The Melting Pot
American cuisine reflects the nation’s diversity and the influence of immigrant groups.
What is American cuisine? Hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pies and corn on the cobs? Sure, those are American. But so are so many other dishes.
The food culture of the United States, a nation of immigrants, comprises the food cultures of people from different parts of the world who have settled within its borders. This food culture continues to evolve as second and third generations of immigrants grow up in the United States, mixing their traditions with those of their friends in the country.
While things are always in a state of flux, there are some distinct regional food traditions that form the foundations of what Americans in different parts of the country eat. The flavors and styles of these dishes depend on the people who brought them here, as well as the ingredients available locally. To get a sense of the range of American cuisine, let’s take a look at how the locals eat from coast to coast, and beyond.
Native American and British influences and access to fresh coldwater fish combine in the northeastern states of the country to form a cuisine characterized by clam chowder and clam bakes, oysters, succotash, baked beans, and heavier dishes like pot roast. Fisheries and dairies thrive in the region, while spices, other than black pepper, parsley and sage, and a few Caribbean imports like nutmeg, tend to be sparse.
Further down the East Coast, Dutch and Italian accents emerge, respectively, in Philadelphia icons like soft pretzels and hoagies—various sliced meats, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and onions on Italian rolls. And then there’s New York City, with its hot dogs, bagels, thin crust pizza and nearly every ethnic cuisine eaten around the world. Sometimes, these cuisines are fused together. For example, a banana sushi tempura roll on the same menu as chips and salsa, as well as naan with chutneys—and it all tastes good!
Meat, dairy products, corn, rice and fruits characterize this region’s mix of Central and Northern European, Greek and Native American cuisines. Think Swedish pancakes, Polish pierogi, sausage, mashed potatoes, gravy and sauerkraut. In contrast to New York’s thin slice, there’s Chicago’s deep-dish pizza: People from both cities will argue theirs is the best, so you’ll have to make your own call.
This area is vast, spanning from Virginia, south to Florida and east to Texas, with Kentucky and Missouri, which has Midwestern influences as well, and Oklahoma forming the northern border. The cuisines within these states are vast too: Tidewater, Appalachian, Creole, Lowcountry, Floribbean, Southern barbeque and Tex-Mex food preparations stem from African, English, Scottish, Irish, French, Spanish, Native American, Caribbean and Mexican cultures—and that’s not necessarily an exclusive list. In the South, you’ll find lots of fried foods, like the iconic chicken-fried steak with heavy sauces, and desserts like key lime pie and banana pudding. Collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread and biscuits all accompany these fried delights or the other staple main dish—barbequed meat, often pork, marinated in mustard- or vinegar-based sauces.
But there’s more. New Orleans in Louisiana brings its distinct Creole and Cajun dishes like jambalaya and gumbo. Here, Spanish, French, African, Caribbean and West Indian flavors come together. Finally, you can’t leave Texas without having chili, a Tex-Mex staple. Salsa, nachos, tacos and burritos also make up Tex-Mex cuisine, popular throughout Texas and along the Mexican border.
Tex-Mex food extends its influence westward into New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada and Colorado, but it takes on other culinary tones in this region as well. The New Mexican cuisine fuses Tex-Mex, Spanish, Mediterranean, Mexican and Pueblo Native American traditions, with a real emphasis on different styles of chili peppers. From green, to red, to mild, to four-alarm fire hot, New Mexico chilies run the gamut. They’re used in sauces, salsas and stews, or as the basis of dishes like chili relleno, which has green chilies stuffed with meat or cheese, and then fried. Southwestern barbeque is popular as well. But unlike Southern barbeque, the Southwestern style often uses beef and favors a tomato-based sauce.
In Colorado, as well as throughout Utah, Wyoming and Montana, Canada wields its influence. Game meats like bison are popular, as are freshwater fish. The iconic Rocky Mountain oysters, which aren’t really oysters, come from here. Known as prairie oysters in Canada, they’re bull, pig or sheep testicles deep fried to resemble deep-fried oysters.
From the north to the south of the state, the food of California reveals its French, Italian, Mediterranean, Asian, Oceanic and Latin American culinary touches. And, while California is home to famous fast-food restaurant chains like In-N-Out Burger, Taco Bell and Panda Express, its food is known for its focus on fresh, local and organic produce. The term “California cuisine” refers to the distinct culinary style that uses local ingredients to create unique fusions of all the different cuisines that have influenced the region. For instance, California pizza may not look like pizza at all, like on the menu at California Pizza Kitchen, a popular chain restaurant. It has a Thai chicken pizza that uses peanut sauce in place of tomato sauce, and has toppings of bean sprouts, carrots and scallions.
In Oregon, Washington and Alaska, Asian and Native American cuisines come together. Salmon and shellfish are abundant, along with game meats and wild mushrooms. California’s emphasis on simple, fresh ingredients holds sway here too. Locally-produced beer and wine are also popular.
The Hawaiian style combines native cuisine—fish and meat cooked in earth ovens, along with taro, coconuts, sweet potatoes and sugarcane—with culinary practices brought over by Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese and Puerto Rican immigrant groups.
From region to region, the United States offers a taste of nearly every global cuisine, all prepared with a uniquely American touch—a style that can only evolve from a melting pot of different cultures. It doesn’t matter where you start on an American culinary tour, just make sure you have the time to experience it all.
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.