What Makes A Food American? - The Nibble Webzine Of Food Adventures What Makes A Food American?
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FOOD FACTS: What Makes A Food “American?”

Thanks to our friends at FoodTimeline.org for this interesting take on what makes a food “American.”

Nearly all of today’s popular American foods—apple pie, chocolate, cole slaw, hamburgers, hot dogs, jelly beans, ice cream, pizza, potato salad, steak, tacos, and watermelon—originated in other countries. (Check the origins on FoodTimeline.org.) Their ingredients and recipes were introduced to our shores by immigrants.

While settlers to America found a variety of New World-origin foods—blueberries, chestnuts, corn, cranberries, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin, sweet and white potatoes, turkey, wild rice, and winter squash, for example—many “New World” foods arrived in the U.S. via Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.

“American foods” generally fall into six categories:

  • Native Foods: As with all continents, there are vegetables, nuts, mammals and fish that are indigenous to North America. Examples: the “three sisters,” the combination of black beans, corn, and squash upon which several Native American diets were based; the American bison.
  • Hybrid Dishes: Old World recipes adapted to include New World ingredients. Example: cornbread.
  • Ethnic Blends: When diverse cultures and their cuisines settle together in a new region, foods mix. Example: chop suey, spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Regional Specialties: The American melting pot of different origins and available ingredients stirs up a “taste of place.” Examples: Cajun and Tex-Mex cuisines.
  • General Traditions & Food Fads: While they seem all-American, the history of these items can be traced to the Old World. Examples: corn dogs, Chex mix, and Rice Krispies Treats.
  • Manufactured Goods: Items that foreigners typically associate with the U.S. Examples: cola, moon pies, Jell-O, McDonalds and TV dinners—all of which were invented in America.
    We’re going to add another category: Technique. Barbecue is an example.

    Our word barbecue derives from the Spanish adaptation of barbacoa, from the language of a Caribbean tribe called the Taino. Their barbacoa was a raised wooden grate over a fire of wood or charcoal, where meat was grilled.

    Spanish explorers observed the technique, and the word first appeared in print in 1526, in an account of the West Indies [source].

    As the practice evolved, the wooden racks of the Taino were replaced with pits and smokehouses.

    What are your thoughts about what makes a food “American?”


    [1] The Pilgrims and other immigrants to New England discovered Native Americans eating blueberries, among other New World foods (photo © Blueberry Council).

    [2] Corn, which originated in Mexico, is the staple grain of the Americas (photo © Good Eggs).






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