What is American Food?
When someone mentions Italian food, you know what to think. Even if you’ve never been to Italy, can’t speak a lick of Italian, and don’t know the difference between rigatoni and pappardelle, chances are you still have an idea of what Italian food looks like. Same with Japanese food. You figure if you’re having Japanese, you can expect rice or noodles to be present. And Mexican food? You know a tortilla will likely be involved. However narrow or partial our ideas may be about these cuisines, at least we’re in the ballpark. We’ve experienced these foods, we’ve eaten in restaurants specializing in them, and they’re as familiar to us as a chocolate chip cookie.
But what comes to mind when someone says “American food?” Do you think hamburgers or hot dogs? Maine lobster? Texas BBQ? Louisiana gumbo? Grandma’s lasagna? Mom’s famous stew? Dad’s Sunday pancakes? You may think of all of these or none of these, as the problem with defining “American food” is that it’s a task that hasn’t yet been given a whole lot of attention. Not that (like any other cuisine) it could ever really be defined as one specific thing, but recently Americans chefs and tastemakers have agreed that our cuisine deserves its own conversation.
In order for American Food to become a concept that the world can understand, we (Americans) must be able to understand it ourselves. We have to know what it means to us before we can try to explain it to others. Of course this is no easy task. It’s as difficult as understanding culture or history or people, but thanks to Stephen Torres’s conference The Roots of American Foodways that took place in NYC on September 7th, at least we’re beginning to try. Stephen created the conference in 2013 to explore the history and influence of American cuisine, and ever since he’s been wrestling with the question of what exactly is American food? Can we define it? Is it still evolving? Who’s creating it? What makes it American anyway? When we asked Stephen himself, he said that to define American Food as one specific thing is impossible. He says “the blessing and curse of trying to define American food is that the conversation is never ending. I could put on this conference every year for the rest of my life and still not have the answer.” Like any cuisine, there’s too much affecting it to make it so simple. There are too many regions with different regional foods and too many families with too different of histories. And while this is of course true of any national cuisine (tell a person from Milan that margherita pizza is the national dish and see what happens…), as a relatively new country made up of communities from across the globe, this seems to be particularly true of American food.
“To me American Food is a wide swath of possibility, and a celebration of abundance. It is a young mosaic of diverse flavors.”
– Hugh Acheson
That being said, perhaps its indefinability is exactly what defines American food. The only commonality among the histories of American foods may be that their histories are all short, and Anna Posey (Chicago pastry chef and director of Roots of American Foodways Conference) says that that’s exactly the point. In regards to pastry, she says “The French will always have a close attachment to their past with pastry. Japanese sweets will always take from their deep cultural roots. American’s don’t have that history. We are creating our own pastries…we are finally falling in love with foods that originated in the Americas and combining that with a little from each culture that shaped us.” She sees the lack of an ancient food culture as freedom for chefs, saying it’s “what allows…pastry chefs and chefs to really step outside ‘the box’.” But is this detachment from food roots good or bad? Does it allow for, as Hugh Acheson (acclaimed chef and author and director of the conference) says “a wide swath of possibility…a young mosaic of diverse flavors”? Or does it, as Steven Sattersfield (chef of Miller Union in Atlanta, GA speaking at the conference) says, make chefs feel “wayward and lost.” Perhaps both, but it seems true enough that being young and influenced by every culinary history imaginable has made the definition of American food up for grabs. And for chefs, that’s exciting. It means that American food is creativity, it is innovation, and its possibilities are boundless.
But whatever American food is or isn’t, one thing that’s certain is that it’s going international. And not just because you can find a Starbucks anywhere in the world or because the very first food truck in Paris served burgers and fries. While these are both true, perhaps the clearest sign that American food is making a name for itself internationally is the fact that at 2015 World’s Fair in Milan, the US elected to title its Pavilion “American Food 2.0.” This is a big deal because it means that the US is telling the world that food over anything else is what’s representing our country, and it means an opportunity to shape the worldwide conception of American Food. Up until recently when we started having this conversation about American Food, it’s been defined abroad as not much more than fried chicken and hamburgers. Anastasia Krajeck (Chef of Rolf & Daughters in Nashville and speaking at Roots of American Foodways Conference) says that growing up in Europe, she and her peers would often discuss “buffets and how much food people would pile on their plates. Our comments were always that Americans ate too much junk and did not enjoy the food itself.” Steven Satterfield agrees that “American food often conjures iconic images of burgers, hot dogs, pizza, casseroles, fried chicken,” and Philip Krajeck (also of Rolf & Daughters and speaking at the conference) describes this as the thought that American food “is about flavor (usually fat, salt and sugar) and not substance (story, integrity, community).”
It’s misconceptions like these that the US Pavilion at the Milan Expo has the potential to shatter, and it seems that everyone involved is hoping the Expo does just that. Daniel Alley, the GM of The James Beard Restaurant in Milan, says “[he] would like for others to discover the high level of chefs that we have in The States and the variety that is offered.” He says that what makes the restaurant “American” (other than that the chefs are all American), is that it represents so many cuisines from around the world. It’s chefs include “Cajun/Creole – John Besh; Mexican – Rick Bayless; Hawaiian influence – Chris Kulis; BBQ – Dean Fearing; Italian – Tony Mantuano; Puerto Rican – Mario Pagan; native American – Sean Sherman.” This idea that “American” food is global and is all of these cuisines from all over the world is represented fully at the Expo, and it’s what the Expo aims to express. Laurel Evans (Food blogger and key member of the team at the USA Pavilion) says that while perhaps leaders in the American food industry are aware of the variety and quality of American food, the international community isn’t yet. She hopes that “international visitors to the pavilion [are] pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of the US food culture [and] that their curiosity (and their appetites) will be piqued by what America has to bring to the table.”
“The most common misconception is that American food is about flavor (usually fat, salt and sugar) and not substance (story, integrity, community).”
– Philip Krajeck
It’s safe to say that we’re all really glad that American food is “trending” right now. American chefs are cooking with pride, international restaurants are taking note, and after The Roots of American Foodways Conference and the Milan Expo, the world should start to see what American food is all about. Whether we’re, as Philip Krajeck says, “too many cultures, too many histories, too much space to be defined by one notion of food identity,” or whether that diversity is precisely what defines us, it’s an exciting notion that soon, we’ll be known for more than the Big Mac. We can only hope that by shedding light and attention on American cuisine it’ll be recognized the way the pioneers of modern American cuisine have always known it – as, as Hugh Acheson describes “from scratch cooking that celebrates the amazingly rich confluence of cultures that has made this country great. Not the TV dinner.”
Gorgeous Illustrations by: Anna Posey