The question “What is American food?” is as open-ended as asking “What does it mean to be American?”. Both questions operate on the assumption that there are a specific set of rules or characteristics that can be used to identify something as American. However, the answers to these questions often contradict this notion. They tend to vary and be dependent on factors like time, background, or socioeconomic status. Nevertheless, it is this ambiguity that grounds both American identity and American food into US culture. The US is often considered the “nation of immigrants”, therefore, it makes sense that it is incredibly difficult to designate something as American. Essentially, America is the amalgamation of different cultures and the individual immigrants who have brought their personal stories and traditions. Thus, understanding American food involves approaching it from multiple viewpoints rather than associating it with specific foods or tastes. My attempt to comprehend this complex topic begins by considering my mother and her experience as a Filipino immigrant.

In general, my mom’s relationship to food is greatly influenced by her immigration to Chicago from the Philippines when she was nineteen. Before coming, she vividly remembers being worried about the food options in America. She called my grandfather, who had been in the US for about a year already, and said, “I’m going to die there. All they have is Uncle Ben’s Rice, and I’m not eating that. I do not want to come.” In retrospect, she agrees that she was a bit dramatic, but she explained that representations of American food were only available through the television. To her, American food was burgers, fries, pizza, and spaghetti. Being isolated to those food options meant she was losing a piece of her culture. A piece of who she is.

In response to her trepidations, my grandpa attempted to convince her that America was, in fact, the opposite of her assumptions. He explained that the US had a much wider selection of rice than the Philippines since it was imported from all over the world. She was reluctant to believe him and saw it as a ploy to ease her nerves. However, after moving to the US, she realized that he had been understating the entire food market. To her pleasant surprise, not only was there rice, but there was fish sauce. Even people from cultures where fish sauce is a staple recognize that it has a distinctly potent smell and taste, so she was thrilled to have this piece of home with her. Additionally, my grandpa had failed to emphasize how affordable food was in America. When I asked about her initial weeks in America she said, “I came here, and I immediately gained ten pounds.” She recalled how my grandpa had given her fifty dollars to go grocery shopping. She spent it all on chicken, SPAM, ice cream, hot dogs, chips, and rice. Aside from the rice, these were all luxury items that could only be eaten on special occasions when she was back home. This was the first time that my mom was able to eat not only what she wanted but also as much as she wanted.

The ability to afford food and to be full encapsulated America as an ideal for my mom. It was a glimpse into the larger picture of why she came to America. This experience is also reflected in the stories of many other immigrants. Italian immigrants have had similar experiences where their newfound access to food became a symbol of the American Dream. In Hasia Diner’s book on Italian immigrants, she states, “Pasta and olive oil, along with meat and cheese, defined a good life, a life of choice. Italians had come to America in part to eat more and better…Immigrants did this by acquiring an American standard of eating, articulated in an Italian upper-class style.” [1] For my mom and Italian immigrants, American food took on the much larger meaning of social mobility. In the literal sense, American food became the items that were once inaccessible, but figuratively it was a symbol of growth and prosperity. Therefore, defining American food involves going beyond specific foods or tastes. Instead, it can be better understood through the way it constructs and plays into the stories of American citizens.

The definition of American food is also dynamic in the way that its significance changes as people move through different points in their life. For example, now that my mom has lived in the US for thirty years, food has become less important as a signifier of success. For her and other immigrants, food is an additional way that immigrants can stay connected to their roots while also exerting influence over American society. This is ever-present throughout the history of American food and in the way that fusion restaurants continue to be exceedingly popular. Tracy Poe approaches this idea from a historical standpoint in her analysis of the origins of soul food in Chicago. She states, “It [soul food] was a way of preserving something that reminded them of home and family…By combining the foodstuffs and methods of African and Anglo-American cuisines, the lexicon of Southern African American foodways was created.” [2] Overall, the creation of soul food allowed African American migrants to stay connected to their roots while over time it provided an avenue for economic gain.

During our interview, my mom’s opinions on Filipino fusion cuisine paralleled Poe’s findings. I first asked her about one of her favorites, Sunda, a self-proclaimed Asian fusion restaurant in downtown Chicago. She immediately recalled their pork adobo fried rice, an act she does quite often. The dish is a twist on the original Filipino dish, pork adobo. Traditionally, it consists of bite-size pieces of pork belly that are marinated and then braised in garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce. The meat then simmers till the sauce thickens, and then it is served over white rice. Sunda’s take on the recipe is incredibly delicious but undeniably different. My mom explains that the distinct vinegar component is dialed back since the recipe lacks sauce and because the pork is shredded and mixed in with rice. Sunda also adds a fried egg on top which compliments the pork and rice well but is an unlikely addition to traditional pork adobo recipes.

After discussing the recipe, I asked my mom how she felt about the changes. She started by saying, “Good food is good food. If I like the way it tastes, I’m going to eat it.” I responded by asking, “Does any part of you wish they just sold the traditional dish?” She took a second to think about it but explained why she was not bothered by it. She started by saying, “Yes, it may be untraditional, but that does not diminish the connection to home I feel when I eat it.” She also explained that “If pork adobo needs to be adapted into fried rice to be more accessible then I am okay with that. I want everyone to experience Filipino food in some way.” Her response made complete sense, yet I left the conversation feeling somewhat unsatisfied. I admit Sunda’s fried rice is one of the most tremendous versions of fried rice that I have ever had. However, something in me questions if someone can truly appreciate pork adobo if they have not had the original.

I am still torn over how much I enjoyed Sunda’s fried rice, but I guess it is a consequence of how “ethnic food” is often adapted into American food. American food serves as a mirror into the lives of the immigrants that make up this country. It simultaneously depicts growth and limitation. At some point in time, it is the American dream while at another it is representative of pressures to assimilate. Like many immigrants, it must go through some conforming in order to be successful. However, food does have the silver lining of empowering communities by giving them an outlet to profit from their own food. Through this overarching lens, American food has its pros and cons and attempting to understand it involves pushing past the singular representation that is burgers and fries. This is especially important since America is built on the ideal that we should work to appreciate and understand the different cultural elements that immigrants bring with them. With that being said, I am sure that there are a number of Chicagoans that have been exposed to pork adobo that would have never been before; I just hope they seek out the original one day.

Image credit: Pulaw, “Pork Adobo,”


[1] Diner, Hasia R. “Hungering for America: Italian.” Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age (2001).


[2] Poe, Tracy N. “The origins of soul food in Black urban identity: Chicago, 1915-1947.” American Studies International 37, no. 1 (1999): 4-33.