The Essentials of American Cuisine
Surprise! It's not just about burgers.
The terrain of the United States of America stretches approximately 3,000 miles east to west and more than 1,000 miles north to south. There are more than 300,000,000 residents, making it the third most populous nation in the world. In America’s mere 240 years as a country, it has experienced influxes of immigrant populations—both large and small—from literally every nation on earth. America is massive, and America is massively diverse. One cannot extrapolate from such diversity a singular, distilled American experience. It doesn’t exist. Similarly, one cannot—nor should one—attempt to uniformly lump the plethora of cuisines that exist in America into one reductively neat category known as “American cuisine.”
So I won’t. My cultural experience as an American is just one among millions. My voice is nothing more than a hushed whisper that’s perfectly content with being absorbed by a sea of other hushed whispers. If I tried to author a definitive article on the essentials of American cuisine, the result could only be spurious. I can’t speak for everyone—most certainly not all 300,000,000 of them. The best I can do is to share with you what dishes and other foodstuffs from the USA are important to me, as well as the reasons why. Enjoy.
First Things First
As already stated, the contents of this article won’t even come close to adequately representing the diversity of cuisines that exist in America. To do so would be a culinary ethnography of tremendous undertaking. However, if you’re interested in the topic, The International Culinary Schools at The Art Institutes has published a great text entitled American Regional Cuisine that “combines history, anthropology, and cuisine into a clear and comprehensive resource for the American Regional course.”
Whether you’re in the Hamptons in New York and enjoying a lobster roll, feasting on a heaping plate of Cincinnati style chili in Ohio, or savoring every last bite of tinga de pollo tacos in Oakland, there’s a good chance that you’ll be quenching your thirst with one of America’s most beloved beverages: craft beer. Often times, American beer gets a bad rap, at least internationally, because of the unfortunate post-Prohibition era in which the market was flooded with soulless, watered down, uninspiring industrial brew. That ilk of beer certainly still holds the lion’s share of the market, but it’s up against formidable competition. For the last several decades, small breweries, founded with the intent to produce high-quality beer, have been popping up all over the USA. Today, the United States craft beer industry pumps out an average of 15 million barrels a year and generates close to 15 billion US dollars in sales. Many amateur beer enthusiasts have taken their appreciation for good brew back from their local pubs and into their homes, as well, and tried their hands at home brewing. It’s a hobby that requires a bit of a learning curve and a little patience, but there are some great home brewing kits to be found online that simplify the process. In the end, it’s also ridiculously cheaper to brew and drink beer at home than spending half your paycheck at your local craft beer bar.
Corn tortillas? Essential to American cuisine? Beyond essential. The prevalence of both authentic Mexican and Mexican-inspired food in America is testament to the ever-changing cultural landscape of the USA. The population of Hispanic and Latino Americans in the US has surged over the last few decades, and they’ve brought with them a diverse cuisine that can be considered nothing other than a blessing. In virtually every city across the US, you’re bound to find at least one Mexican restaurant. In larger cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, you’re certain to find an abundance of restaurants and taquerias that serve up, among many other things, one of the most sublime foods ever created by mankind—tacos. You can find an extensive collection of worthy taco recipes here, but to get started, you’ll need one very important building block, corn tortillas.
Apropos tacos, it’s essential to have the proper, tangy, saliva-inducing hot sauce on hand to adequately enjoy Mexican-fare. Some will surely be more than eager to take me to task for my choice of Frank’s Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce. Fair enough. There are so many respectable hot sauces on the market and everyone has their favorite, but when it comes to kitchen essentials, I’m always a fan of being as utilitarian as possible. What’s great about Frank’s Red Hot is the fact that it can double as Buffalo wing sauce. One of the crowning achievements of American cuisine is the Buffalo chicken wing. If you’ve never made the sauce at home, you can find a great, simple recipe here.
No matter where you happen to roam in the US, you’ll be able to find on most menus some dishes that would fall under the category of “American comfort food.” Though not exclusively, these dishes usually happen to come from the heritage of Southern cuisine. Just think collard greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and, of course, ribs. Americans take ribs very seriously. And we do them very well. There are various methods of preparation, which I encourage you to explore on your own, as well as a whole slew of sauces that vary from region to region, and state to state. However, you might not have all the time in the world to tinker around with BBQ sauce recipes. If that’s the case, save your energy for perfecting your preferred cooking method and opt for a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce. As the label correctly proclaims, “The sauce is the boss!”
While we’re on the topic of Southern-style comfort fare, having a bag of cornmeal around at all times is indispensable for cooking up two Southern delicacies: fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits. Some might recognize fried green tomatoes from the 1991 film with Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates, others have probably eaten it all their lives, and some, of course, might have no clue what they are. It’s a simple dish: green tomatoes dredged in flour, eggs, and cornmeal, and fried to perfection, but they’re a staple of Southern cuisine and hold a special place in the memories of many. On the final eve of my last trip to the States, I made a plate full of them for my mother and myself because she’s from the South and grew up with them. It was just a simple way for us to share a part of her past that she’s since passed onto me, before I left home again.
Shrimp and grits is the second amazing dish you can make with cornmeal. Grits are a porridge of sorts made from cornmeal and they take on new dimension when butter, cream, shrimp, and spicy sausage are thrown into the mix. A word of caution: this dish is highly addictive.
If you’ve ever lived or spent any time in NYC, you take it for granted just how lucky you are to live within reach of high-quality bagels at all times. Remove yourself from the big apple, and this privilege becomes painfully obvious, but only in hindsight. Actually, for whatever reason, after I’d finished the last exam for my undergraduate studies in NYC, the first thing I thought of was to immediately find a bagel with cream cheese, tomatoes, capers, and smoked salmon. Somehow my subconscious knew that this would be the perfect reward for years of hard work. I should have treated myself to ten of them that day. Clearly, though, not everyone can live in the bagel heaven that is NYC. If that’s not the case, try your hand at making them at home. Having a few extra bagels lying around the house never hurt anyone.
In a nutshell, these are my quintessential American foods. I could have gone on for pages and pages, but needless to say that would have been unnecessary. I even left out perhaps the most iconic symbols of American gastronomy—burgers and Coca Cola, for instance. Not that they don’t hold a special place in my heart—they do—but it was more important to me, for whatever reason, to highlight the aforementioned delicacies. As someone living abroad, I find myself missing these things often. They are the stuff of my dreams. Maybe they’ll make their way into yours, too.
Published on May 22, 2016