When you google “American Cuisine”, you find yourself in a firestorm of debate on the subject. Some people out there are adamant that Americans lack a cuisine, while others are simply curious as to what, exactly, that cuisine is—if we have it. It’s a difficult issue, especially since cultures and eating habits are drastically different across the country. The reason that many people seem to argue Americans don’t have their own “cuisine” is because they seem to define the term as being a certain style of cooking that is both unique to and homogenous within that country. Because Americans “just borrow and steal” most things from the cuisines of other places, and many “typical” American foods are now known the world over, and because it varies so widely depending on where you are and who you’re with, we must not have an established cuisine of our own. Nonsense.
I began seriously thinking about it last week, when one of my classmates innocently asked me if I eat a lot of hamburgers, and sadly (well, honestly, I find it sort of amusing) this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a You’re-American-Your-Favorite-Food-Must-Be-Hamburger comment from someone. It isn’t a jab or said insultingly, its just how many people around the world perceive American food.
Thanksgiving was enlightening this year—it’s a holiday that showcases some of the very best of American cuisine, and instead of just rehashing the same-ol recipes, sharing it with friends from across the country meant I got to try many variations of favorite dishes, and some I wouldn’t have had at home in NC. We also had several guests who weren’t Americans—French, Chinese, Taiwanese, Australian, to name a few–who were discovering the holiday for the first time. I hope they came away with an appreciation of American food that goes beyond hot dogs, and enjoyed sharing this holiday with us!
Having Thanksgiving with Americans in a foreign country also gave me an interesting perspective on American Cuisine….of what we all identify as “food from home”…those special touches and certain ingredients you can’t get anywhere else. Some of my classmates, for instance, were excited to see that someone had located chipotle peppers in an adobo-like sauce (which we then blended with the closest thing we could find to sour cream)–try getting good peppers in this country! The Americans passed the jar around and sniffed it happily, while the others eyed it curiously. Chili peppers aren’t really something that I identify with as part of my local cuisine, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that they’re a part of a broader definition of what American food “is.” Other aspects, such as the cranberries or the corn chowder, are unarguably American in origin.
A classmate and I had this discussion a while back, and I think we settled that if one was to pick a particular region’s food to be THE American cuisine, it would have to be from the Southeast. Of course, I’m happy to debate this with anyone (and of course, I say this with the willing admission that no regional cuisine can truly be definitive of a whole country), but the truth is that what southern Americans eat has a depth and history to it that isn’t yet found in the traditions sprouting in other parts of the country. It’s food that developed from the land, from making-do, foraging, and flourishing throughout. It defies racial and social barriers imposed on us by society (who DOESN’T like a good piece of fried chicken??!). Its scarred with the hardships this country has faced from the beginning, yet it also represents some of the very best America has to offer. You can read the history of the United States in the cuisine of the South. Even as people gained wealth and lost it, suffered wars and times of peace, when they moved away and settled across the continent and developed new food cultures, the cuisine developed here-from this unique melding of Indian, African, and European influences-still forms the “root,” the “soul food” of America.
Of course I’m biased, I’m a southerner myself, and have been aquainted with the culinary traditions of the region my entire life. As a historically agrarian society, Southern American food is based on fresh, farm-grown vegetables (many of which are now popular the world over, but originated here——-squash, greenbeans, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts to name a few!). In my experience, they’re generally prepared by being boiled or stewed…not blanched and pureed into a colorless mash like we’ve learned to do in France. Sometimes we mix them into succotash and hoppin’ john, or perhaps make some sort of relish. Occasionally we’ll fry ’em. We historically have smoked our meats (BBQ), we make it into jerky, we cure it into delicious hams unlike any ham you can find anywhere else in the world. We have adapted corn for use in the place of flour, we eat it in the form of hominy as the Indians did, grind it into grits, we roll it into hushpuppies and dip our catfish into it before frying. There’s fried chicken and biscuits, but the greasy imitations we find in fast-food restaurants seem a little irreverent in light of what fried chicken and biscuits can be. Nose-to-Tail eating is still present in many communities, with specialties like livermush or chitlins on the menu.
France is great, and one of the highlights of this program is the exposure I’ve had to many different tastes and ideas I’d never have discovered at home. I’ve been here just long enough now to start really missing some of the familiar flavors of America, and the simple home cooking I’ve known my whole life. I’ve yet to come across anything in France that resembles what I’d call a “casserole”. Sweet Tea is missing. There is no Jello Salad or Ambrosia Salad. No pecan pies or peach cobblers or banana puddings or blueberry muffins. Chocolate chip cookies are only found wrapped in plastic, never warm and gooey on bakery shelves—as they should be!
As much as I enjoy learning about other types of food from other places and trying out new things, and as much as I value the foundations French training gives me, as I think about what I want to do with the rest of my life, it’s been important to me to try to dig deeper into what it is I really love, what it is I REALLY want to cook, and what I’m going to do with it. But y’know, there’s really no question about what my inspirations are and what I want to cook….it’s the food I grew up with.