Defining American Cuisine

The World's Culinary Melting Pot

The Ultimate CheeseBurger
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Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary defines the word "cuisine" very simply: It means to cook, from the Latin word for kitchen. So really, using this word instead of "cooking" is just puttin' on the dog. It has snob appeal. Then there's haute cuisine, which in itself has snob appeal. What this means is high-toned cooking, as in the uber gourmet, trendy stuff on the menu at New York restaurants where you have to bribe someone or be a celebrity to get a table.

There's also nouvelle cuisine, which is a style of French cooking that de-emphasizes fat and starch, aka calories, and focuses on light sauces, fresh ingredients and unusual combinations. Then, of course, there are French cuisine, Italian cuisine, Spanish cuisine and so on. Calling French cooking "cuisine" just makes it sound uptown, gives it more elan. 

But what's in a name? Is American cooking "cuisine"? The French likely don't think so, except the "haute" type.

What Is American Cuisine?

Like the American population, it's a melting pot. In fact, it's a direct result of that immigration melting pot. American cuisine is diverse, homey, original, unique, ethnic, comfortable, gourmet, spicy, bland, casual and formal. But most of all, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that's what truly defines it.

A myriad of dishes could be listed as American, but there are a certain few that fit the quintessential image of American food.

Think of what you would most miss if you were out of the country.

Traditional American Dishes

  • Hamburgers
  • Hot dogs
  • Pizza (as made in America)
  • Bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches
  • Spaghetti and sauce (as made in America)
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Barbecued brisket
  • Barbecued ribs
  • Fried chicken
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Biscuits
  • Chicken pot pie
  • Chili
  • Meatloaf
  • Pot roast and vegetables
  • Chicken and dumplings
  • Steak and baked potato
  • Chicken-fried steak and gravy
  • Brunswick stew
  • Fried green tomatoes
  • Potato salad
  • Potato soup
  • Corn on the cob
  • Cornbread
  • Corn pudding
  • Corn chowder
  • Clam chowder
  • Crab cakes
  • Shrimp and grits
  • Apple pie (as in "as American as")
  • Cherry pie
  • Pecan pie
  • Key lime pie
  • Strawberry shortcake 

American Cuisine Has International Roots

A few things jump out at you about this list. First, every one of these foods could also be on a list of comfort food for Americans. That's because they all mean "home," and that home is America. Second, they hail from different regions, with the Northeast, New England and South holding prominent positions of influence, which has now covered the whole country. And third, about that melting pot: Many of these dishes originated in the countries immigrants left to come to America. Just like those immigrants and their descendants, the cuisine they brought with them is now an integral part of the American experience, labeled American instead of English, Italian, Irish or German -- to wit: It's New York (or Chicago) pizza, not Florentine pizza.

American cuisine is the American story, writ large. So dig in.