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Ethnic Cuisine: United States

by Nancy Freeman

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"There is no American food. When we begin to list American foods, either we talk about regional things like lobster or shrimp Creole, or we talk about spaghetti and pizza and hot dogs...One could argue it's what makes us great. The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity."
—Sidney Mintz, Anthropologist

The United States is a land of delicious eating from coast to coast, neighborhood to neighborhood and kichen to kitchen. But its cultural and culinary mix makes it impossible to characterize in a single byte or even a string of them.

The two concepts essential to understanding US food are regionalism and diversity, accent on the latter. After all, Italian food differs from province to province and city to city as well. But key themes run through Italy's food from south to north simply because its people have such strong roots in the Italian soil. Not so with the US. A nation of newcomers, its food reflects its origins.

But first to credit the unsung and the unwilling. Long before Europeans set foot on American soil, vibrant and healthy civilizations nurtured themselves off the bounty of the land. They taught the settlers to plant the holy trinity of Native American cuisine — corn, beans and squash. The settlers returned the favor by nearly exterminating their benefactors, but those three foods played a vital role in defining American cuisine. They retain their importance today across the continent — grits, cornbread and hoppin' john in the South, tortillas and pinto beans in the Southwest, baked beans and succotash in the Northeast and pumpkin pie just about everywhere for Thanksgiving.

Some of the strongest influences on US cuisine came from African slaves, the people who least intended to be here. American food is inconceivable without barbecue in its many variations, all kinds of fritters and a mess of greens. Indeed Africans brought with them important techniques including smoking meats, frying grains and legumes into fritters, boiling leafy green vegetables, and making up hot, spicy sauces. Since African-Americans ran the kitchens on Southern plantations, they played a major role in molding the renowned cuisine of the South. Years later when railroads began to cross the continent, Black men ran the galleys and carried that influence north and west.

Regional cuisines emerged as settlers — willing and otherwise — modified their culinary traditions to suit local climates. The simple, sturdy foods of the Northeast reflect more than any other the English origins of the country. But meats and vegetables imported from the homeland merged with local ingredients such as turkey, maple syrup, lobster, clams, cranberries and always corn to provide delicious specialties such as Indian pudding, Boston brown bread, clam chowder and Maine boiled lobster.

Southern settlers, also of English stock, confronted a kinder climate and more of them benefited from the assistance of Black hands in the kitchen. The average farmer's wife could hardly spare the time needed for the multiple dishes that made up a plantation meal. To this day no Southern dinner is complete without numerous side dishes including breads, biscuits, salads and condiments — preferably home made.

Of all Southern dishes, fried chicken achieved the most popularity outside the region — to the extent that entire fast food chains have sprung up serving debased versions. At home, Southerners continue to use a great deal of pork. Hams from Virginia are universally recognized to be the country's finest. Bacon and salt pork appear as flavoring agents with greens and beans. Ham biscuits are a classic accompaniment to breakfast and dinner and ham with red-eye gravy is a regional piece de resistance, though the debate swirls on as to whether the best red-eye is made with water or black coffee.

North of the Deep South, the geography of the coastal Carolinas proved conducive to rice growing and produced a rice-based cuisine. Specialties such as Hoppin' John — cooked rice and black-eyed peas flavored with salt pork — and Charleston Red Rice are just two of many local rice dishes. Seafood specialties include the famous Charleston She-Crab Soup. The Carolina version of barbecue uses a stiff dose of vinegar in its sauce which places locals strongly at odds with Texas and Kansas City folks who prefer a much sweeter sauce.

And then there is Southern Louisiana, a single portion of a single state that has given rise to two major cuisines. Outsiders easily confuse Creole and Cajun cooking and with good reason. Both reflect French influences and both styles frequently begin their dishes with a roux — butter or oil with flour cooked to anywhere from light gold to rich brown depending on the dish. Both use rice and the area's abundant seafood. They are often highly spiced and borrow culinary concepts from one another.

But Creole cooking is city food and grows out of the region's earliest colonial history. The French first settled the area and jostled with Spain for control long before the Louisiana Purchase. The overseas French mingled their own cuisine with local ingredients and were strongly influenced by Spanish, African and Caribbean food. The result is refined, subtly seasoned and served in multiple courses.

On the other hand, Cajun cuisine is the food of country folk. The French inhabitants of Nova Scotia were expelled by the British in 1755. After years of wandering, they settled in the swamps of Southern Louisiana where they learned to rely on available ingredients such as game, shrimp, and crawfish. Cajun food is often cooked all in one pot, using relatively few herbs but served with plenty of hot sauce. The subtleties of Cajun food come from patient, long simmering of carefully chosen ingredients. Specialties include crawfish etouffee (smothered with sauce), gumbos — soupy stews — and rice dishes like jambalayas.

Southwest cuisine may well qualify as the oldest US regional style. Prior to 1845 when the Spanish began to relinquish control, the entire area was part of Mexico. Not surprisingly, its contemporary cuisine bears a strong family resemblance to Mexican food. It still draws heavily on native foodstuffs, in particular corn, beans and chilies. The word "chili" is Aztec in origin as are "guacamole" and "tomato." This is a cuisine with serious roots.

Corn tortillas remain the essential Southwestern breadstuff. Pinto beans stewed or refried are a key source of protein. Tamales are festive food on both sides of the border. Salsas made of tomatoes, tomatillos and chilies liven up all manner of dishes.

Pork and beef are Spanish introductions redefined to suit the local palate. New Mexico's carne adovado consists of pork stewed in a sauce made up almost entirely of dried red peppers. In Texas, beef has mixed with pinto beans to become chili con carne. In Southern Arizona, wheat tortillas are often preferred over corn, and you might be surprised to find them lying flat under a pile of meat, beans, cheese and sauce rather than rolled when you order a plate of enchiladas.

Standing up to the personalities of the Southwest and Louisiana can be a tall order and foods of other regions sometimes seem a bit ho-hum by comparison. But the continued imprint of immigration makes for delicious eating nationwide.

For example, Germans moving into the Midwest helped make Milwaukee the nation's beer capital. Their insatiable love of sausages left a permanent imprint on the nation's tastes. After all, what's a ball game without a hot dog?

But perhaps no ethnic group has exercised as much influence on American eating as the Italians who began arriving in earnest in the late nineteenth century. This mirrors the fact that people from the poorer south emigrated earliest and in greatest numbers.

By the beginning of World War II, selected Italian dishes had become as American as apple pie. The first to enter the US lexicon was spaghetti with tomato sauce followed soon after by all manner of pastas. Pizza took off after World War II and Chicago became the center for a deep-dish double-crusted style that has since spread nationwide as "Chicago pizza."

Meanwhile housewives picked up helpful tips on how to cook osso bucco and other dishes from Italian butchers right at the market, and Italian farmers helped popularize such vegetables as artichokes and eggplant. Campbell canned minestrone and no one remembers anymore that Oscar Meyer's baloney had its origins as bologna in the Italian delis across the country.

It took awhile to learn that not all pasta sauce is red, but by the seventies, pesto was ultra-chic. Americans today are still discovering the wonders of regional Italian cuisine and will probably be doing so for some time.

Immigration continues to broaden the spectrum of American cuisine. While officials huff and puff over tightening the border with Mexico, citizens flock to Mexican eateries, inhaling tacos, quesadillas, chili verde, and chilies rellenos. Going out for a burrito has become as much a part of the American experience as grabbing a quick burger.

Chinese food arrived with the first laborers brought over to build the railroads. Confined to the Chinese community which was legally kept from mingling with the broader population, it overflowed the borders of Chinatowns to become part of the American eating experience.

The earliest immigrants, largely from Canton, brought with them a taste for what many aficionados believe is the most delicate and refined of Chinese cuisines. The mix of more recent arrivals insures that every city of medium size offers cooking from Szechwan, Hunan, and beyond. Chinese food is now inseparably lodged in the American smorgasborg. Not everyone has access to great Chinese food, but all have access to some.

The seventies and eighties brought an influx of Southeast Asians in the wake of the Vietnam war. Thai food with its balance of sweet, sour, salt and spice buffered by the richness of coconut milk suddenly became the hottest item on the culinary landscape. Some predict Vietnamese cuisine will be next to take off. Southeast Asian food is now an important part of the US culinary scene and promises to grow.

Not surprisingly California, packed to the gills with immigrants and produce basket to the nation, has given rise to its own cuisine. But just what is California cuisine? Good question.

Historically, California cuisine was a reaction against attempts to reproduce European culinary traditions at all costs and at all times of the year, even if it meant importing ingredients over long distances. Even more offensive was the increase in processed foods. California cuisine — no longer limited to California — means using only what's in season and perfectly fresh.

"Big deal," say the cooks of Italy and France, who have been cooking with the seasons for centuries.

But the secret is California's population and produce. Side by side with artichokes, fava beans and haricots, California's fields burst with bok choy, Chinese broccoli, lemon grass, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint. Summer brings heirloom tomatoes and tomatillos, avocados and Asian pears, infinite varieties of peppers. Nothing but the freshest ingredients means you can still recreate much of the world's food.

All of which gives rise to fusion cuisine, the newest and sometimes strangest phenomenon on the US table. The notion behind fusion is to take ingredients from more than one cuisine, mix them together and create something new. Needless to say, the consequences can be exquisite or disastrous. Some of the finest fusion can be found in Seattle, where the accent is on mingling Asian flavors with classical European cooking styles, and in South Florida where the flavors come from the Caribbean, South America and Cajun country.

The finest of fusion chefs warn against muddying flavors beyond recognition by using too many at once, but "wrap" places, the latest thing in fast food, are springing up like mushrooms. Here you can find "Thai" spiced chicken wrapped in green tortillas and "Chinese" pork done up in red. So far the public is buying. The concept has made its way onto the grocery shelf and into the freezer case where dried, canned and frozen foods labeled "Szechwan," "Thai," "Caribbean" and "Tuscan" crowd the shelves although they bear little resemblance to the real thing.

American cuisine has come a long way since the early days of corn, beans and squash and along the way it has spawned some eminently forgettable food. Nonetheless the US remains a great place for great eating. Delicious regional styles remain and the new blood of immigrants sparks the imagination of the finest chefs while making for great inexpensive food in the cities. As Dr. Mintz said, "The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity ... One could argue it's what makes us great."

So come and get it.

more on American Cuisine...
introduction  |  cookbooks  |  reading

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