Defining American Cuisine

American Food:  A Fusion of Flavors

        Fried catfish, cedar-planked salmon, gumbo, bison burgers, chili, blueberry buckle, pecan pie….  What a feast!  The Americn table groans with fresh, delicious, innovative fare that feeds body and soul.  Our national menu thrives at the crossroads of tradition and adaptation.  We pay homage to ancestral cooks while making the best of available ingredients and circumstances. 

      If I had to define American cuisine in one word, I would say abundance.  A spirit of abundance applies to both the generosity and the inclusiveness of our kitchens.  Americans adopt tried-and-true cooking techniques and influences as readily as we invite an extra guest to dinner.  Then we add our unique grace notes and make the practices our own.

      Some purists insist that the American culinary repertoire is too ill-defined to qualify as a cuisine.  To that I say hogwash.  True, there’s no single campfire, brick oven or olive orchard to which our food history can be traced.  But over 500 years, I believe the distinct cuisines of individual native tribes and waves of immigrants have evolved into an identifiable whole.

      American cuisine emerges from the interplay of three factors:

     Tradition:  Immigrants and tribes brought dearly-held recipes and taste preferences to areas where they settled or relocated in the U.S.  Thus, one can find “all-American” dishes that begin with a French roux, a British-style pastry, Italian pasta or an Indian spice rub.  Of course, the Russian Jewish family or the couple from Naples that arrived at Ellis Island circa 1900 carried a considerably different recipe box than those who immigrated after World War II or in the 1980s.  So, even when comparing families with the same origin—but different timelines—the traditions handed down will vary.

     Geography:  Once our ancestors got where they were going, they adapted to the available ingredients and seasonal offerings.  Recipes that called for mutton or goat were made with beef or venison.  Leggy Chinese broccoli was replaced with other greens.  Kielbasa—a word that refers to a vast array of fresh and smoked sausages in Poland—became a specific, lightly smoked, coarse country sausage.  Cooks traded familiar proteins for New World fish and game, and ingredients like wild rice, corn flour, peppers, beans, squash, avocados, black walnuts, cranberries and pecans became part of the menu.

     Community:  Here, the American melting pot becomes a literal affair, with neighbors sharing harvests, sharing meals and being exposed to one another’s customs and taste prints.  This process began with the Native Americans and the first European settlers, and it continues every time a family goes to a dinner party, a wedding, a festival, or a block party organized by folks who have a different food history. The fastest way to see the end result of our communal table is to compare a heavily German neighborhood in Pennsylvania with one in Texas and one in Milwaukee.  Or, the Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco and Boston.   Core dishes may be the same, but the side dishes and occasions for celebration will certainly reflect the neighbors to the north, south, east and west.

      The interplay of tradition, geography and community first created a network of American regional cuisines, but in the digital age, those regions have overlapped and blended.  As an example: A Pacific Northwest coffee chain (Starbucks) now sells a miniature version of a Pennsylvania Dutch treat (whoopee pies) in a flavor closely associated with the American Southeast (red velvet). 

      Detractors might quip that American cuisine gave the world greasy fast food, cake mixes, all-you-can-eat buffets and overpriced coffee.  Fair enough.  But when I’m at a dinner party enjoying shrimp with papaya salsa, sliced heirloom tomatoes, a brined and browned roast turkey with wild rice, cranberry sauce, sautéed corn and zucchini, and a dessert of bananas foster…well, I don’t care.  The magnificent fusion that is American cuisine can withstand a few drive-through burgers in the mix.

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