As American as Apple Pie, and Empanadas, and Sushi…

Any one who seeks to lay claim to a single national food culture denies the essential truth of who we are, and how we eat.

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Today is Independence Day. Like all holidays (or holy days), it arrives with a ceremonial requirement for what to eat. Hot dogs are called for, usually on stale white buns, and various kinds of pie, but especially apple. Corn shows up. Hamburgers too. You know the drill.

But are these really American foods? Not really: apple pie is English, and hot dogs German. Corn was cultivated by Mesoamericans long before the founding fathers were born — or Christopher Columbus for that matter. Hamburgers are American, but too recent to deserve formal veneration. So what does American food mean? Does it exist? Is it worth celebrating? I say it is.

(MORE: American Food: A Call for Culinary Independence)

The U.S. is a country defined by abundance and endless possibilities. It was conceived as a futurist utopia, and saw itself as having a cosmic claim to virgin land and endless phalanxes of beef animals darkening the boundless plain. Ultimately, this futurist utopia was impossible because every day new people, new ideas, new ethnicities, all with their own weird ways of eating, entered into it, hogging resources and obstinately refusing to stop being who they were. That was, and is, America’s glory and its curse. Our politics have not always been democratic, but our foodways have. For over three centuries, we have eaten ravenously, copiously, outrageously, irrationally, and often. In southern inns, on groaning boards filled with ham, veal, mutton, corn pudding, biscuits, sausages, and pies; in slave quarters and Choctaw villages, sofky (Indian polenta) and field peas and stewed innards simmered endlessly; in northern cities, in opulent restaurants with waiters bearing turtle soup and canvasback ducks and roasted lobsters and oysters cascading endlessly; in the west, where rivers teemed with trout, and the forests with deer and doves and wild turkeys and hare; in Chicago stock houses and Kansas wheat fields and the cranberry bogs and blackberry brambles of New England, and their fluted, crusted, ornate pies. It all was dropped into the great melting pot, along with anything else that came along, from empanadas to sushi. And it was eaten.

(PHOTOS: What We Eat: Food and American Identity at the National Archive)

It is this arching, expansive omnivorous spirit that America has always had, and which has never failed it. Progressive prigs who want everyone to eat raw food and artisanal sandwiches don’t understand that they are just one of many competing foodways; their panini may go into the pot, but so will Pop-Tarts and tweezer food and tortas. American food is polyglot and problematic, multivaried, confused, stained with a thousand national sins. But it is our own. And we should be proud of it. I have celebrated the hamburger as one of our great gifts to the world, but so is Sriracha sauce. Most people think of it as a Vietnamese condiment, but it, too, was invented here in America, with the goal of marketing it to a diverse population and getting rich along the way.

That is why the melting pot works as American metaphor. It entered our lexicon in 1908 when Israel Zangwill, a British Jew of Russian descent brought to the U.S. stage his wildly idealistic, romantic play, “The Melting Pot.” Its protagonist at one point says of America, “There she lies, the great Melting Pot — listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points east] — the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething!”

America continues to seethe and stir. It never settles; the differences are never effaced; there is too much heat underneath it, and too many feeder streams, all with their own hot sauce recipes and insatiable desire for combo meals served with ice-cold sodas. And the resulting mixture continues to change the way the rest of the world eats, year after year. Food, more than a vague and ambiguous democracy, may yet be the truest expression of who we are, and why we, as a country, matter.

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10 comments
Narit Alexander Trairatnobhas
Narit Alexander Trairatnobhas

Your reporters are really REALLY failing, HARD. Sriracha sauce is Thai... traditional Thai... Nothing to do with Vietnamese or America. there just happens to be a patented American brand of it that is named with the exact Thai word for the sauce. American's didn't invent our bloody culture's food seasonings, they just started making it as well and trademarked a brand of it. Get your facts straight.

This would be like saying "Oh, Thais invented Barbeque sauce, even though it's traditionally Canadian.. See, here it is; own patented brand- made by Maekrua"

Elizabeth Easel
Elizabeth Easel

I first want to say that I appreciate the way you specified that the word holiday is really 'holy day.' Actually, nationalism is recognized as being religious in nature. 

Anyway, I love eating foods from other places. I occasionally find my way down the international food section of my local grocery store. I can't get enough of Jamaican ginger beer, Japanese soda in its fancy bottle, Japanese rice candy, English Bounty candy bars (think Mounds bar but with real chocolate, less sugar, and fresh coconut), soy sauce (my fave condiment), and hard-shelled taco shells. I also try prepared international foods from Whole Foods from time to time.

Since America was founded and inhabited by people from other places, it only makes sense that the food would also have origins from other places. I don't think people will ever truly understand just how embedded other cultures are in our melting pot culture. As for people who waste their time being racist against other cultures, they should spend time seeing just how much those cultures contributed to American society in meaningful ways that we probably cannot live without.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

The Japanese have a term for Western cuisine so modified for Japanese tastes it became distinctly Japanese: "youshoku."

But here in the USA, we've adopted so many cuisines from around the world that things like pizza (originally from Italy), tacos and burritos (originally from northern Mexico near the US border), and Starbucks coffees (original derived from the Italian coffees made by espresso machines) has become quite all-American, anyway. Also, we've had the American equivalent of "youshoku" cuisine: a famous example being American Chinese food, with things like egg foo young, chop suey, and several other dishes that "look" Chinese but actually originated in the USA. Also, here in the USA, we see unusual types of sushi you rarely (if ever) see in Japan such as the California roll and spider roll.

Spirulina
Spirulina

The apple pie looks amazing!