Like the country itself, American food is a colorful tapestry of various cuisines, that originate from its native population as well as settlers from Europe, Asia, and Africa. So technically, there’s no distinctive American cuisine per se, rather it’s a milieu of dishes that traveled from other places and ended here. Foods like burgers, fries, fried chicken, apple pie, and every “classic American food” that built the nation’s food culture and history, have had their origin somewhere else.
Popular American Food and their origin
The All-American Hamburger
The origin story of this national favorite is in its name. It’s considered almost an American staple today, but it comes from Hamburg, back in the late 19th century. But the concept of burger patties goes further back in time, to 12th century Hamburg, where sudden growth of cattle rearing, resulted in making meat patties. Later, by the mid-19th century, with many German immigrants settling in the United States, the “Hamburg-style chopped steak” became a trendy thing. The first hamburger saw the light of the day at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, where it was introduced as a meat patty sandwiched between two buns. And that was the beginning of this classic American food, spreading across fast-food chains, gourmet kitchens, and homestyle recipes.
Whether it’s four and twenty blackbirds or, juicy apples, baked in a pie, this most-loved pastry started its journey in England in the 14th century. It was a product of culinary influences from the French, Dutch, and even the Ottoman Empire. However, those early recipes of a pie were filled with meat and fruits, which still exists in traditional English cuisine. By the 15th and 16th centuries, the Dutch and English settlers brought the recipe to the New World, and over the years, America found its distinct food experience in the Apple Pie we know and love today!
This is a very comforting, homestyle American food that was first introduced in the 1870s but became popular across the country, post-WWII. But some theories state that the origin of meatloaf goes back hundreds of years, as old as the 5th century. Making a loaf-like dish out of minced meat is mentioned in the Roman culinary collection, Apicius. There are also mentions of similar dishes in the cultural history of Germany, Scandinavia, and Belgium, which puts meatloaf somewhere in the Renaissance period in Europe.
When it was first popular in America, it was a breakfast dish and became a dinner item, much later. How about trying out this traditional meatloaf recipe for brunch?
Cornbread is a southern staple today but has its origin in Native American cuisine. Their origin goes back to thousands of years ago, when ground corn was an essential part of daily food of many native tribes from the southern regions and from Central America. What we know as cornbread today, started as dumplings and pancakes/flatbreads made of corn on an iron skillet on a wood fire, like tamales and tortillas, but a more rustic, ancient version of those. In the 1800s, the addition of ingredients like eggs, baking soda, buttermilk, etc. transformed the cornbread into a more wholesome dish, similar to the cornbread we eat today.
Another American food of Dutch origin, these flour cakes were originally brought in by settlers from the Netherlands. They were called olykoeks or roughly translated as “oily cake”, because of the deep-fried dough.
The modern variant of the doughnut with a hole originated in the mid-19th century in New England, where a local woman became popular for her fried dough balls with nuts in the center. Later, her son cut out the center to get rid of the gooey, uncooked dough. And voila! America found its popular snack that runs from morning to night, as a pairing with your first cup of coffee to a movie-time munch, or even a midnight snack!
There wouldn’t be game nights, backyard cookouts, Sunday barbecues, or street food in New York City, without hot dogs. And we have to thank the Germans for that. There are many stories about who introduced this American food or where it came from, but the source remains the same. Also called Frankfurters, these sausages came from Frankfurt, Germany. The etymology begins back in the day when sausages were often called dogs in local slang, probably out of fear that sausages were made from dog meat. When it was introduced to America, they were pork and beef sausages sold as street food at hand carts and stands and were popular among working-class Americans. It was a quick filling meal, that one could enjoy in the middle of a busy day or on the go, and it still is, in many places.
Food is a constant evolution and keeps changing with time and place. Each of these dishes adapted to local flavors and ingredients, making them quintessentially American food.