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America’s Many Flavors: The Real Story Behind American Cuisine

American Flag with utensils

Good old American Food! We can all remember eating that perfectly sliced peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a child, devouring a hot dog and fries while enjoying one of our favorite past times, or gathering around the table with family and friends for Thanksgiving turkey. Like most Americans, food has a special place in all of our hearts. From holiday traditions to socialization, American food is a rich blend of influences coming from a diversity of people, religion, and culture.

In previous decades, American food could only be classified by its region such as Southern or Midwestern. Since then, there has been an emergence of ethnic foods like different types of Asian or European cooking styles, each with its own basic flavor palette and spice profile.

Today’s food techniques transcend past both regional and ethnic food traditions. To understand American Cuisine you must first take a look into America’s history to see how this cuisine came about.

Cuisine in the New World & Colonial Americas

In America, we love good seafood, and evidence of such dates all the way back to the Native Americans during the pre-colonial period. Seafood has always been food Americans couldn’t go without; from catching fresh cod, lobster and catfish on the east coast shores to the mouth watering taste of salmon on the west coast. Oysters and mussels were fan favorites on both coasts even during this time period!

Most other types of foods that made up the American cuisine were a blend of traditional Native American and European cooking methods. It’s this era that brought the grilling and rotisserie method of preparing meats to life. So, next time you put a hamburger on the grill or slow cook chicken in your rotisserie oven thank the pre colonials for making this discovery.

Diet varied greatly based on where a person lived. Families in larger population centers and to the north east relied heavily proteins and crops familiar to the British Empire. Roasted deer, bear, and turkey made up a large portion of the meats of the average diet of rural families during this time. These were typically served with soups and stews. Recipes found from this time period also reflected animals such as deer and pigs also providing a source of fat and oils that were used in cooking.

Rum and beer were definitely the drinks of choice in this era and people consumed a lot of it. With molasses being the main ingredient, rum was easily produced. Whiskey was considered a much harsher drink and the access to sugar cane, corn, and rye to make it was very limited. Mostly the poor drunkards consumed whiskey. Non-American made beverages, such as wine and brandy, were imported and seen on store shelves everywhere.

Cuisine in Post-Colonial Era through the Industrial Revolution (1790 to early 1900s)

In 1796, the first American cookbook was published. This cookbook, like most northern cooking, was heavily influenced by British tastes, resources and cooking styles, even though other European countries did have growing immigrant populations in the US at the time.

This era was also laid the foundation for the differences in culture and cuisine between the Northern and Southern colonies.

The southern colonies, and then states, were very diversified in their agricultural resources and cultural influences due to the meeting of African, British, French and Spanish cooking styles. Pork, in particular salted pork, was a huge staple in the evolution of southern food.

This era saw rise to the popularity of peanuts, a decidedly American crop. As peanut butter spread across the world, new dishes and products started being developed across the large expanse of America. Fried chicken, cornbread, brownies, popcorn, and even Coca-cola have their roots in this time period.

Another pivotal point in the American cuisine can be seen in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Known for its time of innovation, growth and inventions, the Industrial Revolution played a huge role in America and the foods eaten. It was a shift in the types of foods people wanted and how they received information about food options.

With all the new changes happening, many people left their jobs on farms to moving to the city to work. To keep up with the demands of the population shift the methods of mass production became available which changed the food industry forever.

People became concerned about food safety and how to keep foods from spoiling. From this concern, newer preservatives and eventually refrigeration were created, further evolving the food industry.

As the nation built west, upscale cuisines started popping up in many major railroads. Restaurants became major draws at rail stations and ports. Many were places families could go, unlike bars and saloons that previously dominated the non-home cooking area. As factories and large manufacturing facilities grew, cafeterias and easy-to-eat lunches that workers could take with them grew in popularity.

Modern American Cuisine

In the time period following the Industrial Revolution, the world saw major changes. America suffered through the Great Depression, two major world wars ravage Europe and the British Empire continued to break apart. These huge upheavals paved the way for America’s agriculture and manufacturing might to feed the world.

Universities and home economists advocated new schools of thought on cooking. Ideas about balanced diets, portions, and consumption were introduced. Programs to educate ran in newspapers, on the radio and were often a part of school. It was a period when newspapers started running recipe columns targeting housewives.

New production and packing methods meant food would look standardized no matter where it was bought. Farming took on new meaning and scale, as America was exporting thousands of tons of food to Europe. This foreign aid carried with it the ideals about healthy diets from America as well as a dependence on the American “Bread Basket” for many types of wheat and produce.

The fusion of American and ethic foods such as spaghetti and hot dogs started taking place commonly as food became cheap and readily available at grocery stores. Companies began developing food that required little preparation saving an enormous amount of time in the kitchen such as the frozen dinner craze. As TV became popular, major television networks starting the movement of “celebrity chefs.”

Restaurants during this time period served two very distinct types of customers; the working professional and the family. Both types had different needs and would require different menus, seating, and service. This era gave rise to diners, which were an evolution of the dining car from America’s railroad fueled era of expansion.

American Cuisine Today

The birth of the American Cuisine, indicative of America itself, was a melting pot. Style mixed from many different cultural foods into the rich offerings of restaurants, cooking styles, recipes and taste palates. This is the food style we get to enjoy today.

People love having variety with their meals and are comfortable with stepping out of the traditional foods for a more unique experience. America has become a melting pot of people from all around the world and the American cuisine highlights this fusion of cultures.

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