A fat package in the mail got me thinking this week. It
was The Great American Cookbook, by Clementine
Paddleford--a revised edition of an older Rizzoli publication,
How America Eats.
I peeked inside and saw curried
potato salad from Arkansas, apple muffins from Washington, oyster
pie from New York, borscht from Michigan. I saw sauerbraten
from Colorado and barbecued shrimp from Hawaii.
That begged the question. What do all these things have in
common? I mean, when we think of Italian food, we think of
garlic and olive oil. When we think of French food, we think
of butter. When we think of Southeast Asian food, we think of
lemongrass and coconut milk. Chinese food? ginger, garlic,
Granted, these are sweeping stereotypes. Each of these
places has a deep and diverse set of culinary influences, and you
can certainly find Italian recipes without garlic or olive oil.
Still, it's possible for me to generalize and for you to know
what I'm talking about.
But in this country, what are our sweeping stereotypes?
Some would grimly say, fast food. But I'm not buying
that. Some would say, local farm produce--before realizing
that every country has its own local farms. When I ask myself
that question--What do American dishes have in common?--the answer
always seems to be: Nothing. There's American Southern
culinary stereotypes: fried chicken, slowcooked greens, biscuits
and gravy. But no national identity.
I guess that's why, in the bookcase that holds my ethnic,
regional, and international cookbooks, my American cookbooks are
split into two equally illogical sections. Half of them are
in a section under "S" for "South". And half of them are at
the very top of the shelf, in a section tellingly called
As an American cook, sometimes I like being unclassifiable.
But other times I wouldn't mind a label. Or maybe a
Post-It, which is to say a label I could take on and off at
What's "American" cooking to you? what do you expect at an
"American" restaurant? And do you, too, think of yourself as
an "American" cook?