American Culinary History

What is American Food? If you asked almost anyone, they would say hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, American cheese, and the list goes on. But in reality, American cooking is very diverse and can be seen as a reflection of our nation’s diversity.


Origin of Diversity in Cuisine

  • Before the British colonization of the United States, the Native Americans, most notably, ate beans, corn, and squash, along with the indigenous game such as bison.
  • When Europeans began to settle in America, new ingredients, spices, and herbs yielded new cooking styles.
  • Before the American Revolution, the northern colonies viewed eating as a practical matter. Many immigrated because of their austere religious beliefs which, for the Puritans and Quakers, was reflected in their cuisine - bland of flavor and lacking creativity.
  • Adaptability in the new world defined how the settler's ate. Staid Puritans managed to embrace something as foreign as Indian corn, a food used back in England as a common animal feed. “Food fit for swine” was what one contemporary agricultural writer called it.
  • The southern colonies’ diet consisted of mostly cash crops such as cabbage, potatoes, string beans, and rice. Often the French and Caribbean/ African cooking traditions from the slaves blended into Southern fare with more spice and one result was the birth of Cajun food.
  • With continued European immigration to the United States, food began to be more complex. Immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and eastern Europe brought their cuisine to the new world.
  • "Old World" cuisine remained remained undiluted in its original homes - the regions and countries where they developed, while immigration created a "New World" mix of flavors and traditions. Every group of people who settled in American contributed something special from their traditional cuisine to our national "melting pot."

Breadbasket of the World

America had quickly become the breadbasket of the world. America offered an abundance of seafood, wild game, and crops.

  • The American South produced and exported more rice than any other region in the world. By the 1770s, rice accounted for close to three-fifths of regional export earnings for the South.
  • Seafood was the first economy this country founded, and upon which we took our first steps toward economic and political freedom. It was religious freedom that drew the first few settlers here. But it was the economics – a lot drawn off of the backs of cod, and those who fished them in the Northwestern Atlantic – that really provided the first siren call.
  • Game, such as deer, bear, buffalo, and turkey, was abundant and was an alternative protein source to fish. Game consumption and hunting was preferred over animal husbandry as domestic animals were expensive and more work was required to defend domestic animals against natural predators, Native Americans, or the French.
  • American companies dominate the food export market; second-place Netherlands still exports 35% less than the U.S. and is closer to 10th-place China in terms of international product. The U.S. has been the world's largest exporter of food for a very long time thanks to an increasingly productive farming sector. In fact, the total food production in the U.S. has more than doubled in the post-war period (from 1948 to 2015).
  • Today, U.S. farmland has shrunk by 12%, or 46 million acres, since 1982, due to urban development. At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1900, there were 5.7 million farms in the US with an average farm acreage of 147 acres. At the beginning of the 21st century, the number of farms has shrunk by 3.6 million - for a total of 2.1 million farms with the average acreage per farm growing 295% to 434 average acres. Large industrial farming was the winner in the 20th century.
  • Illustrating the beginning of a movement back to local and sustainable sourcing, USDA statistics indicate that farmers markets in the U.S. increased from 1,755 to 8,144 between 1994 and 2013 – a four-fold increase.
  • Brazil, Russia and other agricultural exporting states are successfully diminishing the US role as the world's breadbasket, Brazil alone has about 150 million more acres than the US. 

Fusion of Cuisine Diversity - American Innovators

The demand for ethnic foods in the United States reflects the nation's changing diversity as well as its development over time. Cooking icons like Julia Child,  Irma Rombauer, and Martha Stewart taught Americans to view food through a lens of pleasure and art rather than convenience - despite American cuisine's deep roots in convenience, simplicity, and survival.

  • The Joy of Cooking cookbook, by Irma Rombauer, has been continuously printed since 1936 and still remains a top-seller today with over 18 million copies sold. The cookbook brought entertainment to cooking while emphasizing that cooking can come with ease.
  • The inherited DNA of our young food culture—radical flexibility, constantly shifting standards, a lack of tradition, an emphasis on convenience, and a penchant for innovation—has mutated into an upgraded food system that playfully incorporates haute cuisine with TV dinners, fast food with slow food, local with global, anything with everything.
  • The rise of celebrity chefs illustrates Americans dedication to innovative food despite the difficulty in defining American cuisine. Certainly we recognize the cook-out, southern cooking, clambakes, comfort food, meat and potatoes and fruit pies as American, but our melting pot has transformed international dishes into classic American food such as pizza, pasta and Chinese food. Celebrity chefs from Keller, Waters and their brand focus on the ingredient. Famous chef Wolfgang Puck is well known for his fusion of foods such as European and Asian fusion. The innovations are limitless.

To honor American cuisine requires us to cherish the “melting-pot” that our culture creates and to define our cuisine as the most diverse cuisine in the world!

Let’s celebrate it! 

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