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04 June 2010

How Would You Classify American Cusine? What are the dominate qualities of American Cooking? How would you describe it? Regional American Cuisines?[More:]

Asked Brit this question who said "Cheese. You people put cheese on anything."
It's definitely regional. There are a ton of dishes that are standard fare in the American South, for instance, that I have never seen up here in the Northeast.
posted by amro 04 June | 10:39
I would say there is no "American cuisine." Favorite dishes, yes. Regional cuisines, yes. But there's no one cuisine that rules from coast to coast. Too many of our common foods come from or are influenced by other cultures, though those dishes have become 'Americanized' over time.

That was probably the obvious answer. I'll let someone else give a more interesting one.
posted by mudpuppie 04 June | 10:40
I hate to say it, but the most widely-prevalent American cuisine is probably convenience foods and stuff sold at fast-food and chain restaurants.
posted by box 04 June | 10:58
1. Southern
2. Other
posted by Atom Eyes 04 June | 11:08
I know this isn't what you asked, but as a non-American, before I moved here, my dominant impression of American cuisine had nothing to do with ingredients and everything to do with portion size.
posted by gaspode 04 June | 11:23
i like commas
posted by gaspode 04 June | 11:24
If I was opening an American restaurant somewhere else in the world, this is what I would have on the menu:
Hamburgers & fries; pizza; tacos; macaroni & cheese; fried chicken; barbecue; pies and some kind of scary Jello salad. That would be most of the regular menu and then I'd do regional days, like a Southern day with greens and hushpuppies and maybe shrimp & grits and a Texas day with lots of spicy stuff and so on.

I think there is a distinctive American cuisine - I can think of the food that fits it but I am trying and failing to figure out how to express it in words, or, preferably, in one kind of catchy phrase.
posted by mygothlaundry 04 June | 11:28

also, and I've ranted about this elsewhere, American cuisine seems both trendy and somehow adolescently shallow, sort of like a tween girl who wallpapers her bedroom with Justin Bieber posters or unicorns or whatever.

There's this tendency to fixate on one aspect / one ingredient and highlight it to the exclusion of all else, making the product so overwhelmingly one-dimensional that any craft or subtlety is lost.

examples including but not limited to:

- over-roasted, bitter, burnt coffee beans (peet's, starbuck's)
- flabby overoaked chardonnay (anything out of the sonoma valley for the past ~2 decades)
- one-dimensional fruit-bomby cabernets (anything out of napa since the late 90s)
- any "craft" brewed IPA within the past 5 years that is infused with New World hops to the point that it tastes like FAIL and mosquito repellent.
- "fusion" chefs who put X in every dish, where X= sundried tomatoes, cilantro, mangoes, chorizo, goat cheese, pears, peanut sauce etc... yo, dude, that's not "cuisine", that's just fucking lazy.

posted by lonefrontranger 04 June | 11:36
mgl, the word you're looking for is "comfort food"


where I grew up in southern Ohio we all called all of that stuff "white trash cookin'" and we loved it.
posted by lonefrontranger 04 June | 11:41
I agree with those who say American cuisine is best understood as a collection of regional cuisines - a statement that is also true for, say, Italian or Spanish or French cuisine, though by the time we encounter those cuisines they've often been homogenized so that we can no longer see the regional nuances.

When you say "cuisine" I immediately disqualify from discussion processed industial foods. I guess that's unfair - that stuff is probably what the majority of Americans are actually eating - but when we think of "Italian cuisine" or "french cuisine" we generally aren't thinking of their junk foods, either. The important difference is that I think Americans probably eat more junk and processed food than they eat real food, so there is some argument for saying that our cuisine might actually be junk food. I don't think that's entirely fair, though, because until the 1950s we certainly had a really interesting home-based whole-foods cuisine as the default way of eating.

Sallie Tisdale's The Best Thing I Ever Tasted is a fantastic book-length rumination on this topic - actually a bigger topic, "what is the American relationship with food all about?" She really considers what characterized American food at different points in history, talks about the aspirations and anxieties underlying food trends, and describes our contemporary cuisine as schizoid. It has become a melange of influences that she unites under "nouvelle cuisine," the huge category of all cooking that has followed the classical period, and which is characterized by 'fusion' , which can also be seen as a lack of interest in observing traditional geographical or cultural boundaries and tastes.

Some general truths about American cuisine: it's more corn-based than most of the world's, except South and Central America's; it's much heavier on meat consumption; it's Creolized even within its regions, always combining elements of Native foods already growing here with European foods, and also very frequently African-derived and other foods and cooking methods as well.
posted by Miko 04 June | 11:43
Yah the corn is something you don't notice until you're out of the country for a bit.
posted by The Whelk 04 June | 11:50
OMG Pie - apple, cherry, pumpkin, hell you guys make pie out of BEANS.

OMG BBQ - ribs? yeah! an entire pig roasted? Yeah! giant succulent steak? Yeah! And you know how to apply the smokey sauces, the A1, the hickory, the honey, the mustards - stuff people never do over when BBQ:ing.
posted by dabitch 04 June | 11:57
Tonight I'm going to the annual Greek Festival held by a local Greek Orthodox church. People flock to the food. I think of it as more authentic than a Greek Restaurant serving american food (Greek Spaghetti!). The grape leaves, for example, are too arcid for my taste buds. On the other hand, they've been standardizing their festival recipes for over thirty years, so how do I know how authentic it is? The new offering this year? Lamb Sliders.

So I'm thinking of any big food event - outdoors - a chili cook off, a reunion, a church supper. Meats cooked outdoors, or barbeque or fried chicken or fish, a bread specialty (corn bread, yeast rolls), side one (potato, pasta, or fruit salad, all comfortably rich), side two (a more local vegetable favorite like greens), and crazy huge desserts. Regional and ethnic variations on this theme.
posted by rainbaby 04 June | 11:59
Chili! Yeah!
posted by gaspode 04 June | 12:01
More on this, especially the kinds of communal feasts rainbaby mentions:

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA: The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food

The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food--Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food

Both books have interesting content but Kurlansky's is much better written and organized.
posted by Miko 04 June | 13:09
Those are great text recommendations, Miko --- I really have to get my hands on that WPA book!

The Whelk, for a less scholarly, more chatty and recipe-centered read, you might like Laurie Colwin's "How to Cook like an American" from her book More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. It's undeniably sentimental, but in essence pretty sound. (And though it's evidently not anywhere online, I happen to have a copy next to me, so here are some quotes, probably with typos of my own.)

In this essay, she talks about a friend visiting from India who would like to better understand the principles and structures of "American" cuisine, specifically the cuisine of the U.S. He says:
"I would like to cook some American dishes, but it is hard for me to tell just what American food is."

She writes:
I tried to put together a hypothetical meal for my Indian friend: fried chicken (which the Chinese have been cooking for thousands of years), gumbo (of African descent), coleslaw (from Germany), and strawberry shortcake (the basic element of which is either an English biscuit or an English spongecake). No wonder he was confused! I was pretty confused myself.

She goes on to recommend several cookbooks and memoirs that describe rather than dictate "American food," and says:
If a visitor came from Mars with questions about American food, I might steal into my daughter's room and purloin her copy of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mrs. Wilder's Little House books are filled with food, from slaughtering a pig to making a pie out of the blackbirds that destroyed Pa's corn crop. Farmer Boy, which is the story of Almanzo Wilder's childhood, relates that, at the County Fair, Almanzo "ate ham and chicken and turkey and dressing and cranberry jelly; he ate potatoes and gravy, succotash, bakes beans and boiled beans and onions, and white bread and rye 'n' Injun bread and sweet pickles and jam and preserves. Then he drew a long breath and he ate pie."

In the closing paragraph, Colwin describes yet another hypothetical modern American festival meal and notes
If you peek under this meal you will find yourself in a number of other countries, immersed in other cuisines. As you look around your table --- at which are seated, if you are lucky, congenial people from everywhere --- you will realize the genius of American cooking and the secret of American life: a little bit of everything from everywhere put together to make something new and original.
posted by Elsa 04 June | 13:58
I would say hamburger dominates in american cuisine. We have so many different dishes in which it is the main ingredient.
posted by Ardiril 04 June | 14:24
Colwin is great! Her Home Cooking, which must be the book previous to Elsa's book, is good too. I haven't read this one.

She is spot on about the food in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. They made me salivate as a kid. When I was teaching the primary grades, one year for the 1-2 class we spent the whole year on the theme of farms & agriculture, and over the course of the year we read through the entire Little House series. The culminating event of the year was the Farmer Boy Breakfast, an event we put on for the kids' families. It was a giant breakfast for which all the menu items were taken right out of the descriptions of breakfast in the book Farmer Boy, and we labored all week to pull it off. It included pancakes, maple syrup (which we had made ourselves!) apple cider, milk, stewed apples and onions, oatmeal, doughnuts, bacon, biscuits, jelly, fried potatoes and onions, and I don't remember what all else. It was awesome!

i've often thought about writing something about the food in books that sounds so much better than the food we normally eat. Wilder's books are up there for delicious-sounding food descriptions (vanity cakes anyone? The way she describes cornmeal patties fried with bacon?), but another one that made a big impression was a Nick Adams story by Hemingway where he prepares some just-caught trout by frying it in drippings over a campfire, with some cornmeal. And Homer Price's doughnuts.
posted by Miko 04 June | 14:36
Two definitions:

American Cuisine = ((Memories of the Old Country * New World Ingredients) + Time) - Capsaicin.

American Cuisine is High Fructose Corn Syrup with stuff floating in it.
posted by Triode 04 June | 14:39
American Cuisine = ((Memories of the Old Country * New World Ingredients) + Time) - Capsaicin

posted by Miko 04 June | 14:49
Here's a clipping of thoughts from Americans looking for american-style food in New Delhi: image (from this blog). One thing that kinda strikes me as true is the uniqueness of deli or diner style breakfast/lunch food particularly bagels and good sandwiches. So yeah, mygothlaundry, plz to be making the bagels in your american restaurant.
posted by Firas 04 June | 14:59
Friend came back from Japan and said the one thing he really missed where deli-meats and bagels and pastrami - they have no foothold in the East.
posted by The Whelk 04 June | 15:46
But even down South in the US, deli meats and pastrami and bagels were unheard of until recently. When my grandparents would come up from Texas to visit, they always insisted upon having a meal of those "lunch meats" that were thin-sliced, with kaiser rolls and dill pickle spears...because that food wasn't available down there. It probably is now, but it wasn't widespread even in the early 90s when I last spent any appreciable time in TX. (I never had time to miss it when I spent summers in Texas, because I was pigging out on all the barbecued brisket and fried perch and catfish).

So even deli meats have regional roots in the Northeast and maybe Chicago. And isn't deli meat, as a thing, something German Americans brought here?
posted by Miko 04 June | 17:48
Deli meats are in interesting case as they do seem to follow (er to a point) the movement patterns of German immigrants, San Antoino in TX for example had a large German population at one point - so I was able to find at least once that was definitely actually a Deli - not so much the surrounding areas.

posted by The Whelk 04 June | 19:26
Pointed out to me by someone, oysters. Americans love oysters in every form and take great pains to get them, they're not *that* popular elsewhere, or they don't have this glow around them as something special.
posted by The Whelk 21 June | 19:43
Mmmm, oysters!

I love that oysters used to be street vendor food in the 1800s, they were so popular. I wish you could still just buy a fresh icy oyster on the street.
posted by Miko 21 June | 19:57
How about || I love everything about this music video: