What’s American Food? A Blend Of Old And New

American cuisine is a blend of regional foods. New England tradition combined Puritan fare and the foods of new immigrants. Southern dishes are based on corn, pork and African foods. Dishes from Europe produced Midwest cuisine. Native Americans were a strong influence in the Southwest.

Say “American food” to almost anyone, and they will probably say hot dogs and hamburgers. But, true American food is best represented by traditional regional foods. Regional cuisine grew out of the necessity to adapt to what was locally available. The Native Americans introduced immigrants to many new, unfamiliar foods, and taught them how to grow, prepare, and preserve them. However, the many immigrant groups brought old traditions they didn’t want to give up. And the regional cuisines are a result of the blending of the old and new, creating dishes we now identify with different parts of the country.


New England–“The Three Sisters”

The first English settlers, finding no beef or wheat in the new world, nearly starved. Luckily, the Native Americans taught them how to grow and prepare the foods they called the “three sisters”–beans, corn, and squash. Finding an abundance of fish, game, and other local foods, the English colonists learned to adapt to their new environment. They soon were using new foods in old recipes. For example, corn (a new food to them) was included in a pudding (an old recipe) to make Indian pudding.

The Puritan no-nonsense approach to life was also applied to their foods. New England cooking became known for its simple and direct flavors. Boiled lobster, fish chowder, New England boiled dinner (corned beef and root vegetables) are tasty, easy-to-prepare dishes. The strict Puritan rule of no work on the Sabbath led to the development of slow-cooking recipes such as baked beans and brown bread. These meals were cooked in an earthenware pot over Saturday night so they were ready by noon on Sunday.

New England’s role as an international trading center brought in supplies from around the world. Spices, molasses, and chocolate were among the ingredients available to the colonial cook. Combined with local foods, the colonists created pumpkin pie, cranberry raisin tart, and gingerbread.

In the mid-1800s an influx of immigrants from Ireland, French Canada, Portugal, Italy, Poland, and Finland brought new traditions, tastes, and foods. New England foods gained diversity that continues even today with the newer immigrants from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

The South–Grits and Cornbread

European settlers in the South ate, for the most part, what the natives ate–corn, beans, squash, deer, turkey, fish. They soon added pork to their diet, which had a significant effect on how foods were cooked. None of the pork was wasted; all parts were used in one way or another. Lard, or pork fat, was used to flavor foods and for frying.

Corn, the principal food crop, was prepared as a vegetable, roasted, boiled, ground, fried, and made into hominy grits. Native Americans taught early settlers to make hominy. When the hulled kernels of corn are dried and coarsely ground, they become grits. Grits are usually cooked into a thick, hot cereal and served for breakfast.

Grits and cornbread are strongly identified with the South. A traditional Southern breakfast always includes grits, and every family has a favorite cornbread recipe. Other popular corn dishes are spoonbread, hush puppies, and hoecakes or corncakes.

African food traditions made a significant contribution to Southern cuisine. Okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and collards originally came from Africa. Slaves who cooked for plantation owners further developed the unique qualities of Southern cuisine by blending African, European, and Native American foods. Gumbo, a thick soup with vegetables, gets its name from the Bantu word for okra.

Slave ships often stopped in the West Indies and South America on their way to the Southern colonies. There, chilies, potatoes, and tomatoes were added to the cargo. These foods were added to the mix of the developing Southern cuisine. The ships also brought another important import: the method of slow-roasting meat, called barbecue.

In the early South, there were two different cooking styles, the sumptuous meals of the plantation owners and the country-style or “soul” foods of the poor whites and black slaves. Over the years these have merged to become the Southern cooking we know today.

The Midwest–Cheese and Pizza

Unlike the Native Americans in other parts of the country, the early inhabitants of the Great Lakes region depended on wild rice rather than corn. Wild rice is an aquatic grass with a taste and texture quite different from rice. Usually cooked as a gruel and seasoned with maple sugar, berries, or animal fat, wild rice was also used in soups and stews.

The first European immigrants to homestead in the Great Lakes region were Germans. Their contribution to Midwest cuisine includes bratwurst (a sausage made from pork, veal, and eggs), potatoes (used in dumplings, pancakes, warm potato salad), and noodles.

Soon to follow were the Scandinavians, who brought rye bread, Swedish meatballs, herring salad, and Danish pastries. With the influx of Europeans in the mid- to late 1800s, many ethnic groups found themselves living together in the cities and towns of the Midwest. Their cultures converged to create what we now think of as Midwestern fare: pot roast, stuffed pork chops, sausage and kraut, Wisconsin cheese, deepdish pizza, apple strudel, hot German potato salad.


The Southwest–Corn, Beans, and Chilies

The strongest influence of Native American cooking is in the cuisine of the Southwest. The native inhabitants of this region grew many different varieties of corn, beans, squash, and chilies, long before the Spanish arrived. More than 200 varieties of corn were developed by Native Americans. Various colors of corn were created to represent the cardinal points of the universe: blue (west), white (east), yellow (north), red (south), multicolored (zenith), and black (nadir). Blue corn is still identified with the Southwest.

A wide range of beans were also grown. As with corn, they were hybridized to produce different colors. Certain varieties were also best suited for local growing conditions. Beans were used in soups, stew, and cakes, added to salads, and ground to make flour.

Spanish explorers traded cattle, pork, fruits, and vegetables for beans, corn, and squash. Although the roots of Southwestern cuisine lie mainly in Native American cooking, it has evolved as a mixture of Hispanic and Anglo-American styles as well. Basic ingredients are still chilies, corn, beans, and spices. Corn tortillas are served in small roadside cafes as well as the upscale restaurants. Regional specialties that reflect the blend of cultures include: posole, a stew made with pork, hominy corn, and chilies; and blue corn-black bean rellenos. As you can see, American food is much more than hamburgers and hot dogs. It offers you a wide variety of tastes that blend the old with the new.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cornmeal Pancakes

1/2 c cornmeal 1 1/2 c flour 2 1/2 tsp baking powder 3/4 tsp baking soda 1/4 tsp salt 3 Tbsp sugar 2 eggs, beaten 3 Tbsp vegetable oil 2 c buttermilk

Combine all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat egg and add buttermilk and oil. All liquids to flour mixture and stir only blended; there should still be some lumps. On hot, lightly greased griddle, pour 1/4 cup batter for each pancake. Turn pancakes when they are golden brown. Serve with syrup or fresh fruit, such as strawberries or blueberries.


1 Tbsp vegetable oil 1/2 c chopped onion 1 clove garlic, minced 1 lb extra lean ground beef 1 14 1/2 oz can dized tomatoes in juice,

undrained 2 15 oz cans kidney, pinto,

or black beans, drained and rinsed 1 6 oz can tomato paste 1 1/2 cups water 2 tsp chili powder 1/2 tsp salt

In a Dutch oven or large saucepan, saute onion and garlic in vegetable oil. Add ground beef and stir to break up into large pieces. Cook until meat is browned. Stir in tomatoes, beans, tomato paste, water, chili powder, and salt. Cover and simmer 15 to 30 minutes. Serve with tortillas, crackers, or cornbread, or over cooked spaghetti or rice. Make 6 to 8 servings.