Thursday, February 6, 2014

America's Defining Foods

A few years ago while traveling across Europe with an Italian friend I was told that Americans have no culinary tradition or invention outside of hamburgers and hot dogs.  Immersed in all things Italian and French at that moment, I tended to agree.  I have thought about this often in the years since.  We were wrong.  While many things American have by nature roots on other traditions, there are many foods that are uniquely American.  Thrillist just recently published their list of America's 33 Most Iconic Foods, and it has motivated me to add my two cents.

One thing I enjoy about this list is not just listing the foods but also ideal locations at which to eat them.  As I dove into the list I was looking for the usual suspects – BBQ, wings, burgers, and county fair food like corn dogs and smothered fries.  Instead I found some regional treats I need to add to my collection.  Of course, I also found a list of places I apparently need to eat some old stand-bys and a fair number of foods and places I have already eaten.
Here are some specific responses…
1.       Reindeer meat in Alaska – ok, Americans are not exactly known for consuming a wide range of meats.  We stick to cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and some fish.  Organ meat and non-traditional animals?   Not so much.  But I love and will search for the odd meat.  Reindeer in Alaska? I’m intrigued.  If you like the occasional odd meat, I recommend Le Fou Frog (  in Kansas City for some French preparations.

2.       Brisket and various forms of BBQ show up on the list a few times and certainly evoke Americana to me.  Risking committing patriotic blasphemy, BBQ has never really done much for me.  But perfectly cooked ribs, burnt ends, or a pulled pork sandwich…ok….delicious.  And my favorite place for ribs is by FAR Oklahoma Joe’s, an amazing place that shares a gas station in Kansas City, Kansas (  It is worth making a special trip to KC. 

3.       Hamburgers and hot dogs and the three summer holidays – is there anything more American?  Chili dogs, Chicago dogs (and Hot Doug’s has been on my list for years), red hots – in many forms we have special hot dogs.  The burger seems to have gone through serious expansion phase where we see gigantic burgers with so many toppings nobody’s mouth can take them in.  But my favorite burgers go the other way to minimalism and simplicity.  Booches in Columbia, Missouri ( and Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago make a simple, small burger with basic white buns and white American cheese served on wax paper (  Order two to start and let ‘em melt in your mouth like no other.

4.       We do some wonderful things with seafood in this country including crab cakes, lobster roll, oysters and all sorts of grilled fish.  And my single favorite lobster roll remains Day’s Lobster Pound in South Yarmouth, Maine (  It is simple, not overly seasoned or covered in mayo, served on a grilled flat bottom roll, and it makes me weep for its delicious simplicity.

5.       Okra, chittlins, hominy, greens – soul food could rival burgers and dogs for being quintessentially American.  Some hot sauce and good music and you have pure joy.  The best I have had came from a church fundraiser and was made with lots of love.

6.       Stews and Chowders – we have a knack for making some rich, delicious, chunky soups.  The only one I get too excited about though is a New England clam chowder, preferably my dad’s based on the recipe of the York Harbor Inn in York, Maine (  It can’t be too thick and creamy, must be loaded with clams, and absolutely must not be red or clear.

7.       Pork Loin and pulled pork sandwiches – When I coached track and field in Missouri the State Championship track meet was held at the stadium of Lincoln University, an HBCU, in Jefferson City.  The dads of one of the university’s fraternities set up a trailer a numerous grills outside the stadium entrance.  By 10am each day the front of the stadium filled with the most amazing smoke.  Stop by that trailer and get pulled pork or pork loin slapped on a piece of white bread that serves no purpose but to hold the meat while you quickly eat.  The bread will disintegrate.  You will be happy and messy and smiling. 

8.       Chicken and waffles – like so many regional idiosyncrasies, this one has gone national while LA’s Roscoe’s remains the original and the Mecca (  I haven’t been yet, find the combo exceptionally weird, but look forward to a visit soon

9.       Sandwiches  - Cultures all over the world have sandwiches, but we seem to have them all.  The pastrami at Katz’s in NYC is worth every dime of the small fortune it costs (  A great BLT, my favorite is Betty’s in Santa Cruz, CA, makes me feel like a kid again (  Italian beef combo in Chicago or Philly cheese – makes my mouth water.

10.   Brats – can this really be American?  Sure, Wisconsin seems a great place to grab one, but so does Munich.  Don’t get me wrong, I love ‘em, but the best I have ever had was in the train station in Hanover, Germany

11.   Fried Chicken  and Chicken wings – Certainly American food icons, but I don’t get it.  Too much trouble, too little reward.  Just give me straight blue cheese and anything fried.

12.   Mexican Food – I find it funny that the Thrillist list has at least three clearly Mexican items.  Granted, a burrito in the States is a very different thing.  That said, I have had a serious craving for a good taqueria for months now and in that time have had a dozen tacos in local taquerias, but I remain unsatiated.  Had great tacos…I just want more.  I can’t cure this craving!

13.   Toasted Ravioli – I mentioned these the other day – truly St. Louis’ iconic food and now it is turning up at catered parties and wedding receptions all over the nation.  Americans really are happy to eat anything fried.  Deep fried ravioli…it has grown on me, and I am partial to Rigazzi’s in St. L (
What do you think are America’s most iconic foods and where must we eat them?  What are our equivalents of foie gras, beef wellington and osso buco?  Have tacos and brats been so adopted and adapted that they are now also American foods? 

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