I Dream of Food: The American Dream and Food Culture


As food is an essential part of life, it has also become an essential product of the pursuit of the American dream.  The American approach to food has been distinctly molded by our approach to life, and over time this has led to the emergence of certain foods being recognized distinctly “American”.  With this in mind, American food could be defined as a combination of foods that are socially identifying, convenient, and indulgent, and are strongly influenced by the drive for success and happiness/the American ideal.

Most are quite familiar with 1950s picture of the “American Dream”; white picket fence, dad works a nine to five job but is home for dinner by six, mom is home to welcome her husband from work and children from school, etc.  Today, this dream is a little less rigid, a little more accepting, and much more representative of the country as a whole: we more frequently see both men and women in the workplace, diversity in the definition of the family, and more.  While these two pictures are quite different, they are rooted in the same essential value; America is driven by a pursuit of happiness and the promise of equal opportunity1. When it comes to the different facets and consequences of the pursuit of the ideal, there has been an emergence of convenience and a need for efficiency, as well as a sense of pride and materialism in order to “show what you’ve earned”.

American food culture is representative of identities on individual, communal, and national levels.  Within these different levels are defining characteristics of different identities; and the ability to subscribe to these various characterizations creates central unifier, or bond, surrounding the intersection of food and different aspects of culture.  On the national level, certain foods are representative of where we have been as a country and have come to be inherently associated with Americanism or as classics because of their consumption at the specific time of American events such as turkey on Thanksgiving, barbecues on the Fourth of July, or hot dogs at a baseball game.  Other foods, such as spam during World War II, are reflective of certain periods of history and what was occurring socially or economically at that time.  The consumption of these foods is unifying in both participations in the rituals and traditions surrounding them and in the social acceptance of their symbolism as depictions of being American.

Many foods and food culture are also unifying on the communal level; many American foods are a culinary melting pot and often evidence of cultural histories and identities.  This is most frequently seen in two types of foods: authentic and fusion cuisines.  While authentic cuisines are those that use traditional methods and ways of cooking from the same culture and fusion cuisines combine elements of different culinary traditions from various different cultures, the existence and frequent use of both within the US celebrates how the US is a country of immigration and consists of many different ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures.  Not only are they a defining factor for one’s identity, but also are a way for individuals to visit or taste other cultures, and perhaps form bonds over the sharing of culture and food; what Heldke poses as “cultural interactions” through taste2.

Lastly, food can be socially representative on the individual level.  There are many statements, or labels, associated with food that individuals choose to subscribe to; in order to project a certain image of themselves to their peers.  On this level, individuals can form bonds over what food culture they endorse.  Additionally, America has a very strong food culture surrounding how and when we consume food that is driven by social interactions: family dinners, grabbing coffee with a friend, happy hour after work, etc.  With these in mind, the next question is how is food culture affected by the American dream?  

The American dream is inherently social, and while supposedly non-exclusionary in at least the basis that anyone can achieve the dream, there are fundamental aspects of it that are both unifying and dividing – as there are with certain foods.  Secondly, the social divisions that occurred from those pursuing the American dream; the rise of industry, gentrification, and the influx of different immigrants who came here because of the dream, are all examples of divisions that have occurred and effectively initiated the creation of different food sectors within America.

The second key aspect of American food culture driven by the American Dream is that of convenience.  While the American dream has always been rooted in striving to succeed, the definition of success has shifted over time, and our demands for how we consume, and what we consume, have changed with that.  Family success and values were once what many strived for, with which we saw home cooked meals from Julia Child, and representations of the ideal housewife and hostess from Martha Stewart.  Now, the depiction of having it all is often designated by success in the workplace, which has subsequently increased workplace demand.  With the focus on working more often, and more efficiently, has created a demand for quick, easy, and convenient foods.  Where home cooked meals once stood we see pre-packaged goods and dining out has become much more commonplace.  Throughout the last fifty years, we have seen a massive increase in the number of fast food chains, the existence of prepackaged foods and “tv dinners”, and a change in American tastes favoring these products.  However, we do not just see convenience in “junk” foods; many – and even some of the most well-known – diet programs are prepared in advance and cater toward an audience who doesn’t want to spend time, or energy thinking about or preparing what they eat.  Additionally, the consumption of whey and Soylent as meal replacements is a great example of food changing to be more easily and readily consumed: many proponents for Soylent even take it a step further imagining a food-free, or meal replacement drink/bar only future.  Ultimately, the strive for efficiency has created a niche for quick energy, easy to eat, and fast and effortless preparation.

Lastly, the development of the American dream forces dependence on reward as recognition of attainment, and this reward manifests in American food culture through the form of indulgence. Firstly, this can be seen in the consumption of decadent or high fat, butter, and sugar content foods, as well as those with intense or deep flavors.  Secondly, the existence of food porn and the sexualization of food are systems of indulgence.  Mcbride spent time exploring what defined food porn and why it exists, essentially defining that food porn is an illustration of the unattainable; images of food are idealized as something to strive for, or at least something we could strive for.  In many ways, it is the peak of success within this field Further, Mcbride states that “food on TV and in colorful magazines is also about domesticity as an iteration of nation building […] all those endless barbecue shows are a good way to imagine the extent of the nation and its myriad variety”, providing us with a feeling of participating in society without having to leave the comfort of our homes, and catering to our national pride3.  In this way, food not only nourishes our tactical and chemical senses but also engages our auditory and visual senses, leaving us with the ultimate feeling of satisfaction.

There is a significant interaction between aspects of the American dream and food culture in America.  As the American Dream is definitively success-oriented and socially driven; food culture has developed to either aid or to be a literal representation of one’s achievement of the dream. As material consumption is a form of achievement, certain foods in America embody that same triumph: high effort is deserving of high reward and we have many foods, habits, and traditions that fulfill this need for indulgence.  Further, a significant portion of American food culture is propelled by social interactions that are demanded by the dream; affecting not only what we eat, but also how we eat and who we eat with.

Image Credit: P.C. Goins, section foreman, and family eat dinner in kitchen in their home in company housing project. Koppers Coal Division, Kopperston Mines, Kopperston, Wyoming County, West Virginia. August 1946. National Archives and Records Administration. Available via Wikimedia Commons.