“As American as apple pie,” the famous saying goes. Apple may be America’s favorite pie, but despite the fact that it seems to be the benchmark against which a given object’s Americanness is measured, apple pie is not actually American. Apples themselves were brought to the New World in the 17th century, and apple pies and tarts appear throughout Europe, and the American version – with warm baking spices – is almost certainly a (slight) riff on an English recipe.
There are, however, a few dishes we can think of that deserve the “as-american-as” moniker. Here are the most American dishes in existence:
Most scholars attribute the invention of barbecue to the indigenous people living in the Caribbean at the time of European contact in the 16th century, according to Adrian Miller, Soul Food Scholar. Europeans “marveled at the raised platform made of wood that the indigenous people were using over a fire,” explains Miller, and the technique was adopted and has continued to evolve since then.
While barbecue has since been divided into several distinct styles within the U.S., there is one thing that unites them – and differentiates them from other similar cooking styles around the world: smoke.
“The extensive use of smoking techniques to impart flavor distinguishes American barbecue,” explains Miller. “Otherwise, it’s just grilling. Smoking is a tie that binds all of the American regional styles.”
Hamburger steaks, Salisbury steak, steak hâché – these ground beef patties exist all over Europe, with one caveat: they’re eaten with a knife and fork. Putting the patty on bread, however, is what made this dish into an American classic. Add to that cheese, ketchup, and a now infinite number of other toppings and you’ve got a sandwich that doesn’t even resemble other ground meats the world over.
“If you want to think of a recipe that’s quintessentially American,” says Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific (United States) and founder of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco. “there’s one sure sign: We love to eat with our hands.” Turning the hamburger into a sandwich is “attached to the American desire for speed and novelty and convenience,” explains Albala.
General Tso’s Chicken
Chinese food as it’s made throughout the United States merits the suffix -American in most cases, and perhaps no Chinese dish is more American than General Tso’s chicken, which Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and producer on The Search for General Tso, calls “the MVP of American Chinese dishes.”
“It’s very popular in America, because it’s sweet and it’s fried and it’s chicken, which are all things that Americans love,” she says. While she notes that a Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken does exist, it is not at all like the version served in the United States. “It’s not sweet; it’s not batter fried. It has skin and bones,” she says. “And then as it got to America, it kind of morphed.”
General Tso’s Chicken is so far removed from the Chinese food eaten in China, in fact, that Oberlin College students protested it being served in their dining hall in 2015, citing cultural appropriation.
Corn is a New World ingredient and a staple food of many Native American groups. Merry White, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, notes that while corn is indigenous to the Americas, “Cornbread is a later creation.”
Not only is the crop itself native to the continent, cornbread has one other key ingredient that was invented – and used mostly – in America: a chemical leavener like baking soda. Baking soda is what make many American baked goods American. The main difference between a crepe and a pancake, after all, is the baking soda that gives American pancakes their signature fluffiness.
While some attribute the invention of baking powder to British chemist Alfred Bird in the early 19th century, Albala notes that the first American patent, registered in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins, was for an early chemical leavener. He also notes that while they exist elsewhere, these leaveners are used most often in the U.S.; most Europeans, he says, find American baked goods like pancakes or even biscuits to have an alkaline, soapy flavor.
Mac and Cheese
In order to get to baked mac and cheese as we know it today, you need to know how to make a béchamel, which is a French technique. The combination, however, of Italian macaroni and a French sauce, Albala says, is likely American, much like the Depression-era casserole, which also featured a white, béchamel-like sauce.
“That’s always happening,” explains White. “Technique comes from one place, ingredients come from another place, and then you get this thing that’s the product of that, and it gets kind of a new identity.”