"American cooking" - what's it to you?

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, and soy.

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 "American/Unclassifiable".

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 will. 

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?

3 Comments

  • robm  on  9/6/2011 at 8:38 PM

    I guess I think of American food as the immigrant foods that have been "naturalized" here through adaptation and wide adoption. In the Midwest we have lots of good, relatively un-fussy cooking that descends from the German and Scandinavian and Slavic immigrants to the region. In the South we have unique dishes that grew from the amalgamation of indigenous, African and European cooking. In the Southwest there is an entire variant of Mexican cooking that is close to its roots but entirely different from the original cuisine. I also think of American food as using American ingredients, including native fruits and vegetables (squashes, potatoes, persimmons, black walnuts, pecans, etc.), meats and seafoods. New England's chowders and Charleston's she-crab soup descend from European originals, but have become so closely identified with those regions that few people even remember the original European dishes! What makes American food? It's a great question -- hope to see LOTS more answers!

  • Susie Chang  on  9/7/2011 at 5:40 AM

    Great answer--and not simple, is it? I almost feel there should be a category of cuisines called "hybrid"--you know, like the cooking of Singapore. But everybody's a hybrid of some kind or other when you come right down to it...and that's a good thing.

  • beatricebunny  on  9/10/2011 at 5:41 PM

    I think it's always hard to define your own culture. In general, "cultures" are something other than what we live everyday. When I go to a [good] restaurant that advertises "classic American fare," I expect to be served dishes that have the following criteria: -Meat + Vegetable as separate items. -Seasonings such as salt, garlic, pepper, lemon pepper, thyme, and oregano. -A good mix of finger foods such as burgers, fries, and sandwiches and fork and knife food. It's not a complete guide, but there are "American restaurants" and they do serve a core of the same food no matter where in the US I travel.

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