaning and was a physical representation of her family’s culture. She felt that in other homes, while there might still be a sense of tradition, the emphasis was not on the food itself but simply getting something on the table by 6:30. That is not to say families in America do not have certain dishes or recipes that hold a special meaning, but that as a whole, the ritual of eating on a day to day basis does not hold the same weight. We reserve this type of care to holiday meals like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. In trying to articulate this idea, she mentioned her time studying abroad in Spain, where people would take hours off in the middle of work to go home and eat with their families every day, something that definitely does not take place in America, where lunches are eaten at desks and in office break rooms in order to maximize time spent working. This certainly could explain the pervasiveness of fast food, frozen meals, and “30-minute recipes” in America and American cooking. Americans want to prepare food as quickly and easily as possible.
Because of the way our society functions, with high emphasis on work and productivity, eating and food are seen more as a necessity rather than as an important cultural experience. Americans’ work days and lifestyles do not facilitate the practice of careful, consistent preparation of meals. The demands of American life, with a focus on industriousness and upward mobility, value productivity at the expense of tradition. Some parents may have to work through dinner or get up early before breakfast in order to support their children and make sure there is enough money to get food on the table. The focus of American meals has less to do with what is being consumed, and more with how meal preparation can be made most easy and convenient for most families so they can maximize the time spent providing for their family’s future.
While it is possible to home in on certain consistencies in American cuisine, such as multicultural influence in some cases and more bland, processed flavors in others, the better defining factor stems from Americans’ attitude towards the foods they are consuming. The rise of fast casual dining, “Tasty” videos that aim to break down recipes into manageable 45 second demonstrations, and “meal prep” ideas that encourage professionals to cook once for the entire week, point to the way convenience trumps flavor in American cooking. Americans seem less concerned with what to make and more with how easy and fast it is to make it, which fits in with American’s society’s emphasis on efficiency in all aspects of life. This convenience factor defines American food more saliently than any combination of flavors ever could.
 Kelly Erby. “What Makes American Cuisine?” Reviews in American History 45, no. 4 (2017): 694-698. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 21, 2018).
 Sophie Gilbert, “How American Cuisine Became a Melting Pot,” The Atlantic, November 23, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/11/eight-flavors-sarah-lohman-review/508577/. (accessed February 25, 2018).
Image Credit: R L Sheehan, “Food Packages,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=packaged+foods&title=Special:Search&profile=default&fulltext=1&searchToken=vl08pgkb1k8jebnevcgf2vug#/media/File:Food_packages_(1).jpg
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