BY NICHOLAS MORENO
In an interview with television chef, restaurateur, and author, Michael Symon, I asked what the Iron Chef had to say about what really is “American Food”. In the end, it really came down to how American cuisine, just like the immigrant people which have made up the nation, has developed into its present form through the cultural “melting pot” which mixes different cultures’ food into the culinary landscape, the bountiful natural resources of America which affects the immigrant food into something new, and the American consumerist culture which has shaped food with the demands of Americans to have specific foods. All of these aspects have combined to create unique and regional “American” food.
The comparison of American cooking to a melting pot– “for a general statement” as Symon said– applies due to the great variation which occurs in the nation. One’s experience of food depends greatly on not only one’s current geographic location but also “on where you grew up and where you’re parents grew up” as Symon put it. This massive variation is in large part a result of the groupings and presence of different ethnic groups. Hispanic groups residing mainly in the West, Southwest, and East Coast; Asian groups in the West and Northeast, African Americans mostly in the South and Midwest; Scandinavians in the North-Midwest and West; Italians in the Northeast, and Eastern Europeans in the Midwest– to name just a few of many groups1— all bring their own cultures and flavors and change the locality’s taste profile. While American dishes are based heavily on the imported flavors, there are some aspects of American cuisine which are unique or at least more prevalent in the united states. The food of Louisiana– specifically the New Orleans area– is pretty much unique to that area. While it does have French, Spanish, and African culinary elements from the area’s history, dishes like Gumbo and Jambalaya originated in Louisiana. These foods are used usually in combination with French and Spanish originating dishes but the flavors are changed to the point where things like beignets– fried dough which, while a rather common idea across cultures, originate in France– have become more tied to Louisiana as opposed to their actual origin. The flavor of this cooking style is so signature that it has spread abroad with its own identity as Louisiana Creole food. Sandwiches are also rather American, at least according to Symon. While the concept- which according to story originated in England via the Earl of Sandwich– has deep roots in a multitude of forms across the Western world and the Middle East, America has probably contributed a large number of well known varieties such as the peanut-butter and jelly, the Ruben, the po’ boy– another instance of Louisiana uniqueness– and the Philly cheesesteak. Even the hamburger, which has debated degrees of German origin, has been adopted and made to be known as signature “American” food.
Similar to many countries in the Americas, such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United States has a great amount of arable land which has resulted in massive prosperity in America. The impact of the resulting abundance of food has had a key role in forming American food and how “ethnic foods tend to get Americanized”, as Symon put it. The “ten or fifteen items which make it over [to America]” from the home country become known as “real”. Italian cuisine, for example, underwent an extreme change from “ethnic” to “American” food to feature red sauces and large quantities of cheese while numerous other cuisines like Tex-Mex– which features dishes such as the Burrito which is almost nowhere to be found in actual Mexican cuisine– have gone through similar processes and created American takes which may be completely separate from the original dish or style of food, “both delicious but very different”. America’s large amount of grazing land has helped meat– especially red meat– earn a special role in the heart of American cuisine. The significance can quickly be seen just by looking at an American plate of food where– despite the best efforts of numerous food “pyramids” and “plates”– features meat center stage. Especially when compared to other cultures, the American valuing of meat on the plate is very special to the country. “If you’re in Greece or Italy,” Symon said, “you’re going to get three or four ounces of protein and three or four ounces of vegetables and the same of something else while in the US it starts at eight ounces of protein and goes up”. As a further example, “Authentic” Italian food puts much less emphasis on meat. Dishes such as chicken or veal parm and red meat sauces are very rare if not to be found at all in Italy. Immigrants introduced such rich dishes during their time in America and made such dishes which were luxuries in impoverished Italy, into everyday meals to the point where this style “Italian” cooking became known as “authentic” to most Americans.2
America’s love affair with meat has also contributed to the rather unique food in America too. Barbeque is definitely not a completely novel invention by Americans; humans have been cooking or smoking meat over indirect heat for ages, however, the southern regions of United States have definitely taken this gustatory tradition to new and unique levels with sauces, rubs, and varied cooking methods, said Symon, who loves cooking meat and has “built a career on it”. As said before, American food changes from region to region and Barbeque is no exception, rather it is more the rule. For example, Texas-style is known for its wide selection of meats including briskets and ribs with influences from both Mexico and German immigrants, the Carolinas are known for their shredded pork mopped and smoked in vinegar sauce, while Kansas is known for being served with special sweeter table sauces and a side of fries. Pretty much every state has its own style with regions such as Nashville, California, Memphis and even Hawaii having well known regional barbecue styles. The availability of great amounts of cereals and meat has been a large historical influence on the cuisines of immigrants and will likely continue to influence new culinary arrivals to this country as they integrate and evolve their food in their new land.
There’s also a distinct commercial or consumerist aspect in American cuisine with how the economy and demand shift and influence what foods prospered in America in a Smithian manner. This can be seen in the environments and treatment of food in the US. Restaurants are geared to attract attention with things like neon signs and the entire concept of supermarkets– things that are less common in other countries according to international students. Supermarkets definitely set America apart from a large portion of the world in quantity and convenience of food while simultaneously offering the privilege of less seasonal and regional reliance on one’s food. A greater, year-round homogeny has been provided to Americans enabling them to “buy what they want when they want” as Symon put it. This homogenous part of American food culture may play a role in the impression by many an international that American food is bland. With readily available food from the postwar onwards and a trend from the seventies where, as Symon described, “it was cool to eat [microwaved] TV dinners which were loaded with sodium and bad stuff”. Combine these flavorless or overly salty or sweet meals with a large cultural prominence from the residences of those in the United States of Anglo or Irish descent, a image of less flavorful and bland life can easily start to form in the mind of one who hasn’t seen a real American home and seen the kaleidoscope of culinary traditions which meet in most households.
An additional aspect which has influenced the demands of the American eater is the relatively new phenomenon of food media. Television channels like the food network air food-related programming all hours of the day and other channels have large chunks of airtime devoted to cooking shows and so many youtube channels put out cooking oriented videos. Symon considers part of the success of this large amount of media to be, what he calls, the “Emeril moment” where “before Emeril you’d go to your grocery store and there was one type of mushroom, tomato, and green bean, and then as people started seeing more on TV they started demanding more [variety] and farmers started growing new things… there was no demand [before] for stores to carry them. TV has made America more aware of all the varieties of cooking that exist which is really good”. This power which has been given to the common people to demand stores to carry a greater variety in less exposed regions of the US and offering them the ability to try different things. This does have some drawbacks, however; the media, being part of the American/Western culture, brings some drawbacks due to pre-established societal norms and perceptions. Since television programs are a source of entertainment first, they sometimes submit to issues or preconceptions of the viewers, sometimes misrepresenting or incompletely showing outside cultures, or enforcing the sexing of food and domestic image of the cooking woman while placing the make cook in a place of power3. Symon credits this system to the historically established male-driven restaurant culture. As a person in the field, he sees this system as starting to change with increased women in culinary schools and in restaurants as well as with his own restaurants working towards 50/50 hiring practices in the kitchen. He also promoted the growing number of women who set positive models for female chefs such as his coworkers: Carla Hall, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Cat Cora. However, this greater exposure provided by food television, when done responsibly, can help foster understanding and further adaptation of the so-called American cuisine.
American food is in constant growth since it stems from the immigrants which make up this country as well as their interactions with America and its availability of and buying patterns of food. Symon finished the interview by saying how American food “is in a great place right now” and expressed how it will continue to “grow and develop its own style” as people rediscover more types of food and that the food of America will “just keep getting better and better.”
1 Ancestry & ethnicity in America: a comparative guide to over 200 ethnic backgrounds (Amenia, NY: Grey House Pub., 2012). Accessed February 24, 2018.
2 Diner, Hasia R.. Hungering for America : Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). Accessed February 24, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.
3 Druckman, Charlotte. Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?. Gastronomica, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 24-31. (University of California Press). http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2010.10.1.24 . Accessed: February 14, 2018.
Image Credit: Emily Contois “Durk’s BBQ”