American cuisine is extremely diverse because the United States has long attracted immigrants from a wide variety of nations and cultures. While the American cuisine incorporates styles of cooking that takes something from each immigrant community, American cooks have exported a great variety of dishes around the world, and in many ways American cuisine is just as recognisable and as popular as French, Chinese, or Indian.
Identifying American cuisine
Many dishes that are widely popular were imported from Europe and Mexico. For example, apple pies, pizza, runzas, chowder, and hamburgers are all derived from, European dishes. Burritos and tacos similarly have their origins in Mexico.
There is much regional variation in the United States. Notable regional styles include Hawaiian cuisine, Cajun cuisine, and New England cuisine. Each is a part of the larger category of American cuisine, each influences the others, and each is served nationwide.
Most American cuisine developed as home cooking rather than haute cuisine. Typical foods include a large variety of beef, pork and chicken dishes, baked beans, barbecue, and clam chowder, not to mention the American-style candy bars and fast-food items that have been exported globally. Other nations have developed their own variants of these exports, such as the unique British deep-fried Mars [candy] bar.
The origins of American cuisine
One important characteristic of American cooking is the fusion of multiple ethnic or regional approaches into completely new cooking styles. The cuisine of the South, for example, has been heavily influenced by immigrants from Africa, France, and Mexico, among others. Asian cooking has played a particularly large role in American fusion cuisine.
Similarly, while some dishes considered typically American may have their origins in other countries, American cooks and chefs have substantially altered them over the years, to the degree that the dish as now enjoyed the world over may even be considered archetypically American. Hot dogs and hamburgers are both based on traditional German dishes, brought over to America by German immigrants to the United States, but in their modern, popular form they are so altered that they can be reasonably considered American dishes. German butchers, bakers and brewers dominated American cities by 1880, shaping the national taste for heavy meals. Hundreds of regional or local German-American breweries operated into the 1960s, when a handful of giant corporations consolidated the market. Since the 1980s thousands of small microbreweries have opened to serve local clienteles. The wine industry was largely confined to Italians before the 1940s, but has exploded in importance, with many locales joining northern California in setting up wineries.
Given the United States' large size it is not surprising that its cuisine is typified by distinct regional variations. The cuisine of the East Coast and Pacific Northwest, for example, makes use of fish and seafood to much greater degree than that of the Midwest, where corn and beef were long more readily available. To some degree, easy transportation of perishable foodstuffs has diminished these regional differences in recent years, but many Americans still associate certain foods with specific places, such as steak with Omaha; lobster with Maine; salmon with the Pacific Northwest; and crab and crab cakes with Maryland.
American cooking has been widely exported beyond its borders. Tex-Mex, Creole, and barbecue restaurants can be found in cities all around the world, while fast-food burger bars and pizzerias are even more popular.
Perceptions of American cuisine
Though American cuisine has much regional variation, it is sometimes said to be rather bland in taste. The Great Depression forced a standardization of the food industry to consolidate revenue. Through the war years, the combination of the GI ration and the advice of cookbooks in the ways to prepare the "standard cuisine." This cuisine came out of the new heart of the American diet, the Midwest.
The homogeneity and predictability of American cuisine began to change during World War II with the adaptation of Italian-American and Chinese foods. Spaghetti was served to American GIs during the war. While the American versions of Chinese-inspired foods were at first far from authentic—recipes included ingredients such as ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and cream of mushroom soup—they represented a new acceptance of less traditionally "American" foods. Much of the ethnic variety in modern American cuisine has its roots in developments that took place over the last half century.
The modern fast food industry developed largely out of American innovations, particularly through the early efforts of the McDonald's corporation. This has led to some controversy with the global spread of such chains, as perceived Americanization of cuisine in other countries is sometimes described with derogatory terms like McDonaldization.
Notable American chefs
Whatever the definition of American cuisine, American chefs have been influential both in the food industry and in popular culture. American cooking has been exported around the world, both through the global expansion of restaurant chains such as T.G.I. Friday's and McDonald's and the efforts of individual restaurateurs such as Bob Payton, credited with bringing American-style pizza to the UK.
The first generation of television chefs such as Robert Carrier and Julia Child tended to concentrate on cooking based primarily on European, especially French and Italian, cuisines. Only during the 1970s and 80s did television chefs such as James Beard and Jeff Smith shift the focus towards home-grown cooking styles, particularly those of the different ethnic groups within the nation. Contemporary television cooks like Rachael Ray and chefs like Anthony Bourdain now cover a variety of cuisines and styles, both home-grown and foreign, reflecting the increasingly adventurous palate of the modern American. In the catering industry, notable American restaurant chefs include Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, and Alfred Portale.
- Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty, pp 24-39
- Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty, pp 122-123
- Bob Payton, 50, Restaurateur, Dies. New York Times July 16, 1994, Obituary, p 28.