BY DORINDA FONG
Concretely defining American food has long been complicated, varied, and subjective. There are countless approaches as to how to even begin describing it, from picking out specific foods, flavors, or ingredients to generalizing popular eating habits in a region or across the entire country. To gain some perspective, I spoke with my dad about what he thought constitutes American food, curious if our heritage as Asian Americans and his background of having spent half his life in Hawaii and the other half in California may have influenced his personal definition. He wondered, “Is American food what I eat because I am an American?” and if American food could be defined so simply. But as our conversation progressed, his perception of American food continuously evolved, gaining multiple layers and nuances.
The media and popular culture may have influenced the development of a link between American food and specific food items, which generally share the same characteristics of mainstream popularity, widespread consumption, and connection to some aspect of American history or culture. Foods such as hot dogs, peanuts, and cracker jacks are strongly associated with baseball, which in popular culture is considered an American pastime. Other foods like hamburgers are strongly associated with American brands and companies such as McDonalds and Burger King. The ads released by McDonalds created the enduring image of the hamburger as an American food staple. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, cheese, lettuce, tomato on a sesame seed bun,” my dad rattled out all in one breath. With jingles so catchy and memorable he can still recite them without prompting to this day, it was constant exposure to the advertisements from these sort of American food companies during his youth that shaped my dad’s early and long-lasting perceptions of what American food is.
On the other hand, the presence of individualism within American cuisine undermines the concept that the label of American food is confined only to items and dishes that grow beyond a local level to become mainstream and widespread within the country. As the United States is a large country made up of numerous regions wherein various combinations of spices are used to create the flavor of a dish, the American “national cuisine exists in a regional form” as well. For example, my dad identifies the woody, smoky flavor of American barbeque sauce as a common taste found in American food. While hickory and apple wood are some of the most common woody flavors found in barbeque sauce across the United States, local woods like the kiawe in Hawaii and the mesquite in the Southwest provide different, distinct tastes in regional sauces. As my dad puts it, “sometimes it’s hard to describe because what may be common where I grew up tasting may not be a common flavor elsewhere.”
Mainstream, widespread consumption and a connection to American culture alone does not solidify a food item’s categorization as American food. As a country of immigrants, many specific food items now considered as American foods have origins in other countries. While multicultural and multiethnic influences still remain, changes to the flavor of the food item is what makes it unique, through innovation using North American ingredients, such as local spices and herbs. Even if a dish uses ingredients from other cultures and ethnicities, the way it is brought together, prepared, and presented could make it American, should that arrangement start out locally, grow regionally, and become more widespread and consumed. “Thinking about it,” my dad says, “it sounds like American food can be considered American because it’s born and raised in America.”
However, the line between distinctly American food, hybrid/fusion food, and Americanized ethnic food is simultaneously extremely fine and incredibly blurry. What makes a food item containing influences and/or ingredients from cultures or ethnicities an Americanized ethnic food, a hybrid/fusion food, or an American food? At what point does an Americanized ethnic food or a hybrid/fusion food transition to being considered American food? In my dad’s perspective, “when the food item loses its cultural identity…then it blends in and becomes affinitized with the country…it becomes more Americanized.”
At the end of our conversation, my dad felt that though our discussion helped provide some clarity, it did not change his perception of what he considers as American food. He circled back to defining American food, and by extension any food associated with a culture, by its flavor and by the way it is assembled and presented. American food in a sense is undefinable, in the same way something is priceless, not meaning that it has no price but that it’s simply not possible to pinpoint a specific one. And perhaps the most defining trait of American food is that it has no clear-cut definition.
“Image Credit: Lukas, https://www.pexels.com/photo/board-bunch-cooking-food-349609/
 Bill Daley, “Debate continues over an American cuisine definition,” Chicago Tribune, July 1, 2009, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-07-01/entertainment/0906290221_1_american-cuisine-single-cuisine-approach-cooking.
 Megan Giller, “New American Food is Un-American,” Slate, June 29, 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2015/06/new_american_food_is_un_american_derivative_and_bland.html.