How would you describe American Cuisine?

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Not being a native of this country I have always wondered what American Cuisine actually is. If you ask the people of my country what they believe American Food to be the answer would be "Hamburgers, Steaks, Fries, TV Dinners, and Soda.". Basically, Fast Food! We actually thought Americans eat alot of bread. Hamburgers with bun, hotdog with bun, food with buttered rolls......you can see where that thought came from. (We prefer Rice to Bread) Funny to find that it is meat that Americans seem to be eating alot of. Okay, before I get way off topic....... :rolleyes:

You can see that we have a very limited knowledge of American Food. The commercials that we see transmitted from the USA are always for Burger King, McDonalds or some new meal in a box that you can microwave. So I am asking you knowledgable American Chefs to broaden my horizons on American Cuisine. What is it exactly?? :confused:

Jodi
 

pete

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ShawtyCat, I don't know that there is a short, easy explanation of what American cuisine is. Trying to define American cuisine by Hot Dogs, Hamburgers, and french fries is like trying to define chinese food by Egg Foo Young and Chow Mein, or Mexican food by burritos and tacos or German food by Potatoes and sausage.

America is a very large country, with many different cultures living in many different geographical and metorilogical areas. To try and define such a diverse collection of foods and cultures into a few simple statements would be next to impossible. But let me try and make some sense of it.

On one hand, your assumption that American cuisine is "Fast Food" is correct. Americans have come to love speed and convience, and much of our food has grown to reflect that. Fast food joints and chain restaurants have sprung up around the country catering to people who really don't care about the food they consume or are looking for something familar. To many Americans, knowing that they can walk into a McD's anyplace in the country and order a Big Mac is very comforting. It is also mindless, another thing many Americans appreciate. But this is only one level of something complex. This is the most superfical, yet most widely recognized form of cuisine this country has to offer.

To really understand American cuisine you must understand that it is all about regions, just like in France, Italy, Germany, Greece, and many other countries. Each region appealed to different types of settlers (immigrants) and had different native foodstuffs to offer. When I think about the regional cuisine of the US I usually divide it into 6 catagories (each one can be broken down further, and some people might argue how I divide it, but for the sake of keeping it simple let's keep it at 6). These regions would be New England (NorthEast), the South, the Midwest, the Southwest, California, and the Northwest. Each of these general areas have lots of things in common such as cooking techniques, native ingredients preferences for one type of starch over another, etc. Again a lot has to do with the immigrants who came to that area, and what they found when they arrived. It is these cuisines that grew up in these areas that are basis for American cuisine. As people traveled across the country foods were exchanged and these regional boundaries go more and more blurred. Add to this modern travel, and immigrants coming from different parts of the world and things really start to get complicated as new foods continue to be introduced.

After re-reading what I have just written, it all seems so esoteric, and I am not sure I have really answered your question. I don't know if that is really possible without getting into a long discussion about each region and the foods that grew up there. I will try and make some very broad statements about American cuisine, but these can only be statements that are very generalized, in the broadest sense of the term.

-Americans tend to eat more meat based proteins that most other countries. We like large portions of meat and fish.
-As a general rule, Americans prefer potatoes as a starch, over rice, except in certain areas.
-Americans love carbs (breads,cookies, and such things)
-We also tend to use lots of sugar and salt in our foods
-American cuisine tends to be more fluid than other cuisines that that been around much longer. It tends to adapt more quickly to influences from other parts of the world.

Beyond those few statements, I am at a loss at how to define American cuisine without taking up megabites of space.
 
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Hmmm,

I have found a few books online about American Cuisine that I plan to buy:

The American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a Cuisine by Leslie Brenner $14
American Regional Cuisine by Art Institutes, Cynthia Holling-Morris $36

From what I have gathered from my online searching, American Cuisine is more of a blending of many cuisines using what ingredients that can be found here. Its almost like a smorgasbord (sp?). That is the only way I can seem to put it. On my internet search when I posed the "American Cuisine" search I got Latin-American, African-American, Asian-American, Irish-Amercan, Italian-American and Caribbean-American to name a few. So American Cuisine has to be a blend of the cuisines of the world. Right??

After reading the posts on Baccus' Food & Culture post, I realized that one of the posters was right. I really have no idea WHAT American Cuisine is. It can't all be Soul Food or Tex-Mex. Hamburgers or Pies. I can't even find an American who eats apple pie all that often. :rolleyes:

Maybe we young cooks should be educated on what the cuisine of this country is. If only to help dispell the global idea that "American's don't know how to cook."
 

phatch

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American Food is a bit of an unfair term. America is largely immigrant in history and much of what Americans eat has strong ties to foreign cuisine. Additionally, when we think of ethnic cuisines or cuisines associated with a country, we get foods from across a deep history. And very often the most important dishes are from the lower classes. Peasant cooking as Jeff Smith has called it.

To Americas food detriment, it is a relatively young country. It is also a wealthy country and has been able to eat in ways that incorporate much of what has gone before. Even worse, it's a large country in comparison to many. So regional aspects really weigh in on the issue.

From New England, you can pull classics such as Red Flannel Hash, and Clam Chowder. Buffalo Wings

From the south, Corn bread, grits, Barbecue (distinctly different in North Carolina, Tennesse, Georgia and Texas).

Casseroles seem much more american to me than similar dishes from other countries. There are the dreaded tuna noodle things but some have actual class and merit. Even Macaroni and Cheese has old heritage with Thomas Jefferson, inspired by the Italians. The Chicago hot dog.

Chile, the borderland texmex thing but with versions like Cincinnati chili five ways is extremely american. American cooking is perhaps the ultimate source of Fusion cuisine. Fajitas, based on Arrecherras (I know I killed that word, but I can't remember the actual Mexican name).

Seafood from the Northwest, salmon, dungeness crab, the geoduck and so on.

Native American food and its modern offshoots is arguably the most authentic American food. Fry Bread, Navajo Tacos, Oolichan grease. Jerky and Pemmican. Popcorn.

Two good books are The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American and Paul Prudhomme's Seasoned America. There are also some fun "redneck" and "white trash" cookbooks around that exemplify parts of American cuisine.


Phil
 
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The best thing that could have happened to American food is French chefs!! ;)
 

pete

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That is a loaded statement!!!!:eek:

Though French chefs played a very important roll in America's cuisine. I think the best thing to ever happen to American cuisine was for restauranteurs to give French chefs and the the French attitude the boot. Sure, French restaurants and chefs brought some sophistication to American cuisine, but it also brought an attitude that America had nothing to offer the culinary world. The best chefs had to be imported from Europe. The best foods also had to come from Europe. Even the best clientele should have a strong European heritage. It wasn't until people started questioning this attitude that things really began to change. American chefs, who studied under the French, began looking for local products, of which they found an abundance. They found farmers willing to take the time to create beautiful products. We didn't need to rely on Europe for the best foodstuffs. American restauranteurs also took formal French service and tossed it out the door. Sure there are still some very formal restaurants out there, but America's version of formal and France's version of formal are quite disparate. American's wanted to feel comfortable while dining, even if they were spending big money. Our culture demanded a more laid back approach to dining. One where you dine in comfort, with no fear of being berated for ordering the wrong wine or using the wrong utensil. It was a much more democratic approach to dining than the typical French restaurant in this country would allow.

No, the best thing to happen to American cuisine is that we found great products here in this country. We no longer felt compeled to look across the Atlantic for the most prized foodstuffs. We found farmers here producing things like cheese, foie gras, and wines, etc. that rivaled those of Europe. And by doing so we also rediscovered the foods that had grown up in the different regions of our country. We began to realize that we did have a culinary history, sure, compared to Europe, it was young, but it was still there. I will concide, the French helped us start that journey of rediscovery, but it wasn't until restauranteurs rebelled against the french institutions, that we completed that discovery.
 

pete

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Thank you very much for the endorsement Cape Chef!!! You know how much I love my french food, so in no way were my statements a cut on the French.

You and I really need to get together someday and share a fine bottle of wine and some wonderful food!
 
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Great post, Pete!

However, many products were there the whole time; you just needed to discover what to do with them, the French helping along!

So the best thing that happened to American cuisine is the French influence and the French training of its chefs!

Also, you were taught by the French how to produce foie gras, cheese and wine! Not so long ago, Jean-Louis Palladin was smuggling foie gras in his suitcases!! Now you enjoy Hudson's Valley and D'Artagnan's foie Gras, duck and other delectable French specialties, all produced in the U.S.A.!

That's really the best thing that happened to American cuisine!

:)
 
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IMHO it was EUROPE ON FIVE DOLLARS A DAY way back in the 70's that provided the impetus to develop American cuisine. At that time Americans discovered other worlds, countries, cultures and cuisine. Meat and potatos suddenly ran up against competition.
 
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Pete we're Still in the learning curve....out of 18 chefs from great St.Louis restaurants many are just learning local seasonal food...I'm lining up the May 19th picnic and sourcing farm foods...several of the chefs asked about tomatoes???!!!For us that would be end of July and Aug.....aw well....I just found out frais du bois should be out mid May!!!YES!!!! turnips, beets, spicy leaf mix, lettuce, peas, pea shoots, asparagus, rhubarb, spinach...
We have some really good older posts on regional American cooking.
 
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Kimmie, are you being intentionally insulting, or is that just the french way?

There is excellent, beautiful cuisine here in America that has absolutely no connection to France whatsoever. Have you ever tried cedar-planked salmon from the Northwest? It's been made the same way since the time the French considered indoor plumbing to be tossing the contents of a chamber pot into the street.

What about chocolate? Central American cultures were drinking this magical concoction since biblical times. Europeans discovered its beauty only about 100 years ago and had to drown it in sugar and extra fat to tolerate it. Too bad for them (though, personally, I love all chocolate.)

American cuisine is distinctly regional and, by necessity, based on simple, yet eloquent processing of indigenous ingredients. Do you think the French could have devised Provencal Sauce without a tomato-that originated in the Americas?

I take issue with the assumption that foie gras necessarily denotes good eating. I loathe the stuff myself and consider its production practices barbaric.

French--get over yourselves.
 

phatch

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I'll make you all mad and say that restaurants and their chef's are no measure of a culture's cuisine. The cuisine of a culture is what the everyday people cook and eat at home on a daily, holiday or special occasion basis. Cuisine and culture existed long before restaurants existed. Restaurants can reflect a culture's cuisine but they are not themselves the marking cuisine of a culture.

The cuisine of America's culture is the home foods, not the restaurant foods. Sadly, fewer people are cooking for themselves at home and are buying various meal replacements at the grocers and delis and even restaurants. Good business, but that sounds like the deathknell of a culture's cuisine. These foods have no cultural meaning, history, or social structure, just economics and time management.

American cuisine has nothing to do with french chefs, french trained chefs and all that nonsense. Nor do any other cuisines except perhaps the French. American cuisine certainly includes fresh and quality local ingredients, but those are what American home cooks have always sought out. At least they used to. That's what regional cooking is at it's heart.

Phil
 
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That sounds a lot closer to the truth Phatch. For example. the foods served in the restaurants in Barbados is not our food. It is what the tourist want or are accustomed to eating. If I bring someone to Barbados...I cook.

Restaurants tend to interpret home cooking and give it a certain flair that you will find only in restaurants. Home cooking is more simple. Like southern fried chicken, or home made baked beans. America has all but eliminated home cooked food. Everyone, including the kids, have schedules and no one seems to eat at home anymore or spend time at home for that matter. I think American Cuisine has to be more than the Mac n Cheese at the local pizza place.

I think if we search underneath the restaurant fare we will find the real american food!

Just my two cents!
 
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I must disagree with your statements, Shawty and Phatch. While the majority of US restaurants are the fast food and Applebees-TGI Fridays and those of that ilk, in almost every town there is a chef or cook that turns out excellent, genuine regional American fare that satisfies, nourishes and feeds the soul as well. In a related thread Cape Chef noted a list of chefs who are in tune with the true nature American foods and present it to the public in a way that resonates, truly. Many people I know are cooking more and more at home for a variety of societal reasons and developing their own diverse, but uniquely American style.
It's harder to find these restaurants in the largest metropolitan areas because markets are driven by the huge immigrant and tourist cultures that thrive there. However, looking carefully in unexpected places you can find brilliant American cuisine. Try Baltimore, Savannah, Seattle, Charleston, Chapel Hill, Berkeley, Key West, San Antonio, Memphis, St. Louis, Boulder--just to name a few. Look to smaller, chef/owners to define what American cooking is. You can find it.

Of course, there is plenty of bad cooking everywhere--even in France and, for that matter, Italy.
 

phatch

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FNF, that is precisely NOT american cuisine. It is that chef's and only that chef's cuisine. It can even be excellent cuisine. But you're still missing the link.

American culture is not in a restaurant.

Culture is of the people as a whole, not a chef. To separate food from the culture of the people, even food of excellent quality, denies what the cultural foods are. Even if local, of excellent quality. Cultural foods include history, tradition, FAMILIARITY to a wide number of people. People who may never have heard of or eaten at that great restaurant.

Consider what foods are associated with other cultures.

Italians have spaghetti, breads, tomato sauce, cheese. These are familiar to all italians. A great italian restaurant will include these ingredients and dishes and present them with flair and unique personal qualities. But it still isn't italian culture. What makes those foods cultural is not taste and presentation as much as they are densely intertwined in the widespread history of the italian table.

What are the similar signature dishes of America? Not of a chef or of a restaurant, but of America? That is the key of the question and where the answer lies.

The chefs in the other thread may present the best versions of these American dishes. That is not what makes them American Cultural Dishes.

Phil
 

pete

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So phatch, reading your posts, you are saying that if a person cooks food at home it is American cuisine (thusly part of American culture), but if a chef cooks the same thing it no longer is? You also seem to use culture and cuisine interchangablly here, and I don't think that you can. Yes, culture and cuisine reflect each other but they are not the same. Culture plays a big role in the creation of cuisine but that does not make cuisine culture. I agree, you may not find American culture in a restaurant, but most restaurants to reflect their culture. Just look at McD' and all the other chain restaurants. Follow their history. Now follow the values of the American middle class and you will see a definate link between the rise of Fast Food and American values. Yet this, according to your argument, must be a fluke because American cuisine (culture) can only be found in the home. Let's look at fine dining in the 80's and 90's. In the 80's it was a "grab all you can" mentality, and fine dining restaurants reflected that notion, serving the most expensive items imported from around the world. In the 90's Americans came back down to earth. We started looking for happiness outside of material things. Suddenly comfort foods where making onto menus of even the classiest restaurant. Chefs started searching even harder for locally grown products and felt a responsibility to help the small local farmers.

I will give you this much, American cuisine (and all cuisines for that matter) are really what is eaten in the homes of the common people. But look at a culture's restaurants (I'm not talking about the ones for tourists, but the ones were the everyman dines) and you can get a very good idea of what their cuisine is all about. If they didn't, if they were so out of touch with the everyday man, they would be out of business.

One last thing to remember, all country's cuisines have fads and trends. Cuisine is not something static, but it will only be years later when the next chapter of that countries cuisine is written. Ultimately, a country's cuisine is a hit list of foods that have endured over the years. Right now, you could rightfully make a bold statement to the fact the American cuisine is about fast food. I think that would be a very adequate reflection of the cuisine of our times. But fast food is a young trend, not yet even 50+ years old. 100 years from now how will it be looked at. As a defining influence on our cuisine or as merely a fad that came and went. A trend to be tossed aside with things like Grogg, Rum or Milk Punches, Scrapple or any of the other popular foods of yesteryear, that are now merely footnotes to history.
 
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How did this country ever survive before Foie Gras and perigode Truffles?????

I have another take on this issue that may be interesting.

The globalization of agriculture, food processing, and distribution has resulted (I think) in extensive culinary syncretism, very similar to the cultural syncretism that Edgar Morin describes in L'Esprit du temps . Global agro buisness does not destroy local culinary particularities (right shroomgirl?). It intergrates as well as disinagrates, yeilding a universal syncretic mosiac reflecting what Morin, speaking of mass culture calls "a veritable analytic "cracking" which transforms natural raw materials innto homagonized culture products suitible for mass consumption.

Even as agro buisness elimenates local differences and peculiralities, it adapts exotic regional specialalities to the global market place, and ships the the resulting standerized products all over the world. Traditinal cheeses, which nowadays are hard to find and exspensive, have been replaced by pasturized versions, but the new processed French cheeses are eatan not just in France but in Germany and the American midwest.

Nestle has beened suprised at the brisk sales of it's frozen moussaka in France. Global agro buisness borrows from the traditinal cuisines it helps to destroy in order to expand the worldwide market for it's homogenized, standardized wares.

Basic taste, gratifying textures, trangressive freedoms, family concensus, conveinence, price , hygiene, and standardization, no one anywhere has yet to come up with a formula to compete with this, other than by imitation
 
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To paraphrase Dickens, we are the best of cuisine and the worst of it.

The worst is the corporate/agribusiness aspect of cuisine. It's more likely you'll get a processed, salt-soaked steak or piece of chicken breast at places like TGIFriday's or Applebees than a natural piece of protein. Add burgers and pa-zones (Pizza Hut's latest fat/salt/carb bomb) and you have a dismal scene indeed.

The best... that's a more hopeful discussion. Today I was reading part of a book called "Paris to the Moon" by Adam Gopnik, a journalist who lived in the City of Lights with this family for several years. His memoir is full of wry and insightful observations. Naturally, one chapter was on French cuisine. He observed that, while the French have originated many innovations (they invented the motion picture camera), they never fully develop their brainchildren (think of the capital of Western filmmaking; it's not France). He put cuisine in the same category, noting New York and Berkeley (I suppose he means Alice Waters) as the natural evolution beyond the "sear, deglaze and sauce" method while retaining the French inclination to respect fresh produce. He puts it a lot more eloquently, and I've only given a sliver of his thinking, but he is clear in commending American chefs and cooks on their extension of the basics of French cooking.

Whew! That's more than I've written for a while, but this is a splendid topic!

One more thought: I have long felt that we "Americanize" plenty of cuisines by toning down spice levels; adding cheese to so many things (Italian fish dishes, I'm learning often don't have any, but don't tell Olive Garden that); and making convenience foods out of what ought to be slow foods (make your own lasagne in 30 minutes, thanks to Kraft). I'm not expecting to find any frozen Tripe a la mode de Caen any time soon, but I think you see what I mean.
 
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