Defining the Undefinable


When I arrived to my first Nordic Culinary Culture class as part of my semester abroad studies in Copenhagen, Denmark, there was a question on the board: “What is Scandinavian food?” Our instructor, Martin, asked us to come up with concepts, terms, and descriptors of what we, as Americans who had been in Scandinavia for about two weeks at that point, thought exemplified Nordic food. Hands flew in the air and answers were blurted out as Martin vigorously wrote our ideas on the board, struggling to keep up. Next, Martin turned to another whiteboard, saying, “Now how about America?” This time, it was silent. Eventually, a few people raised their hands, with more to follow. As the answers rolled in, though, instead of an uncomplicated and collective food identity like we had come up with for Nordic food, the American food answers were very scattered, and it was hard to see the connection and association between all the concepts. This seemingly straightforward question had thrown all of us for a loop—what is American food?

As shown by the long pause that day in class and the subsequent disparate answers, American food is very hard to define because, like America itself, it is diverse and ever-changing. The idea of American food throughout our collective history as a nation is full of complexity and contradiction, from its roots in native crops, to its evolution with the influx of immigrant populations, to the present-day tension between inexpensive fast foods and our growing penchant for sophisticated organic and artisanal foods. From the first inhabitants of America to the high-tech millennials of today, the concept of American food has gone hand-in-hand with our culture, values, and progress as a nation, and this historical context informs how we define and understand this basic element of our society. Food serves as a physical representation and characterization of our society. Just like on the individual level where food is a way to express love, care, and creativity, food on a broader level serves as a reflection of our country along with the innovations, transitions, and struggles from our founding to present day.

The indigenous foods of America are an integral part of our national diet and connect us and our cuisine to the rest of the world. The native tribes that lived in America far before Christopher Columbus set foot here developed a sustainable diet, with corns (or maize), beans, and squash serving as the “heart” of most indigenous diets.[1] These provisions and the customs associated with how the food was sourced, gathered, and prepared were at the core of the lifestyle and culture of our native population and have continued to be a significant part of our food culture. The constancy of these foods in our diets and their continued popularity today shows their importance. We can also look to their adoption into diets worldwide to see the influence American conventions have in other countries. The incorporation of American crops into these other culinary cultures is an example of how the concept of American food is broad, far-reaching, and a source of global influence.

In addition to native American foods spreading to other parts of the world, foods from many other countries and cultures have made their way to America and play a fundamental role in forming our unique food culture. Throughout the nineteenth century, around 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States,[2] along with large numbers of immigrants from China and other Asian countries. With this influx of people came their lifestyles, ideas, and experiences, in all of which food was a major part. America’s relationship with the foods of these immigrants was in many ways representative of their treatment as a whole. In looking at Italian immigrants, Diner outlined in her book, Hungering for America, that America was a dream and haven for many of these newcomers. Even though they largely lacked economic prosperity, working in unskilled, low paying jobs for the most part, they were still able to have what they considered a luxurious diet, eating meat regularly and having access to “soft bread.” They could “go to a restaurant and sit next to anyone [they] want[ed].”[3] Fellow Americans lauded and respected their food choices of premium and quality ingredients. For Chinese immigrants on the other hand, their food choices were continually looked down upon, much like the Chinese themselves were in the societal structure. In the same tone of racism of political decisions like the Chinese Exclusion Act, people accused their new Chinese neighbors of eating rats, having kitchens with an “unpleasant stench,” and their main diet of rice making being less manly than their beef and bread.[4]

Despite these negative stereotypes and depictions, they, like the Italians, opened hundreds of restaurants with Americans insatiably gobbling up this type of cuisine. It is important to note that for the most part, the food in the restaurants of these immigrants from around the world varied significantly from their fare at home as they adjusted to the American palate of the time.[5] These differences in food culture and the way in which they are shunned and accepted at the same time illustrate that despite the common America mantra of the country being a “melting pot” and “land of opportunity,” there is an inherent bias based on racial and ethnic origins. This concept is also shown in the way in which we categorize restaurants—cuisines of poorer or non-white countries such as Mexico, India, and China are seen as “ethnic” with restaurants typically being less expensive in contrast to their higher end European and Japanese counterparts. Our nation has always been one largely made up of immigrants and as they assimilated into American life, their food was inextricably incorporated into our complex definition of American food, despite the challenges associated with such inclusion.

In the twentieth century, war, industrial innovation and its effects on families and the household became an important part of the American food narrative, which further impacted and characterized our relationship with and perception of food in America. The increase of women in the workplace and advent of new technologies went hand in hand with creating a new kind of culture and lifestyle in America. This translated to a combination of the food industry adopting industrialization and economics of scale as well as roles of women changing with many more of them working and thereby having less time for food preparation in the family structure. Convenience became a concept of huge import, as pre-packaged and canned foods for relatively low prices allowed meals to be prepared easily and expediently. The story of Jell-O is an example of this change, as advertisers for the boxed, just-add-water product focused on the ease of preparation, even including a “befuddled-looking man” in their advertisements to further the notion of the changing family dynamic in the kitchen.[6]

Looking to today, American food is going in two very different directions. The first is furtherance of the cheap, convenient, and easily prepared food of the baby boomers’ generation. Fast food restaurants sales are at astronomical highs, totaling $200 billion in 2015,[7] foods and meats are mass produced with questionable sanitation standards, and millions of American families are so “on-the-go” that dinner is no longer eaten together at the table. America is one of the most overweight countries, and despite our country’s relative affluence, many low-class families are not getting proper nutrition. In stark contrast, however, food activists like Alice Waters have led the charge in promoting a real and passionate interest and care in where food comes from with a focus on organic, sustainable, and wholesome ingredients. The up-and-coming generation of millennials in particular have taken this activism even further, making “artisanal” cool and hip. Along with this movement has also emerged the contradictory trends of, on one hand, eating healthy foods like avocados, poke, and kale, while on the other, indulging in excessive and calorie-filled—but also innovative and creative—combinations of foods like a hot Cheetos topped pizza or extravagant milkshakes with frosting slathered on the sides and candy and cookies piled on. This side of American food comes at a very steep price and privilege, and though it is the overarching theme of social media today, is rather inaccessible to the majority of Americans who cannot afford to spend eight dollars on that trendy Sriracha almond butter. These different levels of contrast further contribute to the confusion of typifying the foods that we, as Americans, eat.

So, what is American food? It is an amalgamation of our history, a story of where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going in the future. It is the diverse people and the creativity and experiences each of them brings to the table. It is our values and ideals, both on the individual and societal level. It is the good and uplifting parts of America as well as the evils, struggles, and politics that have been a constant throughout our history. Just like American food was incredibly difficult to define on that whiteboard in Copenhagen, it is hard to define in one essay, but we can look to our past, our growth as a nation, and all the diverse actors who have been a part of it throughout.


[1] “American Native Food,”, accessed April 27, 2017,

[2] Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 1.

[3] Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, 52.

[4] Emelyn Rude, “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America,” Time, February 8, 2016, accessed April 27, 2017,

[5] Emelyn Rude, “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America.”

[6] Kathleen LeBesco, “There’s Always Room for Resistance: Jell-O, Gender, and Social Class” (pp. 129-149) in Sherrie Inness (ed.) Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 132.

[7] “Fast Food Industry Analysis 2017 – Cost & Trends,” Franchise Help, accessed April 26, 2017,

Image Credit: Dorothea Lang, “JapaneseAmericansChildrenPledgingAllegiance1942,”