“American Cuisine”! What on earth is that? The Americans don’t have any cuisine they can call their own. That is the typical response of any gourmand and connoisseur of food, who considers himself knowledgeable and informed. But is such a sweeping dismissal true? Granted the food that we know today as coming from the continent of America is not really indigenous to the people of America, nonetheless the fact remains that food brought by the immigrants from their home countries have been assimilated and Americanized, so much so that now, one can state with conviction that yes, there is an American cuisine that is typical to America alone.
In actual fact, if one delves a bit into the history underlying American recipes and cuisine, one realizes that what unfolds is a time line of American history. We get a sweeping overview of the various stages in the history of the American nation when immigrants from different countries came to America in droves and were amalgamated and assimilated into a part of the mainstream of American life.
The original inhabitants of America were the Native Americans, popularized in novels and films as tomahawk toting, feathered headdress sporting ‘Red Indians’. They were a simple tribal people who grew their own corn, squash and beans. Ironically, even till today, somehow the influence of these three products remains on the variety of American cuisines available across the country. They are ubiquitously present as grits and cornbread in the South, baked beans in the North and tortillas and pinto beans in the Southwest. The next influx of immigrants was the African Americans, and I for one personally feel, the quintessential American barbecue is entirely to their credit. Smoked meats began their journey on the American palate with them.
Lifestyles too led to the molding of certain kinds of American cuisine. Thus the gracious plantation owner’s wife helped by an astounding array of cooks and underlings, most of whom were slaves pre Civil war, led to Southern cooking being elaborate. The meals were long and there were plenty of side dishes, condiments and varieties of breads and biscuits. It was a way of life to have leisurely meals with many courses and this lifestyle helped create many of the Southern recipes in American Cuisines. Typical dishes being pork, smoked hams with biscuits dripping gravy and the fried chicken that has been popularized by the omnipresent Kentucky Fried Chicken in cities worldwide.
The French too left their imprint on American cuisines. In fact both Cajun and Creole cooking are heavily influenced by the French reliance on butter, oil and flour, which gives the dishes a ‘roux’ taste that is so typically French in its flavor. Creole food has a more cosmopolitan flavor having influences from other French colonies creeping in. Cajun food on the other hand simmers slowly for a long time in the pot, the food cooking slowly in its own juices. Thus we have the sublimely delicious prawn etoufees and gumbos.
The Mexican nation too heavily influenced American cuisine. Of course the proximity as well as the large numbers of Mexican immigrants also added to the impact. ‘Guacamole’, ‘ chili’, ‘tamales’, ‘enchiladas’ all these are terms Spanish in origin which the Mexicans brought with them to influence American Cuisine. In fact ‘Salsa’ is not just a popular dance form, it is now universally popular over the world as a spicy tomato and chili dip.
And Mama Mia, when one speaks of American Cuisine can one ever dream of leaving out the pastas and pizzas of the Italians. They brought sun dried tomatoes and pizza bread to this continent and today no American teenager worth his salt would claim ignorance to the difference between pepperoni and margarita toppings. Spaghetti and meat sauce still continues to be a staple of most American children growing up across the nation.
With the arrival of Chinese laborers came Chinese food and soon “American Chop Suey” became a part of the Chinese menu in restaurants worldwide. Can one imagine no Chinese takeout in cartons!! Half on America’s corporate populace survive on Chinese takeaway meals and TV dinners.
Southeast Asian recipes are a recent addition to American Cuisine but chutney, poppadums and tandoori are now familiar terms in the American chef’s lexicon. Bangladeshi food, Vietnamese food, Thai curries….the list is endless the possibilities are always expanding. As the country continues to be a symbol of hope and success to the immigrant the parameters of American cuisine and cooking keeps constantly changing. And I really don’t think the American people are complaining!