Useful Notes / Cuisines in America
America — AKA the United States
— has often been described as a "melting pot". This is very, very true. International influences are all over our art, our population, our languages, and most tellingly, our cuisine. Depending on where you live, you can find all kinds of cuisine in the good old U.S. of A.
Your area may not have all of these cuisines, or it may have all of them. Obviously, if you live in Nowhere, Indiana, you can't expect to drive on down to the four-star French restaurant for a bite to eat; and if you live in New York City
, you're probably within walking distance (or at least subway distance
) of about 20 world-class culinary establishments—and several dozen less-than-world-class ones, as well. Location, location, location. This note is meant as a broad overview of the dining options one can find in the United States.
Before we begin, here are several warnings we have for the tourists and those planning to move here:
- There is so much sugar in the recipes of many, if not most, dishes here in the States that foreigners not accustomed to it are said to find our food disconcertingly sweet.
- Note that this can be inverted in the case of starches. The American palate expects bread (that isn't specifically a sweet bread such as cinnamon rolls), a staple food expected to be served with many, many types of meals (with the exception of some ethnic cuisines), to be more "yeasty" in flavor, and potato-based dishes to be starchy and salty. This can be disconcerting to a visitor to, for instance, China, where bread tends toward sweet, as do potato chips.
- Also note that, when we say "sugar", what we often mean is "high-fructose corn syrup" (or HFCS), a sugar substitute derived from corn. This is frequently used in place of cane sugar due to both large subsidies granted to corn farmers and strict quotas on cane sugar imports, and unless a sweet food is explicitly specified as not having HFCS in it, it can be assumed to have it. The only problem this causes is that Jewish restrictions on grains during Passover prevent its consumption for them around then. The health effects of HFCS (particularly as it concerns America's problems with obesity) are a controversial subject, but most health professionals generally agree that this is probably more a function of economics versus any difference from regular cane sugar; it's heavily subsidized and therefore dirt-cheap, allowing food makers to put it in just about anything. In Europe and other places, cane sugar is cheaper than HFCS, and not any less prevalent in food. Remember: like your parents told you when you were little, eating too many sweets is bad for your health, whether it's natural cane sugar or HFCS.
- Our food tends to be in very large portions as well, relative to those of most other countries, particularly in Southern states. So be careful how much you order; it might be more than you expect. Drinks are also much larger, though in fairness, that is in part because cold drinks contain a lot of ice. (See #4 below.) Important: Unlike in many cultures, it is not considered rude to leave food on your plate. In most restaurants, it is considered normal to take any leftovers home in a box to eat later. (However, this would usually be considered odd behavior if dining as a guest in an American home unless your hosts offer you some leftovers).
- Although this might conceivably vary by region a little (as well as those with lactose intolerance), in America we put cheese on everything.note On virtually every soup, on virtually every salad, on most kinds of sandwiches... it would be much easier to list the foods our restaurants won't automatically put cheese on, although it's harder to think of them. One of the few exceptions to this rule is fish.note
- Americans are, however, relatively conservative in their cheese tastes, going mainly for firm, salty, mild-tasting cheeses and processed cheese foods imitating flavors thereof. Predominant varieties include Cheddar, Colby (similar to Cheddar but softer and milder), Monterey Jack (similar to Colby but white and sometimes sold with minced hot peppers mixed in as "Pepper Jack"), Colby-Jack (a hybrid of the last two), Mozzarella (the cheese of choice for pizzas), Swissnote (no self-respecting deli doesn't offer sandwiches with Swiss), "Mexican" (could be any number of things, although commonly it's imitation Oaxaca; the closer you are to an area with a large Mexican-American population, the better a shot you have at finding the real deal), Parmesan (based on Parmigiano-Reggiano and generally sold ground-up and used as a condiment or garnish), Provolone (only vaguely similar to the Italian cheese of the same name; how vaguely depends on how far from the East Coast you are, with East Coast versions being a reasonable facsimilenote and more distant ones...um...not), "cream cheese" (a mild, spreadable processed cheese food, vaguely reminiscent of several European soft cheeses), Cheez Whiz, and of course, American cheese and its derivative, Velveetanote . There is an increasing interest in imported and artisanal cheeses—artisanal cheddar production in the US has been a movement since at least The '90s. With very rare exceptions (almost all involving cream cheese), cheese is only eaten with savory dishes as opposed to sweet ones.
- We generally prefer our drinks cold – and that means refrigerated, and often with ice cubes (sometimes with crushed ice cubes). See the sections on tea and beer below, and note that other common drinks like sodas, milkshakes, and several types of mixed drinks are all served this way. Even iced coffee has become popular in recent years. Don't hesitate to ask for no ice if you prefer it. Restaurants, be they fancy-French or fast-food, will always comply. Further, water falls into this category, with "glacial runoff" being the preferred temperature. This is particularly true in the South, where summers are often unbearably hot and humid.
- Finally, when considering American "ethnic" restaurants, it is advisable to imagine that there is a silent "-American" on the end of any ethnic identification, meaning "Italian" food would be more accurately described as "Italian-American" food. As a rule, all of these types of restaurants get their menus from localized versions of whatever was popular when the primary segment of the immigrant group in question moved to America, which often bears little to no resemblance to current national cuisines. To give an example, people used to European-Italian food are often confused when watching a show like Everybody Loves Raymond, where the Italian-American Barone family are frequently seen around the dinner table. The dishes Marie Barone prepares are often named, even described, but are not found in European Italian cooking. Even when they are familiar, the names ascribed to them are Italian-American and completely different (as names of dishes may have changed over time, and these names were hardly standardized in the first place); this is further confused for Europeans by different pronunciation, derived from decades of Americanization of names that aren't exactly "Italian" in the first place (they tend to be Neapolitan or Sicilian).
Logically enough, the more recent the migration, the closer together the "-American" and original cuisines will be. Vietnamese-American and Mexican-American (a.k.a Tex-Mex due to the large number of Mexican-Americans, the originators of the cuisine, in Texas) restaurants, for example, serve food that is generally quite similar to authentic Vietnamese and Mexican cuisinenote
while Chinese-American and Italian-American cuisine, coming from far more well-established communitiesnote
, has diverged so far that they can be called Chinese and Italian In-Name-Only
. For one prime example, spaghetti and meatballs is considered quintessentially Italian to the point of cliche in most of the USnote
, and even (hell, especially) in parts like the Northeast that know better, it's still endlessly popular. In Italy, on the other hand, spaghetti and meatballs seldom meet in the same course, and when they do, it's associated with Disney
. Likewise, beloved Chinese restaurant dishes such as General Tso's chicken, chop suey, and even fortune cookies are Chinese-American inventions and were virtually unknown in China until recent years.
- A corollary to this, however, is that many Americans are well aware of the divergence between "their" versions of immigrant cuisine and the real thing, and that more authentic restaurants do exist in larger urban centers and in places where recent immigrants of that ethnicity are concentrated.
- Another thing to note is that many food both Americans and people from the country of origin assume are American inventions actually come from the country of origin, but only one small area or an ethnic group that mainly fled. Chop Suey and many other "American" Chinese dishes are actually Cantonese, and much Eastern European cuisine is actually Ashkenazi Jewish.
- There are two levels of ethnic cuisine: the cuisines founded by working-class immigrants to feed their peers and later adopted by the rest of the country, with Jewish, Cantonese ("Chinese American"), and Sicilian-Neapolitan ("Italian American", or sometimes "red-sauce Italian") being the most distinctive examples, and the "classy" places serving national cuisines which the chefs either had to be imported for or go to a special school for because there aren't large populations in the US, with the best examples being French and Northern Italian.
"American" food is rather broad, and can encompass a lot of things. Generally, if you're gonna grill it on the Fourth of July, it's American (unless you're in New England, where you poach salmon and serve it with fresh peas and new potatoes). Hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, and the like are considered to be staples of the American eating scene. However, this is by no means all that falls under the umbrella of American food – there are plenty of $30+ a plate items that are considered American.
On the lower scale of American food, you've got the fast-food scene. Most fast-food restaurants worth their salt will have hamburgers on the menu, if not several other options. Generally, the only fast-food joints that don't serve burgers are ones that explicitly target a different segment (Tex-Mex, chicken, Chinese, Italian (especially pizza), et cetera... and even a lot of them
have burgers as an option just in case there's someone in the family that refuses to eat "that furrin stuff"). Hot dogs/Franks are somewhat less common. While "steakhouse" generally has a classier connotation than most restaurants, there are some budget-priced steakhouses (Char-Broiler comes to mind) that serve steaks made of a cheaper-quality meat. Chicken will come into play as well – most general fast-food restaurants will have chicken sandwiches, and some deal exclusively in chicken. Unfortunately, one of the better widespread chicken fast food restaurants, Chick-fil-A, is closed on Sundaysnote
; fortunately, this is rare and most fast food joints will be open every day of the week save on certain holidays, and many of them are open late into the night. Some might be open all
night (though even then, usually the only option available is drive-thru take-out; dining in and delivery are rather rare after midnight outside major cities and large college towns, and even there the places that do it are a distinct minority).
Somewhere in the middle, you can find all sorts of sit-down restaurants that serve higher-quality stuff than what you'll find at, say, McDonald's
, but cheaper than the average steakhouse. Frequently these will be "short order" restaurants, which in terms of speediness and food quality lie somewhere between fast food and regular restaurants. The classic "short order" restaurant is probably the diner, a particular kind of Greasy Spoon
that is typically open all day and all night (or else has very short closing hours), and is very Serious Business
in the Northeast, where it originated (particularly New Jersey
). This category typically includes such restaurants as Waffle House, Denny's, IHOP, and more. Other restaurants in this class will term themselves as "cafeterias" (get your food from a steam line, and pay up front) or "buffets" (self-serve, all you can eat). Both have become popular in recent years not only for the massive gorging this allows, but also the convenience of getting your food immediately. Other mid-range American restaurants are sit-down, casual dining establishments, serving as a poor man's steakhouse for when the family wants to go for their weekly steak dinner. Comedian Steve Hofstetter once genericized all such restaurants as "T.G.I.O'ChiliBee's
", combining parts of the names of chains T.G.I. Fridays, O'Charley's, Chili's, and Applebee's, Other national chains include Ruby Tuesday (tries to be "classier" than the others), Longhorn Steakhouse (faux-Texas themed), Texas Roadhouse (also faux-Texas themed), and Outback Steakhouse (super
On the higher end, you've got plenty of fancy restaurants that deal in higher-end meats (venison, buffalo, quail, pheasant, et cetera) and higher-class steaks. Generally, if you're looking at USDA Prime beef, it's gonna be served in a fancy restaurant. Finally, if the cuisine is listed as "New American", you'll be looking at a fairly large bill at the end of the night.
Keep in mind that the United States of America is a country of over 300 million people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds, spread out over an extremely
wide area. As with any large country, different parts of America will commonly make different dishes better or worse than other parts. A general guide to which regions tend to be known for what (feel free to add examples):note
- New York City (and its surrounding area) is famous for its superb Italian-American food (especially pizza), bagels, and to a lesser extent, steak.
- Chicago disputes New York on pizza and steak, and ups the ante with sausages. It was the main meatpacking center in the US for decades, being the center of the Midwestern railroad network, and it's especially known for Polish sausage (due to its large Polish-American population) and hot dogs.
- Boston and New England in general are known for baked beans and seafood, particularly "lobstah and clam chowdah", though clams outside of chowder are big in Massachusetts, with restaurants specializing in clams being big in Essex County. In some parts of the world, New England is remembered as having been a major producer of saltcod before the collapse of the Grand Banks fishery in the '90s, though naturally, other forms of seafood are still big business.
- Philadelphia is noted for its cheesesteaks to the point of parodynote . And don't get between a Philadelphian and his soft pretzels!
- Both Hawai'i and New Mexico have foods and cuisine types that are largely related to their indigenous cultures. Hawaii's food culture originates with the Native Hawaiian and Polynesian peoples of the islands, and New Mexico's comes from the Native American Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo foods mixed with Spanish cuisine. Hawaii has an interesting double culinary tradition, with the precolonial Native Hawaiian cuisine surviving largely intact as a symbol of cultural heritage but also serving as an influence over a much more mixed daily cuisine boasting heavy East Asian (especially Japanese), European (especially Portuguese), and American (especially West Coast) influences as well as Native ones. The state cuisines of Hawaii and New Mexico are heavily represented in their major cities. In Hawaii the city of Honolulu proudly sports restaurants like Highway Inn, Ono Hawaiian Food, Helena’s Hawaiian Food, Young’s Fish Market, Yama’s Fish Market, and Haili’s Hawaiian Food. And in New Mexico its largest city, Albuquerque, features restaurants El Modelo, El Pinto, Frontier Restaurant, Garcia's Kitchen, Los Cuates, Little Anita's, Padilla's, Sadie's, and Pueblo Harvest Cafe; New Mexican cuisine is even featured in modern Albuquerque fast food interpretations with the likes of Blake's Lotaburger, Little Anita's Express, Twister's Burgers and Burritos, and Mac's Steak In The Rough.
- New Jersey treats hot dogs as Serious Business, with recipes changing across county lines. North Jersey also gets into fights with New York about bagels and New York-style pizza, while South Jersey argues with Philadelphia about cheesesteaks and pretzels. One thing that unites both North and South Jersey (and eastern Pennsylvania), however, is the item known in South and Central Jersey as pork roll or in North Jersey as Taylor Ham, a processed pork product (albeit one with a very long history: the Taylor company of Trenton has been making the stuff since 1856, and similar products have been made in New Jersey since Revolutionary times) whose taste has been compared to bologna, Canadian bacon, and mild salami. No diner worth its salt won't have pork roll on the menu (either by itself or in a sandwich), and New Jerseyans living in other states are known to specially order pork roll and have it shipped to them.
- Baltimore (and the rest of Maryland to a lesser extent) is famous for its seafood dishes, particularly crab legs and crabcakes.
- Texas, Memphis, Kansas Citynote , and the Carolinas are all known for barbecue (see below).
- Texas and Kansas City are also famous for steak, what with the former having long been a major center of cattle raising and the latter a key point in cattle shipping routes.
- New Orleans and Louisiana, due to its history of settlement by French colonists ("Cajuns"), is known for its own unique brand of Cajun cuisine (more on that below).
- Seattle has more than a mild obsession with coffee, fish (especially salmon), craft beer, and apples. There are also heavy East Asian and Pacific Islander influences on the cooking due to the Asian immigrant population. A staple is Seattle-style teriyaki, which started with Japanese immigrants, but many today are run by Korean immigrants with heavier sauces and spices. A typical Seattle teriyaki is a portion of meat in a sweet-spicy sauce, a portion of rice, and a salad with a light dressing. A humorous take on the area's culinary habits can be found here.
It's something of a given that chain restaurants that specialize in a particular type of cuisine tend to do poorly in parts of the country known for that cuisine. The casual-dining seafood chain Red Lobster, for instance, has only four locations in New England (all of them in western Connecticut near New York), while Southerners tend to view chain barbeque restaurants as inauthentic and "poor man's barbeque", if not outright sacrilegious. And getting chain pizza in New York (or indeed anywhere between Philadelphia and Boston)? There'd better be a game on.
Produce and agricultural products tend to generate the same sort of thing, especially once state governments get involved in promoting them for economic and tourism purposes.
- Georgia is famous for peaches, to the point where a picture of a peach is even on the license plate. Those in the culinary know also love Vidalia onions, a very sweet onion grown exclusively in a small patch of Georgia.
- California is famous for avocados and wine.
- Florida is inextricably linked with oranges (and yes, there's a picture of one on the license plate).
- Idaho is famous for its potatoes, to the point where "Famous Potatoes" is even written on the license plate.
- Iowa and Nebraska are nearly synonymous with corn (maize).
- The name Maine immediately evokes the image of lobsters (and, to a lesser degree, blueberries). (Was on their license plate, from 1987-2000.)
- Michigan and Washington are both noted for their apples, their cherries, and more recently, their microbrew beer—some of which use apples and/or cherries (especially the latter).
- New Mexico is known for the state's chile pepper, which comes in either red or green.
- Texas is historically famous for beef cattle.
- Vermont and New Hampshire are famous for maple syrup,
- Wisconsin is inextricably linked with cheese and beer—and sausages, if you're from the Great Lakes area.note The license plates say "America's Dairyland".
- And so on.
Foods By Region
The South is most narrowly defined as the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War, minus a few marginal regions —essentially all the states in the southeast going from the Atlantic coast to Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas, but not Florida (at least not the lower half). Most broader definitions include Kentucky, a state that stayed in the Union during the Civil War despite slavery being legal there. Some broader definitions may include Maryland and Delaware, also Union slave states, but those states are mostly considered Mid-Atlantic nowadays and are primarily made up of suburbs of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. West Virginia seceded from secession in 1861; the northwest is Midwestern, the northeast Mid-Atlantic, the interior Appalachian. (Appalachia is not quite the same as the lowland South, though, and fought for the North during the Civil War.) The southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are "Butternut Country", with a pretty close cultural affinity with the South; and Missouri having been settled by Virginians and also having been a Northern slave state during the war, is famously betwixt-and-between, not quite Midwestern, and not quite Southern.
Depending on who you ask, Southern cuisine is either the best (or the only
) food in America, or a complete joke that treats food as something that should be hosed down in fat until it's unrecognizable. Butter, lard, and other greasy fats are common ingredients. It should be no surprise that the Southern states have among the highest obesity rates in the country.note
Recently-fired Food Network personality Paula Deen
specializes in this cooking. That said, there are healthy (OK, healthier
) ways of making this cuisine; Deen's fellow Georgian Alton Brown
is fond of pointing out ways to make classic Southern goodies in a responsible and balanced manner that still respects tradition.
Southern cooking developed as a combination of French, British (particularly Scottish, West Country, and South-Eastern English), and African cooking methods. Use of fat is extensive, particularly through the use of deep frying
, butter, and pork fat in all its forms (bacon fat, fatback, lard...); many fried foods are described as "Southern" fried. This is often derided by people from other regions, and Southern dishes cooked in the rest of the country tend to be much lighter in this regard. The popularity of frying is more than just historical, however: frying is a very fast cooking technique, which gets you out of hot kitchens quickly, and this is quite important in a region so hot and humid that it's surprising it can support human life. (Conditions of 100+ degrees Fahrenheit and 100% humidity have occurred in the lowland South for as long as we have records; even in Tennessee, it's a rare summer that never goes above 95 degrees. Never go to the South in August.)
Closely related to Southern cuisine—so closely related as to be almost indistinguishable—is "soul food", i.e. the traditional cuisine of Black America. As the vast majority of black people in America descend from Southern slaves, this similarity should come as no surprise. What differences there are tend to focus on the ingredients used rather than the actual style of cooking; in general, slaves were given very poor ingredients, so soul food has a greater proportion of dishes focusing on vegetables (okra and collard greens are stereotypical) and offal (the famous chitterlingsnote
—i.e. pig intestines). Corn-based foods are also somewhat more common, as blacks tended historically to have little access to wheat flour; slaves were generally given the cheaper cornmeal and corn flour, and even after they were freed from slavery, most blacks were too poor to buy anything else. This cuisine was then taken across America during the Great Migrations to the North and West, as Blacks moved away from the South in search of greater opportunity and less discrimination, but kept in touch with their roots; consequently, although to get great Southern food you more or less need to be in the South (or eating at the home of a displaced Southerner), many Northern cities have their own excellent soul food traditions (Harlem, Detroit, and Chicago are particularly renowned) both in restaurants and in the homes of the cities' vibrant black communities. The actual term "soul food" arose in the 1960s
, by analogy with Soul
Famous Southern and Soul Food dishes
The most famous dish in this style is fried chicken, which, aside from being fried with some sort of coating, has an extremely wide range of recipes. Chicken was a rare treat, with black communities referring to it as the "gospel bird" as it was something saved for when the pastor visited for dinner. As chicken farming improved, it became cheap enough to be used by one of the first road-oriented restaurant chains, "Chicken in the Rough." Fried chicken was traditionally cooked in a pan, but the process was revolutionized when Colonel Harland Sanders invented the pressure fryer, a type of pressure cooker that could cook chicken in a few minutes. It was this, not his herb blend, that helped him launch Kentucky Fried Chicken
Today, most restaurants use this fryer or deep fry pre-cooked chicken, with the pan-fried method saved for upscale restaurants and home.
Several other foods are closely associated with the South: fried catfish, fried okra, greens (edible leaves, most frequently collards), black-eyed peas, grits (corn meal cooked to oatmeal-like consistency, often served at breakfast, usually with butter and some form of seasoning, but may be served at other times with meat or especially seafood mixed in—shrimp and grits and fried catfish and grits are famous in both Gulf Coastnote
and Soul Food traditions), white gravy (a.k.a. sausage gravy, similar to bechamel sauce; made with sausage drippings, flour, and milk), sawmill gravy (the same, but with ham or bacon drippings), redeye gravy (the same, but without flour and with drip coffee
replacing the milk), biscuits (essentially soft, buttery savory scones made with a chemical leavener, as opposed to hard biscuit) and gravy, and baked macaroni and cheese (invented, according to legend, by Virginian Thomas Jefferson
). Along with most BBQ regions being in the South, Virginia is famous for ham and Bourbon whiskey is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky.note note
Sweetened iced tea is a common drink (see below), and almost all major brands of carbonated soft drink (Coca-Cola,note
and regional favorite R.C.note
) got their start in the American South.
Keep in mind that not all food from the South is Southern food. There are a few small regional cuisines like Cajun and Gullah that vary widely from what is served in the rest of the South.
Speaking of which... Two different cuisines which get lumped together because they come from Louisiana and start with the letter "C." Both began as colonial-era cuisines from whatever ingredients could be foraged from Louisiana Territory, and have increased in popularity across the US. Creole food used classic 19th-century French recipes
with local ingredients—e.g. replacing the carrots of the French mirepoix
with the bell peppers of the holy trinity
—with influences from Spanish Caribbean and African cooking. Cajun cuisine is simpler country-folks cooking. The difference arises from the differing backgrounds; Creole cuisine arises from the mixed culture of colonial New Orleans, consisting of direct immigrants from France, African slaves and freedmen, Spanish and other random immigrants, and people descended from the extensive intermarriage among them, while the Cajuns by and large primarily descend from Acadians (people of French ancestry who had settled in Acadia—what is now New Brunswick in Canada) who left for Louisiana after the British more or less forced them out of their homeland during the "French and Indian War"
Culinarily, the main divide separating the two would probably be the incorporation of tomatoes and/or butter in Creole dishes, these being traces of the Spanish and upper-crust French influences, respectively; authentic Cajun dishes, which have remained much closer to French peasant food and have a weaker Spanish influence, eschew tomatoes and generally use vegetable oil as their main cooking fat (traditionally, the Cajun cooking fat was lard, but vegetable oil is much
cheaper). Cross-pollination due to cultural proximity blurs the distinction between them the further you go from southern Louisiana. Both have also updated with French cuisine, incorporating and refining, and now many metropolitan areas around the country feature five star New Orleans-style restaurants.
Has become near-synonymous with the two best-known evangelists of the style, Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. The former is the protégé of the latter; Lagasse is actually not from the area (he's half-French Canadian, half-Portuguese, and originally from Boston), but Prodhomme saw a spark in him and hired him for the kitchen of the Commander's Palace restaurant.
Barbecue could be considered an offshoot of Southern American cooking, but is distinct enough to warrant its own category. Barbecue (also spelled barbeque and abbreviated to BBQ) mainly consists of a variety of smoked meats, most frequently beef, chicken, and pork. These are often served with sides such as potato salad, coleslaw, and beans. There are four cultural centers known for their barbeque: the Carolinas, Memphis, Kansas City
, and Texas.
- Carolina barbeque is the oldest style. It is either pork shoulder or the whole pig, in either a mustard-based sauce or a vinegar-based sauce that may or may not include tomato.
- Memphis barbeque means pork ribs, either "wet" (covered in sauce) or "dry" (covered in a proprietary spice mixture, without sauce), as well as pulled pork.
- Kansas City barbeque is sliced beef brisket or "burnt ends" (fatty portions of beef brisket that require longer smoking times) in a tangy ketchup-like sauce; commonly just referred to as "barbecue sauce" due to nationwide Kansas City-style brands like KC Masterpiece.
- Texas barbeque is split into three distinct styles that depend on the region:
- East Texas is similar to the rest of the American South: heavily sauced and chopped, primarily consisting of beef and pork. The only real difference is the fact that authentic East Texas barbecue will never include coleslaw. In short, it's fairly typical of the barbecue style that the African-American diaspora brought with it, and it is generally what most people think of when they think of Texas barbecue.
- Central Texas is based heavily around well-seasoned cuts of brisket, ribs, chicken, and sausage sold by the pound with a thin, spicy sauce (if it is served at all, as many Central Texas barbecue establishments omit sauce entirely). This "meat market" style was brought by German, Polish, and Czech immigrants; while this is probably the closest thing to the face of barbecue in Texas, most Texas-style establishments outside of the South only pay lip service to it.
- South Texas is based largely off of Mexican barbacoa and usually involves pit barbecue. As authentic South Texas barbecue includes things like the head (and, by extension, lengua, or tongue) and offal, it has not caught on outside of its native area (the fast casual chain Chipotle offers barbacoa as a meat option, but it cannot be called authentic). West Texas barbecue is largely the same, though it involves a wider variety of meats (particularly goat and mutton) and is based off of what cowboys ate during cattle drives just as South Texas barbecue is based off of what ranchers and ranchhands ate.
We should note, for the purpose of historical curiosity, that Texas and Kansas City's barbecue traditions are interlinked, as Kansas City was where Texas cattle would be held until being shipped by train to Chicago for slaughter and distribution to the Eastern US; the shared emphasis on beef rather than pork is the result of this. Memphis barbecue may or may not owe something to Carolina barbecue; there are some similarities, and there is a historic link between Tennessee and North Carolina (viz., that Tennessee used to be part
of North Carolina, and Tennessee was initially settled primarily by North and South Carolinians), but it's not so clear-cut as the link between Texas and KC.
Each center has its own take on both meat and sauce, and the nature of barbecue might be one of the biggest food-related Internet Backdraft
topics imaginable, even within a specific state. Ask any five Texans which restaurant has the best barbecue, and you'll get five different answers. At least. Some of these answers may violently disagree on the very basis of the question: can a restaurant serve acceptable barbecue? This can be a particularly picky issue in North Carolina, where friendships have been made or broken on a love of either Eastern-style (whole pig, vinegar-based sauce) or Lexington-style (pork shoulder, tomato-vinegar sauce). note
Barbecue, like American, can run the gamut from cheap to expensive; however, unlike American, it generally tends to rest towards the "cheap" side. Due to the nature of barbeque, there are few, if any, national chains (the only ones that springs to mind are Famous Dave's and Dickey's), though there are a few famous restaurants (Sonny Bryan's in Texas, Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Corky's in Memphis) and regional chains (Smithfield's in North Carolina, Sonny's in Florida and the South).
Barbecue restaurants explicitly emphasize their Greasy Spoon
nature, using decor designed to look as cheap and old as possible (red-brick and log-cabin-style designs are not uncommon). These restaurants will also claim to be "award winning," although what that means can vary. BBQ cooking competitions are taken very seriously, but it's hard to win a competition with styles outside of the area. In a barbecue restaurant, the product is generally sold by weight, or in a "combo plate" with one or more meats and side dishes. Sandwiches are also common; using simple white bread and often adding cole slaw to keep the sauced meat from making it a soggy mess. A reputable establishment will slice and weigh the meat in the customer's presence, and any sauce will be added by the customer.
Barbecue requires smoking over hardwoods like hickory and applewood, and some people are very particular about the type of smoke used. However, even outside the South, BBQ has pockets of popularity, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. A few local forms have a following: the best known are probably St. Louis barbecue—essentially a mashup of KC and Memphis with an emphasis on ribs—and Baltimore's pit beef. The latter is a peculiar hybrid of grilling and barbecue, as it generally involves cooking over charcoal in an open pit, so the smokiness isn't there but the other elements of barbecue are; it's generally cooked rare and served sliced thin as a sandwich on a Kaiser roll with raw onion and a unique mayonnaise-horseradish sauce. There are also imported forms (not only Southern-style ribs, beef, pulled pork, etc. but also forms from outside the US like Jamaican jerk and Jewish pastrami). "Faux-BQ" is anything that simply has had barbeque sauce, a smokey ketchup-like sauce (generally based on Kansas City-style sauce), added to it. The McDonald's McRib is a prime example, as is any type of shredded meat or ribs that's wet-cooked (like in a crockpot). There's nothing wrong with faux BBQ, but don't call it the real thing in front of anyone who knows better.
Also, important distinction: some areas of the countrynote
(and most of the rest of the Anglophone world) use "barbecue" as a term for any outdoor cookout. Real barbecue involves somewhat lower-end cuts of meat (so not steak), cooked over lower heat (so Hank Hill's
objections aside, you can't use a propane grill; a smoker is all but required), for much longer periods of time (multiple hours). Those that consider barbecue to be Serious Business
will not appreciate someone referring to hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like being cooked on a grill as "barbecue".
Great Lakes/Upper Midwestern
The "Great Lakes area" is typically considered to be anything from Lake Erie to the east, Minnesota to the west, and Chicago to the south, while the "Upper Midwest" consists of the coldest parts of the Great Lakes region (i.e. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Michigan
, particularly the Upper Peninsula), although these boundaries are variable. For example, western New York State
and northwestern Pennsylvania
(especially the city of Erie) are commonly considered "quasi-Midwestern", in large part because the Great Lakes states of the Midwest proper (particularly Michigan) were largely settled by people from Upstate New York, while the Dakotas, and sometimes even parts of eastern Montana, are often considered part of the Upper Midwest on account of their cultural affinity with rural Minnesota.
Demographically, the area attracted large numbers of northern and eastern Europeans, who brought with them a sausage, cheese, and beer based cuisine which is most associated with Wisconsin. Casseroles—particularly the famous hotdish—are associated with Minnesota and environs, as are the flavorful walleye and the dreaded lutefisk. Chicago
, as a major destination for cattle drives and a meatpacking center, developed a reputation for steak (and a consequent rivalry with New York—as in everything else). At the same time, both Chicago and Detroit, with their large populations of European and Black Southern migrants—attracted by the various opportunities for work in industry—developed reputations for both immigrant food and distinctive forms of the aforementioned "soul food," some of which spread to other communities, as well.
Specifically pertaining to the region's hot dogs:
- Arguably the most famous are the Chicago Dog (from Chicago), topped with everything from mustard to onions to pickles to relish to tomatoes to hot peppers but NOT KETCHUP!!!—one of the few culinary things that Chicagoans and New Yorkers can agree on is that ketchup has no place on a hot dog.
- Also notable is the Coney Island Dog or Coney dog, a type of chili dog that, despite its name, is from Michigan (for no apparent reason, diners in Michigan generally and the Detroit area in particular tend to be called "Coney Islands"). Key points with the Coney dog is that (1) the chili sauce is beanless, (2) the meat in the chili is supposed to be beef heart (possibly supplemented with other cuts, but the heart is crucial), (3) no ketchup is used (again), although tomatoes in the chili sauce are fine, (4) the standard toppings are mustard and raw chopped onions, and (5) as far as aficionados are concerned, the dog itself must be a beef or pork dog (mixtures are OK) in a natural lamb-intestine casing. Note that there's a rivalry between Detroit-style dogs (which use a wetter chili) and Flint-style (where the chili is dry), as well as Jackson-style (which alleges that Flint stole its recipe).
- True to the almost-creepy connection between Western New York and Michigan, the "coney dog" is known in that region—as the "Michigan dog" (again, nobody's really sure why).
Other than hot dogs, well-known sausage types include Polish sausages in the heavily Eastern European Chicago and bratwursts in the heavily German Wisconsin; Detroit has a healthy mix of both.
Baking is a big deal in the Midwest, particularly as regards all manner of desserts; brownies were invented in Chicago, and Midwestern homes are famous for cakes, bars, and cookies. As David Foster Wallace
(raised in Central Illinois) put it in a 1993 essay:
Older ladies in the Midwest can bake.
Also: Cincinnati is famous for its really weird
chili (it is made with "sweet" spices — allspice, cinnamon, sometimes even cocoa — and is served over spaghetti), and Indiana as a whole is famous for breaded fried pork tenderloin sandwiches (which originated right outside Fort Waynenote
A subset of American food is what Americans call "country" or "country-style" cuisine. As the name implies, country food is based on foods popular (or formerly popular) in rural America, especially the Midwest and South, and typically based on meat and potatoes with vegetables such as corn and okra. Bread is also common, in the dish itself or as a side (buttermilk biscuits and cornbread are staples). Country restaurants invariably affect an old-style appearance (the best-known current example being the Cracker Barrel chain), and tend to be moderately priced. Some buffet chains (such as Golden Corral and the appropriately named Old Country Buffet) also provide very cheap options for such dishes. Many country recipes are relatively easy to make at home, though finding some ingredients can be tricky outside the Midwest and South. Tourists, take note: country-style meals are almost always large and very heavy, being based on rural cooking for hard-working farmers and the like (the term "Midwestern portions" is no joke).
Composed mostly of any food trend begun in California that settles into longevity, with influences from Spanish to Polynesian to Mediterranean. Vaguely-defined, yet considered a safe menu style for restaurants in larger cities. Typically overlaps with Sonoran to Tex-Mex, depending on the region. However, in the San Francisco
Bay Area, sourdough bread has a large presence; sourdough bread gets its unique flavor from the kinds of bugs native to the region, and the particular sort of Lactobacillus
from the Bay makes for particularly tasty sourdough.
Outside of California the term "Californian" is nearly synonymous with vegetables, particularly avocado (a major California crop). Californians put avocados on burgers, sandwiches, salads, omelettes, sushi (the "California roll", including avocado, cream cheese, and imitation crab meat), and (some) Mexican food, sometimes in the form of guacamole. In the case of the non-Mexican food, the menu usually mentions whether the dish has avocado in it. Due to the mega-diversity of the state and the influence of pop culture from Hollywood, "Californian" may also evoke connotations of fusion cuisine and combining various styles of cooking together for new experimental dishes (California-style pizza and the California Pizza Kitchen chain being a good example).
With its legendary automobile and Suburbia
culture, Southern California also gave birth to the modern "burgers and fries" drive-thru fast food restaurant style that took the rest of the country (and the world
) by storm, including Trope Codifier McDonald's
. Other examples of major chains include Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, and regional favorite In-N-Out Burger.
has an entire pre-colonial Polynesian cuisine that has survived largely intact, as well as a new post-colonization cuisine that fuses Polynesian, American, European, and East Asian elements. Characteristic of the former are poi
(purple taro porridge), pit-roasted pig, and innumerable fish dishes; characteristic of the latter are Spam musubinote
, Portuguese sweet bread, plate lunch, and innumerable fish dishes. Hawaiian cuisine's emphasis on the islands' bounty of fish has led to some Hawaiian names for fish leaking out into the general American culinary lexicon, with "mahi-mahi" for what is otherwise called "dolphinfish" and "ahi" for bigeye and yellowfin tuna being the most prominent.
is home to its own unique variety of food. Based on the ancient cuisine of Pueblo Native Americans and the Spanish Europeon culinary styles. This food centers around the state's unique red and/or green chile peppers, a type of Native American Indian frybread called sopapillas, sauteed squash called calabacitas, diced fried potatos called papitas, and desserts and snacks such as biscochitos (sugar/cinnamon cookies) and piñon (pine nuts). Served in a smothered Mexican-style or in a clean 40s Americana style.
Most places in New Mexico offer some type of New Mexican cuisine, usually in the form of offering green New Mexico chile. Obviously local chains like Blake's Lotaburger and Dion's Pizza offer the chopped pepper as a topping, but even national chains like Mc Donald
's and Subway offer green chile on their products McDonald's
even offers a special Green Chile Double Cheeseburger combo due to its local popularity. Some local chains specialize in New Mexican cuisine, like Little Anita's and Twisters Burritos.
The most prominent restaurants for New Mexican cuisine are Sadies's in the Albuquerque Metropolitan Area, Joseph's in Santa Fe, Pueblo Harvest Cafe in Albuquerque, Monroe's in Albuquerque, Los Cuates in Albuquerque, El Pinto in Albuquerque, and numerous others. Companies like Bueno Foods, 505 Southwestern, The Authentic New Mexican, and others offer authentic New Mexican products for New Mexican cuisine.
When a region covers areas as diverse as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maine, there's bound to be a lot of variations, of which clam chowder recipes note
are only the beginning. The most iconic cuisines mix northern Europe with native America, producing things like Indian pudding (a type of sweet cornbread), the New England clambake (a mix of clams, sweet corn, lobster, and a couple of other things, traditionally cooked on the beach in a makeshift earth oven, in a format that probably comes from the Native peoples of the region), and scrapple (cornmeal and pork scraps and entrails — Slavic and German-influenced rural Pennsylvania's answer to haggis). In general terms, the major split here is between New England and the Mid-Atlantic states; traditional New England cooking (which, we should note here, also includes much of the eastern part of Upstate New York) is best described as being influenced by the cuisine of Old England as adapted to North American ingredients, with a very English-like emphasis on bringing out the best of the simple flavors of your base ingredients, so you see a lot of simple roasting, boiling, baking, and stewing of foods from the Old World and the New (the prevalence of roast turkey on Thanksgiving Day
is at least in part the result of the heavy New England influence on the creation of the holiday) plus a lot of pies and puddings (both hasty pudding and Indian pudding hark back to the very English obsession with starch puddings), with some new ideas coming later. On the other hand, the Mid-Atlantic states, having had far more diverse immigrant backgrounds from Colonial times (Dutch and British to start, with the Germans showing up early in Pennsylvania and a good bit of other immigration all over the region as well) and getting more diverse ever afterward, have a much more mixed culinary tradition.
Given the mostly coastal location, seafood is quite popular here, especially in New England. Cod and haddock are quite popular;note
the two fish are related, and are sometimes collectively known as scrod, which is also the name of a particular dish consisting of a baked cod or haddock fillet with buttered and toasted bread crumbs on top. Clams are a common association, especially chowder and softshell clams, either cooked by themselves (steamers) or shucked and breaded (fried clams); oysters are also popular from Maryland to Maine, although they are perhaps most associated with New York, New Jersey, and the Philadelphia area in a very 19th-early 20th-century kind of way. Blue crab, particularly in the form of crab cakes, is considered characteristic of the stretch of Atlantic coast from New Jersey down to Maryland, although it's actually pretty common all the way up to New England and well down into the coastal South; that said, Maryland is almost certainly the most crab-crazy region. Although Boston and the Maine coast are particularly associated with lobster, it's not as common as people think; even there, it's something of a luxury item, but the summer lobster roll (lobster and mayo on a toasted hot dog bun) is so popular they even serve it in McDonald's
in the summer.
Food terminology is a little out of step with the rest of the country (most notably, the term "frappe" for a milkshake with ice cream in it in Massachusetts, and the inability to agree on sub, grinder, hoagie, and a couple other terms for a sandwich in a long roll). Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, however, stand out for having wildly divergent vocabularies even by local standards. note
At the southern edge of the Northeast, there's Maryland and Delaware, where it starts to blend into Southern. Maryland is particularly famous for seafood (especially crab and most especially crab cakes) that is vaguely Northeastern in style, and in northern Delaware around Wilmington, cheesesteaks are considered local food (Philly is 20 minutes by Amtrak, half an hour away by freeway, and 40-50 minutes by commuter train), but Maryland also has "Chicken Maryland," a unique take on the Southern fried chicken (pan-fried in an oven, with the bits stuck to the pan turned into a cream gravy at the end) native to Maryland's Chesapeake Bay shoreline, particularly the Eastern Shore,note
that took off in Europe, Australia, and Latin America
after being published in one of Auguste Escoffier's cookbooks despite having virtually no following in the US outside of Eastern Maryland.
There's also a fair amount of localized ethnic food as well. Italian-American food is very popular nearly everywhere, with major cuisine centers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Providence, and generally well above the Olive Garden standard. The Irish are basically synonymous with Boston. Good eastern European Jewish food can be found here and there, but great
Jewish food is probably what New York City is best known for. A lot of Greek restaurant owners live in the Northeast; Greek diner food (see above) is very popular,note
and especially around Boston, there's a distinct style of crispy, olive oil-drizzled Greek pizza that keeps a lot of college students going late at night.note
There's a large Portuguese community along what is collectively known as the South Coast (from Cape Cod, MA to the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound), and in those areas, Portuguese food, particularly caldo verde (kale soup with beans, potatoes, and linguiça sausage), is as native as baked scrod or New York pizza. Northern Massachusetts has a very large southeast Asian population largely made up of Vietnam War refugees (it should be noted that its Cambodian population is very distinct from California because rural families were settled in Massachusetts while urban populations were settled in California). Pennsylvania Dutch (actually German) food is famous nation-wide and is often thought of as the pinnacle of country-style or comfort food (though this would be contested by the proponents of Southern cuisine); in addition, Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks (provolone, Cheez Wiz, or go homenote
), which was invented by Italian-Americans and has some Italian-ish elements (particularly the bread—an Italian roll—and the provolone cheese option) and soft pretzels (which are reflective of German influence) and a few other specialties (including roast pork sandwiches—a derivative of the Central Italian favorite porchetta
—served at many places that do cheesesteaks, DiNic's at Reading Terminal and the small chain Tony Luke's being most famous). Recent immigration has also brought significant amounts of excellent southeast Asian (particularly Vietnamese), Brazilian, and Caribbean food to the area as well. The downside: the further you go from New York City, the less chance you have of finding decent Mexican food, and, when going north, the more likely the "Mexican" restaurants are actually Salvadoran or Colombian.note
In New England, very little of the Latino population is Mexican, and is often not even Hispanic note
For the entirety of the East Coast, "Chinese" always means "Cantonese."
A special note must be made of Boston's somewhat outsized influence on the country's cuisine as a whole — the Boston neighborhood of Brighton is home to WGBH, the station that produced Julia Child's first three shows, while the nearby town of Brookline has America's Test Kitchen, the publishers of Cook's Illustrated
magazine and the America's Test Kitchen
TV show, one of the most popular cooking shows on the air in the US. Boston isn't necessarily the Hub of the culinary USA – most of its prominent chefs are regional celebrities at best, apart from maybe Ming Tsai, and apart from a local franchise of Le Cordon Bleu it has little in the way of nationally recognized cooking schools note
– but it's responsible, directly or indirectly, for teaching a lot of people how to be better cooks.
Foods By Ethnicity/Nationality
It's what you eat on Christmas Day because nothing else is open
. But other than that, Chinese food mainly consists of a wide variety of meats, either breaded or steamed, often served with a starch such as rice or noodles. There are several different types of Chinese cooking, but your general Chinese takeout place will follow these rules.
Lower-end Chinese places tend to be little takeout shops. Home delivery is a staple at the lower end of Chinese food (a common stereotype is the poor college student/recent grad who survives on cheap Chinese takeout/delivery). While quality and taste will vary, there are some good takeout shops all around the country. Strip-mall buffets have also become fairly common in recent years, especially in suburban areas. Especially when serving a Chinese-American community, the name will sound like "Hong Kong Cafe."
Chinese take-out is nearly synonymous with the oyster box, a trapezoid-shaped paperboard container with a small metal handle. The oyster box originated from oyster restaurants, which were the cheapest places to eat on the coasts in the late 19th century: A reference to such a restaurant, which always has sawdust on the floors, or the box itself show that the character is poor working class. Over time oyster stocks went down, turning oysters from cheap working-class food into an expensive delicacy, while Chinese restaurants expanded delivery, adopting the container.
Higher-end Chinese places use some more variation in their recipes, but are actually pretty similar in menu choices to the lower-end ones. They are usually tea houses which serves a lot of seafood ranging from carp to abalone and hot pot dinners. Often, these places will have a region of mainland China in the name to differentiate from affordable Chinatown dining.
National chains include: P.F. Chang's (casual-dining, akin to Chili's and Applebee's but with "Chinese" food), Pei Wei (owned by P.F. Chang's and "fast casual," i.e. you order at the counter and it's taken to your table; calls itself an "Asian diner," but see the bit about Northerners and diners below), and Panda Express (cafeteria-style, most often found at food courts).
Note that there is a divide between Americanized Chinese food and authentic Chinese cuisine. Americanized Chinese has its own standard dishes almost always based on the cuisine of Canton and Hong Kong (e.g., Chow Mein, General Tso's Chicken (named after Imperial Chinese General Zuo
Zongtang), Orange Chicken, Hunan Beef, etc.) which bear little resemblance to traditional mainland Chinese dishes, but are widely available in the US and have been adapted to Western tastes. Numerous dishes also exist which have Americanized versions substantially different from the original, such as sweet and sour pork, twice-cooked pork, or kung pao chicken. Authentic Chinese uses a wider range of ingredients, many of which are unfamiliar or alarming to Westerners
, such as pig ears, pork belly,note
or duck's feet, and tend to use a much greater variety of spices
, especially hot peppers of many kinds. Such cuisine is available in the United States at certain specialized Chinese restaurants; your typical "mom-and-pop" Chinese place that isn't a buffet often also has it on a "secret menu" printed only in Chinese for Chinese customers. This can cause some hilarity when n
th-generation Chinese-Americans who don't speak Chinese (or speak but don't read) or other East Asians, like Koreans and Japanesenote
are given the authentic menu without asking for it and have to sheepishly explain that they want the English menu, please... Also causing hilarity is when a non-Asian who actually speaks Chinese demands the authentic menu, and then can't handle the spiciness of the dish he/she ordered.
Americanized Chinese cuisine, despite the relative uniformity of the major dishes, does have some regional variation—corresponding to the American
regions in which they find themselves. For instance, coastal Americanized Chinese places will tend to feature more fish dishes, while inland ones will tend to deemphasize fish in favor of chicken, pork, and beef. Additionally, certain dishes were created in response to local demand; a pretty good example is "almond boneless chicken," a creation of fried breaded chicken in a gravy with almonds, more or less exclusive to "Chinese" restaurants in Michigan. Such dishes can, interestingly, be used to track migrations of the owners of Chinese restaurants; for instance, the cheesesteak roll (the chopped steak and cheese for a Philadelphia-style cheesesteak wrapped in an egg roll wrapping and deep fried) is common in the Atlanta
area because some Chinese restaurant owners from Philadelphia relocated to Atlanta, where the dish caught on, causing the unusual menu item to be copied at both new and existing establishments.
Of special note are fortune cookies. These are small thin crispy cookies, with a hollow interior containing a small slip of paper with a fortune or adage inside, often sounding vaguely Confucian
. These are usually presented with the bill. They are universal in American Chinese restaurants—and virtually unknown in China. (Reportedly, China had to import fortune cookies from the United States for the Beijing Olympics, since they knew many visitors would expect them, but there was no factory in China which made them.) There's a reason for this: they were originally a variant of Japanese o-mikuji
-containing tsujiura senbei
, and were originally associated with Japanese
restaurants on the West Coast. However, World War II
took both Japanese restaurants and Japanese-run cookie factories out of business (because of internment), leaving both markets to the Chinese (who were particularly favored at the time because China was an Allied Power).
While Americanized Chinese restaurants are nearly universal—according to one estimate, there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than there are McDonald's
outlets, and it's certainly true that even the smallest towns in the country have at least one "Chinese" place—authentic Chinese restaurants tend to be located in or near urban areas with large Chinese immigrant populations (although the food is often fairly similar if you're on the East Coast, as the Chinese populations all seem to come from the same neighborhood). Much like the smaller restaurants common everywhere, having two menus—one listing more refined versions of American Chinese dishes and one listing authentic Chinese cooking—is common. Such restaurants typically specialize in the cuisine of one or two regions within China (Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, etc.)
The first Chinese restaurants were buffets, set up to feed migrant workers who lived in tiny kitchen-less apartments. Americans slowly started going to these restaurants, and eventually they turned into sit-down restaurants for family dining, although all-you-can-eat buffets are still a mainstay of Chinese restaurants. Most would run meal specials where for a single price one could order items from two columns and also get egg rolls and soup. This is mostly a Dead Horse Trope
, but it pops up in 20th century media like the film With Six You Get Eggroll
On a related note, there are many Americanized Chinese restaurants that claim to serve "Hunan" cuisine or have "Hunan" in their name. Authentic Hunan cuisine is quite distinctive (featuring a spicy hot-garlicky-oily-smokey flavor profilenote
and lots of fresh vegetables) and difficult to find in the US. The usual explanation for this phenomenon is that when Richard Nixon
visited China and was welcomed with a lavish banquet, whenever he found a particularly tasty dish he would ask Mao Zedong
where the dish was from. Mao, having been born a peasantnote
in Hunan Province, pretended that these were all dishes from Hunan
, and Nixon returned to the US singing the praises of Hunan cuisine.
Sometimes perceived as a snooty choice
, with thick, rich sauces accenting food you probably can't pronounce. French cuisine is recognized as the world's best cuisine, as France often wins the Bocuse d'Or competitions (basically, a competition where all the countries of the world compete to see who cooks the best ... held in France, of course, though how dare you suggest that implies any kind of bias). As such, it's rare for a French restaurant to be on the lower end of the price range. French is almost uniformly found in fancy, high-end restaurants. To the confusion of the actual French, they often call themselves bistros—the actual French bistro
being the exact opposite of fancy, a place for people of modest means to get a quick bite to eat, less formal than even the brasserie
Occasionally it's the other snooty food choice, but the prevalence of pizza and pastas as American dishes lessens that impact tremendously. Italian mainly consists of pasta, which is sometimes only available as spaghetti and sometimes is its own dish, and pizza, usually accented by a tomato sauce (or, if you're feeling bold, Alfredo). There are several other dishes, including fish, beef, and chicken, but pasta and pizza are almost uniformly associated with Italian cooking in the American mind. This is in fact a fusion cuisine—and not of "Italian" and "American" as you might expect, but rather a fusion of the various regional cuisines brought by Italian immigrants—particularly Sicilian and Neapolitan/Campanian—in the 19th century, plus some American elements.
Italian, like American and Chinese before it, can be found in virtually any price point you want to search. Lower-end restaurants are usually local pizzerias, which are described below. High-end Italian restaurants have a much broader menu, and may call themselves bistros, trattorias, or ristorantes
. The number of places you can find (especially at the higher-end) is usually proportional to a city's Italian population. Italian isn't a generally popular choice for fast food (Fazoli's being a rare example), as it takes a while to cook and tends to have a low portability (though see pizza, below).
When it comes to sit-down restaurants, rather like Chinese, you can generally find two kinds of "Italian" restaurant in the US. The ones serving the American-based fusion "Italian American" cuisine are generally older restaurants—some dating to the late 19th or early 20th century
—in the big cities of the East Coast (and to a lesser extent in the Midwest and the West Coast), and are commonly called "red-gravy places" or "red-gravy restaurants" because of the stereotypical association with tomato sauce (which was for some time—and still is in many cases—called "red gravy" by Italian-Americans on the East Coast and in Chicago, based on a misunderstanding of the correct translation of the Italian word sugo,
which is what many tomato sauces are called).note
Unlike Americanized Chinese places, these Italian American restaurants are surprisingly often legitimately fine-dining establishments (with menu prices to match), and if you're willing to forgive the fact that it isn't really food you would get in Italy, it can be quite enjoyable. (It helps that the better places among these have updated with modern Italian cuisine, adapting improved techniques to their traditional favorites and exploiting the increased availability of real Italian ingredients to raise the bar further).note
The other kind of Italian restaurant tries to hew more closely to the contemporary cuisine of northern
Italy, so you'll find a lot less tomato and pasta and a lot more pesto and risotto. These are usually newer (established since the 1990s) and are typically pretty arty and expensive, although you can find some that are a bit more reasonably priced. These restaurants, being newer, can be found in any reasonably large metropolitan area in the country (unlike the red-gravy places, which, again, are more or less restricted to the old centers of Italian immigration), as it's a fairly common menu style for an upscale or semi-upscale restaurant.
One of the largest national chains is the Olive Garden, which is (apparently
) the best Italian food
. Other national chains include Maggiano's Little Italy and Romano's Macaroni Grill (essentially Alternate Company Equivalents
to Olive Garden, sharing the same style of pretending to be the "classier" Tuscan/Northern Italian sort of restaurant while actually being a pale imitation of a "red gravy" place) and Fazoli's ("fast casual", and unabashed about being tomato-centric).
While some pizza restaurants serve some Italian food, most concentrate specifically on pizza, and may also offer salads, garlic bread and Buffalo wings. It has a number of regional styles:
- New York pizza has very thin, soft crust and is cooked in a wood- or coal-fired oven at a very high temperature. It is sometimes eaten with the slice folded in half and eaten like a sandwich. This style of pizza primarily developed from the Neapolitan style of Italian pizza, with some influence from Roman-style pizza (particularly as regards the thinness of the crust); it is today Serious Business among New Yorkers, who will loudly proclaim it to be the best kind of pizza there is, all the rest being impostors (including, sometimes, the actual Italians).
- Not far away, New Haven, CT is known for an even thinner crust, as well as the "white clam" pizza — cheese, herbs, olive oil, garlic, and shucked clams from nearby Long Island Sound.
- It's also been suggested that there's a distinct Boston-style pizza (other than the Greek pizza mentioned above); if it's distinguished from New York at all style wise, it might mean a crust with thicker edges and a thin cornmeal coating on the bottom and edges and a more finely-grated, four- or five-cheese topping, but although Boston pizza in general is very good, it's not all that distinctive.
- In general, with a few exceptions any local pizza place (i.e. not a chain) on the East Coast—from Washington to Boston—will have essentially New York-style pizza, with a thin, soft crust and wide slices, with at most minor variations in style (e.g. DC's penchant for extra-large pizzas with extra-wide slices). However, most will agree that the "home" of the style is New York. (Major exceptions are mostly from New England, but even then the bread and slice style remains broadly similar, the variation coming in the means of cooking and the toppings.)
- Chicago deep dish, by contrast, is almost like a pie. A layer of dough to form the crust is placed in an oiled pan, with the sides of the pan—up to an inch high—being lined with crust; the crust is then filled in layers, with large chunks of mozzarella on the bottom, over which goes the tomato sauce, and any toppings will be between these two layers (typical for meat toppings—especially Italian sausage, which is often is placed as a solid layer of sausage meat) or mixed in the sauce (typical for vegetable toppings). The reverse layering is because the rather thick pie takes so long to bake that the cheese could burn if placed on top. This style was created at Pizzeria Uno, which has since become a national chain; that said, diehard deep-dish fans insist you can't get the style done right outside Chicagoland.
- New Yorkers get particularly indignant when Chicagoans talk up Chicago deep dish, retorting that deep dish "isn't pizza," an insult that quickly riles the Chicagoans up to no end. Most reasonable observers claim that the argument is silly, since (1) it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, and (2) if deep dish isn't pizza, what else do you call it?
- Detroit-style pizza is rather similar, but is not quite as pie-like (the toppings are on top of the very thick bread, rather than inside a "pie", and the cheese is in a thinner layer that may be either on top of or under the sauce—or both) and is generally square (they were originally baked in industrial parts trays—way to be stereotypical, Detroit) with a golden crust (the pan is liberally brushed with olive oil or butter prior to baking). This style arguably served as the basis for the large chains' deep-dish pan pizzas (of the four major national chains, Little Caesar's is from Detroit and Domino's is from nearby Ann Arbor), and is a descendant of Sicilian style pizza.
- Midwest-style pizza has a thinner, crisper crust and a wider range of toppings than New York pizzas. Although the term isn't famous, the style is very popular thanks to international chain Pizza Hut, headquarted in Wichita, Kansas. Oddly enough, a square-slice variety of this, known as "pub pizza," is eaten in Chicago more often than the deep-dish variety mentioned above — usually while in a rush during the day or drunk late at night.
- St. Louis-style pizza uses a hard unleavened crust, and a processed cheese called Provel. Regional chain Imo's is the largest seller of this kind of pizza, and has expanded into Kansas and Illinois.
- Dayton-style pizza has a very thin "cracker" crust with coarse salt on the bottom, and is cut into small squares (the pizza as a whole being round).
- In 1981, Wolfgang Puck and Ed LaDou started Spago, a restaurant in Beverly Hills, CA that would put just about any topping on a pizza from barbecue chicken to zucchini flowers. Over time almost anything with unusual toppings or seasoned crust has become known as California style.
- Though it is often thick-crusted and can be topped with any number of ingredients, almost any rectangular pizza will be referred to as Sicilian unless the restaurant in question specifically calls it something else. It never bears any resemblance to true Sicilian sfinciuni, but nobody really cares.
- Another sfinciuni derivative is the tomato pie, which consists of a thick sheet of foccacia-like dough baked with a thick layer of tomato sauce and sprinkled lightly with Pecorino Romano cheese; it is often produced by bakeries rather than dedicated pizzerias, and was historically considered a "poor man's pizza" as it was light on the cheese and heavy on the vegetable ingredients and consequently much cheaper than typical pizzas. The heart of this style is in Trenton, New Jersey, where two bakeries codified the form; however, the style is popular across the Garden State, as well as being very popular in Greater Philadelphia and having outposts in New York and southern New England (it's fairly popular in Connecticut and there's a variant native to Providence, RI) to the north and Delaware (Lewes, a resort on the Delaware Atlantic coast popular with vacationers from DC, has a few establishments) to the south.
- In the 1980s, Rhode Island restaurateurs Johanne Killeen and George Germann invented grilled pizza; the thin crust and lightly applied, super-flavorful toppings lend themselves to quick preparation and made the style a staple in grilling cookbooks (and foodie cookouts) after about 2000 or so.
Buffalo wings, sometimes called hot wings, were invented at a bar/restaurant run by Italian-Americans in Buffalo, New York
; stories behind the invention of the dish go that it was either at the request of the owner's son or a result of receiving a shipment of chicken wings instead of the chicken backs needed for the restaurant's pasta sauce (maybe both). These are chicken wings that are deep-fried, grilled, or baked and then coated in a spicy hot sauce (historically made by mixing butter with Frank's RedHot
or some other cayenne-based sauce); traditionally they're served with celery and either blue cheese or ranch dressing to serve as a cooling contrast. Many pizza places also do wings, and so in much if not most of the country, pizza and hot wings (and perhaps garlic knots) are the go-to food for watching sports; "sitting on the couch with your buddies wearing football jerseys drinking beer and eating pizza and wings while watching the Super Bowl
" (or some other big football game) is basically a trope of 21st-century American middle-class manhood.
Much like Chinese places, almost all pizza restaurants offer home delivery and takeout. Pizza is the most popular food for delivery in America, which is where we get the trope Pizza Boy Special Delivery
. Pizzerias exist as both mom-and-pop stores and as national chains like Domino's, Pizza Hut, and Papa John's, though it is best that you not
mention the chain restaurants to pizza aficionados; to them, chain-restaurant pizza may as well be cardboard with cheese on it. This is because most chain-restaurants use conveyor-belt convection ovens to lower cooking time. This distinctly alters the flavor and texture of the pizza. On the other hand, chain pizza, because of the focus on delivery, is one of the more popular choices for "game day" pizza when watching football, even in the Northeastern "local pizza belt."
As hinted at above, the national chains are Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, and Little Caesar's. They all produce a fairly similar product, with a rather doughy crust and a surfeit of cheese. This is the result of a hybridization of several pizza styles and modifications to suit the tastes of people in the home area of the style—which, by and large, was the Midwest. As mentioned, two of the chains (Domino's and Little Caesar's) started in the Detroit area (broadly defined), while Pizza Hut was originally from Kansas and Papa John's was founded in Jeffersonville, Indiana (which more or less literally sits on the border between the Midwest and the South; Louisville, Kentucky is just across the Ohio River). (Pizza Hut has since been bought up by the Louisville-based Yum! Brands—also responsible for KFC, among other chains—leading to amusing fights between the two megacorps about naming rights in Louisville.)
Mexican restaurants are very popular, particularly in the Southern and especially Southwestern United States (that is, states that tend to have a high Mexican population or high Mexican influence). These can run the gamut from very cheap to very expensive, depending on the location of the neighborhood.
Like Chinese, Mexican food is very regional. Some of these regions are in the U.S. with the major types being Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex, and New Mexican. These aren't so much Americanized versions of Mexican as these areas were originally part of Mexico. However, the most Americanized restaurants generally label themselves as Tex-Mex. Anything labeled "Authentic Mexican Cuisine" is very Americanized, often to the point of replacing traditional sauces with brown gravy. Some restaurants serve Mexican food aimed at immigrants hewing more toward cuisine found in Mexico. Often these have "taquería" in the name, even if their specialty isn't tacos
The U.S. state of New Mexico
has a unique style of cuisine, which is sometimes referred to as Mexican food by outsiders. New Mexico, like other American states, has its share of non-authentic "Mexican" restaurants. But, there is a completely separate type of cuisine in the state, which is authentic and unique in-and-of-itself called New Mexican cuisine. It is a merger of ancient Native American and Spanish foods, served in either a smothered Mexican vaquero/cowboy style or in a clean Route 66 Americana style. Restaurants calling this food "Mexican food" or "Mexican and American foods" are usually referring to it being served smothered or the clean style. See the New Mexican section under the "Foods By Region" section.
The "Mission-style" burrito, essentially a full meal wrapped in a tortilla, may have originally been invented by California farm workers, but was first served by taquerias in San Fransisco's Mission District sometime in the 60's or 70's. Essentially an entire meal worth of ingredients wrapped in a giant tortilla, they've become a common fast food option and serve as the basis for chains like Qdoba and Chipotle which make them to order in much the same way as Subway, letting customers choose which ingredients they want in their burrito.
National chains include: Taco Bell (cheap, and, in their words, "Mexican-inspired" with no attempt at authenticity), Chevy's (mid-range, and more Tex-Mex), Qdoba (mid-rage, Cali-Mex), and Chipotle (high-quality food made on an assembly line, like a deli but with Mexican food).
One of the new kids on the block, but growing fast and going places nobody expected. You can find Thai restaurants in every city of any significance and most large towns in the country, and pretty much anywhere there are college students; it's sort of like the second coming of Chinese food in America. If a town has two Asian restaurants, one will be Chinese and the other will probably be Thai. Thai restaurants have adopted most of the tropes associated with Chinese restaurants—the oyster boxes, the long menus with numbered codes, and (usually) delivery and takeout. Basically, Thai food has become "the food you get when you want something like Chinese food but don't actually want Chinese food." There are a lot of differences, of course; although American Thai food is Americanized, it's not so totally different from actual Thai food as to be unrecognizable.
American Thai food relies primarily on curries and noodle dishes; pad thai (long, flat, skinny rice noodles in peanut-based sauce with bean sprouts, scallions, and choice of meat) is particularly popular. The spiciness is usually substantially toned down from what you would expect in Thailand. Much like American Chinese cuisine, American Thai food comes in a few standard forms—you can get one of the curries (red, yellow, or green, with Musamun and Panang often making an appearance), with your choice of meat or seafood. The noodle dishes are similarly standardized and all seem to be variants of pad thai. Phởnote
, a noodle-based soup, is common enough that many restaurants have "Pho" in their names—even though the dish is actually Vietnamese, it's often seen in Thai restaurants. The appetizers are also usually very similar to Chinese ones, and although chopsticks are not really used in Thailand except for Thai Chinese noodle soups (forks and spoons are used instead), American Thai restaurants cater to the perception that all "Asian" countries use chopsticks
and usually have them ready. They will also all serve Thai iced tea—heavily sweetened iced black tea with spices, usually served with a layer of evaporated milk, cream, or coconut cream you mix into the drink; many swear that it helps deal with unexpectedly spicy food.
Much like Chinese food, there are also places that make more authentic Thai cuisine. These will often expressly associate themselves with a region—most commonly the North of Thailand or Bangkok. These, as you might expect, are concentrated in the cities, particularly on the West Coast and (of course) New York City.
The expansion of Thai food in America is a recent trend—only since the 1980s or 90s—and so no major chains have appeared. A few regional chains are starting to appear, mostly in college towns (college students generally being some of their best customers). Seeing someone order Thai food in a TV show or other fictional work is a sign that the person is cultured/educated enough to want a change from Chinese but not so much that they insist on cooking themselves (Season 1 of House of Cards
uses this rather well in at least one scene with two journalists at a high-level newspaper working late).
As in, what we ate before
we got that melting pot. The indigenous peoples of the Americas had had a lot of practice cultivating the natural plants of the Americas before European settlers wandered over, and a large part of early Native/European relations was teaching them how not to starve to death. A lot
of crops native to America got spread to Europe — corn, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, and beans, for instance
. These crops are still extremely influential in the American diet.
In the autumn, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a harvest holiday commemorating the Wampanoag people helping the Pilgrims survive their first winter by giving them food and teaching them the right agricultural methods. (Of course, Thanksgiving didn't become a federal holiday until well into the 19th century, and the real history between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag nation is much more complicated and unpleasant
, but it's a nice story for the kids
. And it's not to be confused with Canadian Thanksgiving, a month earlier.) Although they've been absorbed into the larger American culture, the traditional Thanksgiving foods are generally thought of as being almost entirely Native-derived—the obligatory turkey, and then typically cranberry sauce (sometimes in a dish with nuts and other fruit, but also it's considered very homey to have it still in the shape of the can), pumpkin pie (as well as apple, rhubarb, pecan, blackberry—but almost never any sort of meat), sweet potatoes, stuffing, et cetera. Since their absorption these foods are now considered quintessentially American. (The above-mentioned New England clambake may be one of the oldest dishes in any cuisine in the world — it's probably existed in something like the current form since the last Ice Age.)
The Wampanoag nation is indigenous to the northern part of the country, however, and if you start looking at other parts of America you'll find Native influences from much different cultures. Hominy, grits, cornbread, and jerky all came from Plains cultures and like with the Thanksgiving example, they're considered particularly American foods, especially in that region. Closer to the Mexican border, Native culture there has influenced the cuisine so much it's pretty much indistinguishable from what you'd think of as Mexican or Tex-Mex.
Aside from the Thanksgiving story, American children might learn about the "Three Sisters" (corn, squash, and beans) and their significance in Native American agriculture — they were or are grown as a staple in just about every Native culture across the continent, and they're featured on new editions of the Sacagawea dollar coin. Some tribes depending on location and cultural history also have culinary connections to buffalo, acorns, whale blubber, etc. and this is all in the American cultural consciousness.
In the modern day, there's not much of a sense of Native American cuisine in the American mainstream. Among Natives, frybread note
tends to be just about ubiquitous, though, and if you hear anybody making a reference to something typically "Native" to eat, it would probably be that. Also, while outside North America English-speakers tend to refer to a certain cereal grain as "maize", in the US and Canada, this word is almost never used except in a Native American context ... calling it "corn" is all but universal.
You definitely won't find a Native American fast food chain restaurant. In a small
handful of major cities, you might
find a Native American restaurant, and some Native American history museums might have a cafe serving Native food. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC has the Mitsitam Café, a prominent example of a restaurant serving Native cuisine (or at least Native-inspired cuisine; they can get kind of arty) and well worth the trip (unfortunately, it's likely as not packed, since the Smithsonian employees quickly found out that Mitsitam is really
good (especially considering that they aren't priced too terribly given the quality of the ingredients and the location in the Smithsonian on the National Mall
), and soon after the rest of DC followed). Some cities, mostly in the Southwest, might also feature restaurants specializing in frybread. Of course the best way to experience Native cuisine is with the tribe during a festival or other event.
In recent years Federal food programs have been supplying American Indians with prepackaged food like Spam, making this a major part of their diet. Although rarely thought of as "native," this is often referenced by contemporary American Indian writers.
So a nice boy of ethnic group X and a nice girl of ethnic group Y Meet Cute
and start cooking together, and create a new type of cuisine. Often lumped in under Californian, due to California having high rates of intermarriage producing fusion cusine. Fusion has a reputation of being high end, but in reality goes across the board. A famous set of food carts in the bay area are Korean-Mexican fusion with items like Kimchi Quesadillas or Bulgogi tacos. Wolfgang Puck is considered both a Fusion Cuisine chef and a Californian Cuisine chef.
Since most metropolitan areas have specialties, they typically also have rivalries respecting that specialty. Sometimes, this is a rivalry with another city about variants of their specialty dish, but most interesting is the rivalry within a city or metropolitan area between different makers of the specialty. Most often, two (sometimes more, but very often two) restaurants claim to be the originators of the dish; if not, one restaurant is accepted as the originator or at least the codifier
, but another establishment claims to have "preserved" the dish in a form more closely resembling the original. Additionally, since the "original" has often either become a tourist trap or a chain (usually regional, sometimes national), purists will frequently Take a Third Option
and claim that another restaurant entirely does the dish way better. Typically, some or all of the establishments involved in this dispute ("originator"(s), "preservers", and "third options") will have pictures of local or national celebrities who have eaten at the restaurant scattered across the walls. Some examples:
- The classic form of this argument is probably in Philadelphia with its famous cheesesteaks. Two establishments—Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks—both claim to be the original place where someone chopped up some thin-sliced steak, tossed in some onions, topped it with cheese, and put it all in a long roll. To add to the sense of rivalry, they are right across the street from each other, at the intersection of 9th St. and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. Both have capitalized on their fame and now attract large crowds from out of town. True to expectations, many local aficionados reject both Pat's and Geno's for another place; some swear by Tony Luke's (also originally South Philly, although now a small chain), while others advance John's Roast Pork (also South Philly; famous for cheesesteaks despite the name), and still others swear by Jim's Steaks (on South Street popular with late-night revelers, as South is a bar street on the dividing line between South Philly and Center Citynote ) and still others have their own preferred holes-in-the-wall. Still other people reject the hegemony of the cheesesteak and declare for the lesser-known Philadelphia roast pork sandwich, where the top contenders are Tony Luke's (again), John's (again), and Tommy DiNic's (in the relatively tony Reading Terminal Market in Center City).
- Another classic place for this argument is Detroit, where the item at issue is the Coney Island hot dog—which has nothing to do with the actual Coney Island in Brooklyn (again, "Coney Island" is a common name in Detroit for diners). The two "classic" establishments are American and Lafayette Coney Island, which are also right next to each other (on W. Lafayette Boulevard in downtown Detroit near Campus Martius Park), but plenty of people put forward their local Coney Island restaurant as a source of a superior dog.note
- Chicago's deep dish pizza is an interminable source of flame wars of this type. Few dispute that Pizzeria Uno made the Chicago-style pizza as we know it today, but other than that, everything else is just nuts. Most purists argue that Uno abandoned the real style a long time ago when it became a nationwide chain, but since so many of its competitors are regional chains it's hard to use the usual purist argument about chains being evil. As for the chains themselves, the one that makes the most out of the rivalry is probably Lou Malnati's, which was established by the former manager of the original Uno's and which claims to use the most "traditional" (for a given value of "traditional") recipe.
- The Twin Cities give us the fascinating argument about the area's unique variety of burger, which involves putting a slice of cheese inside the raw patty as well as on top. The two claimants—Matt's Bar and the 5-8 Club, both of Cedar Avenue in South Minneapolisnote —go so far as to spell it differently: the 5-8 calls it the "Juicy Lucy," but Matt's insists that it's really the "Jucy Lucy". This goes to the point where the 5-8 staff wear shirts saying "If it's spelled right, it's done right," while Matt's advertising says, "If it's spelled right, you are eating a shameless rip-off!"
- In Los Angeles, there's the dispute over the origin of the French dip sandwich between Cole'snote and Philippe's.note Interestingly, neither place serves the sandwich as it is usually done elsewhere, even in L.A.; rather than having the roast beef and cheese on a dry baguette with jus on the side, the sandwich is instead served "wet" with the jus poured on the bread (making it somewhat similar to a Chicago Italian beef sandwich, but with cheese and no peppers).note
Diners are small, often family-owned restaurants that are predominantly found in the Northeast and the eastern Midwest/Great Lakes region (the Great Lakes having always had strong cultural links with the Northeast—they sort of blend together somewhere between Cleveland
, with it being generally understood that Western New York and Western Pennsylvania are essentially Midwestern). They do exist elsewhere, especially in Florida
(settled by East Coast transplants as it is) and in chains like Friendly's, Denny's, IHOP and Waffle Housenote
, but not to the same degree — and calling such chains proper diners is an easy way to find out that baseball
is far from the only culture-related topic that Northerners can get violently angry
about. Diners are particularly Serious Business
in New Jersey
, which has more of the establishments than anywhere else and where diners are almost literally the state religion.note
That the heartland of diner culture is America's most heavily industrialized region is not a coincidence; diners are descended from railway dining cars and horse-drawn lunch wagons that catered to industrial workers, particularly those on the night shift. Thus traditional "classic" diners are characteristically long, narrow, and prefabricated constructions closely resembling rail cars, and although today a diner is more likely to be found in a permanent, purpose-built structure, diners maintain the link with the night shift by (usually) being open 24 hours (and when they do close, it's usually for a short period between when the night shift begins and when it ends, e.g. 12:00-6:00 AM), typically becoming a firm part of the area's nightlife. (Drunken revelers stopping by a diner for late-night grease after the bars close is almost a trope in itself.) The classic Fifties Malt Shop
or Greasy Spoon
is very often a diner, helping to immortalize the image of the diner in places far beyond where they are usually found.
Diner food is often at the low-medium end of the price range, and tends to include such traditional American fare as burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs, sandwiches and soups, as well as an assortment of regional foods — after all, most diners are small businesses, and cater primarily to the locals. One thing that sets diners apart from many restaurants is that they also serve breakfast foods, such as pancakes, waffles and eggs, at all hours of the day, rather than just during the morning. In addition, since most diners are owned by people of Greek, Slavic or Jewish descent, such Eastern European and Mediterranean foods as gyros, moussaka, blintzes and matzoh ball soup are common. Diners rarely serve alcoholic beverages—diners with liquor licenses do exist, but are hardly ever found outside of New Jersey or Long Island,note
and are fairly rare even there—but coffee is ubiquitous
Many local diners have specialties derived from whatever it is the cook is particularly good at making. A local diner might be well-noted and loved in the community for that particular specialty, and it's occasionally the safest bet on the menu.
Short for "delicatessen," although nobody calls it that anymore (exceptions are described below), a deli is a store that can best be described as a cross between a grocery store and a fast-food restaurant. Delis specialize in selling cold cuts and sandwiches (often on rolls; these may be referred to as "subs," "heroes", "grinders", or "hoagies" depending on location), and while nothing (apart from the chicken) is fried, sandwiches can often be toasted. Delis can be found as separate businesses or as part of grocery stores and supermarkets (the "deli counter"), and may be independently owned or part of a chain. To many people, the deli is often viewed as the healthier alternative
to fast food; whether or not this is true depends mainly on how much meat and toppings you slather your sandwich with, which can push calorie counts above many fast food offerings if you're not careful. Unlike in many other countries where sandwiches are seen more as a snack and tend to be simple affairs, Americans turned sandwiches into cuisine and culture, with many variations on the concept. Some examples:
- BLT: Bacon, lettuce, tomato, on toast with a bit of mayonnaise. Adding deli meats gets you a club sandwich, staple of diners all over.
- Dagwood: The classic "everything but the kitchen sink" sandwich, named for the comic character who popularized it. Real Life variants will have a variety of deli meats, cheeses, and vegetables stacked in a pile.
- Reuben: One of the quintessential deli sandwiches. Pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss, and Thousand Island on rye, lightly seared in a pan to toast the bread and melt the cheese.
- Grilled Cheese: Classic comfort food that can become high brow depending on the cheese used. Often served with (and dipped in) tomato soup. Adding tuna fish or a hamburger patty gets you a tuna melt or a patty melt respectively.
- Cuban: A Florida specialty, owing to the state's large population of Cuban immigrants. Cuban bread, yellow mustard, roast pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese, sliced pickles, and then heated and toasted in a sandwich press. Salami is usually added in central Florida, while southern Florida goes without. Higher-end places will sometimes omit the mustard in favor of mojo (a tangy, somewhat spicy sauce that originated in the Canary Islands and later made its way to Cuba).
- Po' boy: Native to New Orleans, it is a loaf of French bread that is usually filled with meat and/or breaded and fried seafood. A "dressed" po' boy usually includes lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise, and mustard is frequently included on non-seafood po' boys.
- Italian: Originally believed to be from Maine (Amato's, a New England chain based out of Portland, has laid claim to the title of originator) but now more or less ubiquitous, an Italian sandwich usually consists of salami, prosciutto (or ham in lower-end places), mortadella, provolone cheese, and an assortment of vegetables. It's fairly open-ended in terms of ingredients aside from a few absolutes but always makes for a hefty, varied, and tasty meal.
- Steak bomb: Similar in theory to the Philly cheesesteak, it is believe to have originated from the Boston area and is now a mainstay of New England delis, grinder shops, and pizza places. Shaved steak (peppered if the place is any good), provolone or mozzarella, grilled onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms are cooked together on a griddle and then crammed into a sub roll; most places (the closer to Boston, the greater the likelihood) will also include salami. It's a gutbuster that is not for those whose stomachs are averse to lots of grease, but it is very good.
- Pastrami on rye: A classic of New York Jewish delicatessens (though you can also find plenty of very good and perfectly authentic ones in Los Angeles as well, owing to that city's own fairly sizable Jewish diaspora), it is always (if it can be called authentic) made up of nothing but enormous amounts of hot pastrami and spicy brown mustard on Jewish rye and is usually served with kosher dill pickles on the side.
Most family-owned delis are concentrated in cities (New York
in particular is famous for this) and are Jewish-owned, serving kosher food; the image of the "Jewish New York deli" is so prevalent that delis outside of New York will refer to themselves as "New York-style," and Italian and German-style delis will call themselves "European delicatessens" to avoid confusion. Very low-end delis can often be found in convenience stores. Over time, kashrut has relaxed in America, leading to a further division between "New York-style" delis that will serve meat and cheese together (e.g. the popular pastrami and swiss on rye, or, um, the aforementioned Reuben) and strict kosher delis.
Katz's Deli in Manhattan is the most famous deli in the country and has appeared as a location or in the background of many, many movies, including the famous Meg Ryan
orgasm faking scene from When Harry Met Sally...
National chains include: Subway (playing the New York association and the "healthier than fast food" bit to the hilt — also notably the largest fast-food chain in the country
with more locations than the runners-up, McDonald's and Pizza Hut, combined
), Quizno's. Panera Bread is a slightly more upscale take on the concept.
...is a world unto its own. American Football
is nearly always played on weekends, which gives people lots of time to "prepare" for the game by eating and drinking heavily. Since football largely came about after the rise of the car culture, most modern NFL (and quite a few college) stadiums are in suburban areas, far from pubs or bars. They do, however, have enormous parking lots where people can establish elaborate cooking setups before the game. While most people will opt for the standard portable grill, others have made this into an art form with towed grills or smokers several yards long, or some particularly famous fan of the Buffalo Bills who grills on a converted Ford Pinto.
Die-hard tailgaters consider the tailgate an integral part of enjoying the game. They show up hours early not just to get a parking spot, but so that they can camp and grill and enjoy the day with friends and family. It's not unusual for a tailgater to rent a parking spot for his truck and another for his grill, set up underneath an awning. Then they grill and dine while the kids play cornhole
out in the traffic.
Not its own type of cuisine, but a type of business, also referred to as "lunch trucks" or "roach coaches". While called carts/trucks, these are often shacks or semi-mobile structures parked in vacant lots and in groups resembling a mall food court. These groups of carts often feature unique food items, including sometimes bizarre twists on domestic or international cuisine. Portland
, Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest
are noted for having the best food carts in the nation, while in New York City the "dirty water" hot dog stand — and its modern variant, the falafel cart with the odd Arab vendor
—is almost a trope unto itself. Interestingly, the "Halal cart" is now a regional East Coast chain in major cities (found in D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and Jersey City at a minimum), with cart owners franchising from the original "Halal Guys
" (a couple of Egyptian cart owners) in NYC, with their own rather unique menu (featuring an odd hybrid of actual Middle Eastern food with Greek, leading to falafel, fish, grilled chicken, or forcemeat-based "lamb gyro" in sandwiches or over rice, topped with vegetables and both "white sauce"—which somehow involves mayonnaise but also other, undisclosed things—and different degrees of hot sauce)—although we should note that a lot of these guys are not actual franchisees but simply "inspired" by the NYC originals.
Oh, and by the way: there are these
in New Brunswick, NJ (incidentally, often run by odd Arab vendors). Consume at your own peril.
Alongside early diners were "owl wagons", movable late-night restaurants that could be brought to a factory or other work area for the convenience of its customers. When automobiles became popular they were moved to truck chassis, creating the lunch wagon. As the ethnic composition of the working class, particularly in the Southwest, shifted from white to Latino, the wagons shifted to traditional Mexican food, becoming Taco Trucks. This is now the most common name for the vehicles, regardless of what food they serve. True "taco" trucks serve Mexican street food and Kitchen Sink Included
Mission-style burritos. Taco Trucks have much lower overhead than a traditional restaurant, allowing lower prices and serving as a stepping stone for cooks: Several restaurants like the Taco John's chain started out of one of these trucks. In films and television taco trucks are almost always shown as dealing with some illicit activity like drug dealing or industrial espionage. Spreading from the West Coast since 2000 or so, food trucks (mostly inspired by the above taco trucks) have become popular in big cities all over the country. They generally specialize in upscale street food; cupcakes and other baked goods are particularly popular, although plenty specialize in quick lunches, and one particular truck in Providence, RI has been operating for over a century as a (very small) sit-down diner.
Despite their humble nature, these trucks have long had rabid fans who believe that they are more true to their original ethnic cuisine. In recent years the taco truck has moved to the forefront of cuisine, allowing chefs to specialize in a couple dishes and offer them at a reasonable price. Food served out of these gourmet trucks can be anything from French pastries to Korean BBQ. Fans can keep track of the trucks' locations via Twitter.
In addition, there's the much more humble "roach coaches", which drive around industrial and construction sites to provide lunch and snacks to workers who don't necessarily get out for lunch. Unlike the above food truck, these are usually converted pickup trucks with a refrigerated snackbar and a small griddle for hot foods set up in the bed, covered with distinctive diamond-pattern stainless steel doors.
During the Revolutionary War
, importation of tea was restricted
, forcing Americans to shift to coffee
. Traditionally this coffee was brewed by boiling coffee grounds in water and either filtering it or clarifying it using a flocculation agent like egg shells. Brewing coffee this way takes considerable skill and can be exceptionally harsh if left too long. Coffee brewed this way is called "cowboy" or "trucker" coffee
: it's made to get the most effect out of the caffeine with the minimum equipment available at the expense of flavor.
Chicory root can also be brewed like coffee, and became a mainstay of Confederate forces during the Civil War due to Union blockades. Chicory and coffee blends are still popular around New Orleans.
European coffees like espresso and cappuccino made its way to the States via troops during World War II
. G.I.s who weren't used to the strength of European coffee would order espresso with extra water, creating café americano
. After the war, coffeehouses specializing in these styles opened and became a mainstay of Beat
culture in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, American coffee manufacturers got into a price war, replacing Arabica beans with harsher Robusto to reduce costs. Home brewers shifted to using percolators, which force the water through the grounds repeatedly: Although this coffee didn't have to be separated from the grounds, if left too long the coffee would overbrew, making it bitter. Together this created extremely low-quality coffee which drove people away from the drink in droves.
Coffee houses saw a renaissance in a few cities (most famously Seattle
) starting in the late '70s, eventually spreading nationwide by the '90s. The Starbucks chain, in particular, expanded so rapidly that its oversaturation in many marketsnote
has become a recurring gag in pop culture. These new brewers continued to make European coffees while also improving on traditional American coffee. Perfection of the electric drip coffee maker finally made it easy to get the correct brewing time, while the smaller shops were able to tightly control the quality of their beans. While American coffee is normally brewed in large pots instead of single servings, steady heat will eventually turn it bitter. Some makers will put timers on their carafes, replacing coffee that has sat for more than an hour.
During this time Starbucks created heavier, sweeter coffee drinks. While derided by coffee enthusiasts, they caught on with non-coffee drinkers to create an international business. To this day, Starbucks is nearly a separate market from other coffeehouses, even becoming the only coffee option in some areas. While some cities have a plethora of options and local coffeehouses, in others, your choice is between Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts. There has, however, been a recent move towards more locations of the Canadian chain Tim Hortons in the U.S., but only mostly in the Northeast, Michigan and Ohio (Tim Hortons is owned by Wendy's).
Starbucks is seeing serious competition from McDonald's McCafé drinks, while even gas stations, which were once synonymous with bad coffee, have adopted many of the coffee house practices to make a drinkable (and profitable) product.
Also, if you're in some of the colder parts of the country (particularly New England) and you see someone walking around with an enormous cup of iced coffee in subfreezing weather with half a foot or more of snow on the ground... that's actually quite normal.
Contrary to the popular belief of the United States as a strictly coffee culture, Americans do drink tea
and lots of it, especially in the South and southern Midwest (e.g. southern Illinois and Indiana, plus of course Missouri, which in case you haven't already noticed, is in a strange Midwestern/Southern limbo). What makes American tea different from its counterparts in Europe and Asia (and therefore making it "not count" it seems) is that the majority of Americans prefer their tea be served cold. Not cold as in "lukewarm"; cold as in "refrigerated, and with ice cubes in it". The reason for this is simple: it gets damn hot in the South or on the Great Plains in the summer, and coffee—even iced—is pretty much useless for keeping you cool and hydrated. Iced tea works surprisingly well, though.
It is standard procedure in some parts of the country (mostly the South) to offer cold tea brewed with lots and lots of sugar, the fittingly-named "sweet tea". In fact, the presence or absence of sweet tea in American restaurants and diners has been given serious academic study for its use in defining the cultural boundary between the North and the South. (Though regarding this border determination process, McDonald's
, which serves both sweet and unsweetened tea nationwide, doesn't count. They're a trope in and of themselves.)
The American Southwest has its own take on tea, with the "sun tea" brewing method. As the area get copious amounts of sunshine and heat, it's a common way to get iced tea without sweating over a boiling kettle during a heat wave. Simply take a large, cleannote
glass jar (typically 1 US gallon, or just under 4 liters), fill it with water and submerge 8-12 teabags in it, then let it sit in the warm sun for about 5 hours. Remove the tea bags, stick in the fridge, and you're done. It's such a common summertime activity that, during the summer, many local retailers will sell jars with spigots built in specifically for brewing sun tea.
Those non-American tea drinkers who visit the United States would be wise to make sure you know exactly what you're getting when you order "tea". Depending on how common it is for tea to be served cold, receiving iced tea might be the default. Almost all but the cheapest of restaurants will specify that it's "iced" on the menu. The quality of the tea itself depends on the quality of the restaurant, although most American restaurants are not the tea connoisseurs that many of their European counterparts are. A newcomer's best bet for decent hot tea is, ironically enough, coffeehouses—although certain kinds of ethnic restaurant come in a close second, if you can find one in the area, and of course then it will be whatever kind of tea is traditional in the owner's country of origin, so expect (e.g.) a strong black tea (possibly in a glass) from an Arabic or Turkish restaurant and green or oolong tea from a Chinese,note
Korean, or Japanese one.
American teas tend to be blended specifically to be brewed cold; the stronger, more tannic blends like English or Irish breakfast are widely available, but tend only to be consumed by tea aficionados and in Irish and Anglo-American households. Adding milk to tea is virtually unheard of in the US, and even most artisanal hot teas served in the US are too light-tasting for it anyway. As with coffee, the popularity of herbal teas started as an alternative drink during the Revolutionary War, and remain a popular option for hot tea.
Iced tea is also notable as the basis of one of the country's few popular mixed non-alcoholic drinks—the Arnold Palmer. It's a 50-50 mixture of iced tea and lemonade and named after the golf legend who favored the beverage during rounds.
Beer in America is somewhat contested: you have your casual drinkers, and you have your snobs. The only real difference is whether or not they'll touch one of the mainstream brands. There is much butting of heads between these groups, but if we're lucky, not while they've been enjoying their particular brand
Mainstream brands are the beers that foreigners are usually talking about when they make jokes about how bad American beer is
This is not a very nice thing to say about anyone's alcohol, and casual drinkers don't like hearing itnote
. They're meant to appeal to a very broad demographic at a very low price, so they tend to be mass-produced using recipes that result in a fairly inoffensive brew. American mass-market brew (and it isn't just American anymore, as brands like Carling, Kirin, Heineken, Kingfisher, and Tsingtao can attest to) differs from the "traditional" lager and pilsner beers it's based on by the addition of considerable amounts of adjuncts
. These are cereal grains other than barley, added to the brew to give alcohol content and a generic sweetness without all the subtle flavors of barley malt and hops. This type of brew isn't just brewed for cheapness; American barley strains have more protein than European varieties and can make a hazier, less presentable brew by themselves, so the addition of corn or rice reduces the amount of haze while keeping the alcohol content to a respectable level. For an idea of what a beer with American ingredients made to a German or Czech recipe would look and taste like, they're often sold as "traditional lagers" or "pre-prohibition lagers;" regional brew Yuengling is probably the largest of this category, although Sam Adams' flagship Boston Lager is in this territory as well, as is Narragansett Lagernote
, another regional specialty. Important note: mainstream American beers are brewed to be served cold—that is, refrigerated (though not with ice cubes). Their flavor will suffer if served at room temperature.
Like coffee, beer underwent a period between the 50s and 70s where brewers strove to drive down the price at the expense of quality, resulting in the same drop in consumption. This proved disastrous for Schlitz, once the country's most popular beer, when a change made the beer look foamy. Buyers thought the beer had spoiled, and sales dropped off drastically. Combined with improvements in shipping, import beers took their place as "good" beers, while domestic beers were seen as something to get drunk on.
That same era saw the development of malt liquor, beers with a high alcohol content due to the addition of sugars to increase fermentation. Initially advertised as higher quality beer, it quickly took its place as the beer equivalent of bum wine; malt liquor has roughly the same reputation as England's similar high strength lager. Weirdly, some laws classify beers containing more than a set percentage of alcohol (usually 5%) must legally be labeled as "malt liquor" in some states regardless of the brewing process; because of the name's reputation, this is usually put in very fine print on the bottle.
By the 1970s, Coors Banquet Beer was seen as the best American beer, but it could only be sold in states where it could be guaranteed to be kept cold during shipping, hence its use as the McGuffin
in Smokey and the Bandit
. Another turning point came that decade when Miller introduced "Miller Lite", the first mainstream light beer. Light beers, as their name implies, are lower in both alcohol content (usually around 4% compared to the more typical 5-6%) and calories and, in effect, tend to have even less flavor than what the major brewing companies were already producing. While they were (and still are) endlessly mocked by beer enthusiasts as watered down garbage, light beers proved to be extremely popular with the mainstream public for these very same reasons, bringing in many casual drinkers that were turned off by more "flavorful" lagers and ales but tolerated the light beers' milder tastes. By the early 1980s, Anheuser-Busch and Coors had released their own versions of light beers to compete with Miller and these "Big Three" continue to dominate the American beer market to this day (Bud Light for example, outsells regular Budweiser beer by a mile, and the same is true for Miller Lite and Coors Light). Brands that failed to adapt to these market changes (such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and the aforementioned Schlitz) quickly fell by the wayside.
"Craft beers", also known as microbrews, are meant for a more discriminating clientele, and usually come in smaller batches; the American Brewers' Association defines a microbrewery as one that produces less than 15,000 American barrels a year. This conflation of craft and microbrew is no longer strictly true; a number of formerly small craft breweries are today producing well over 15,000 barrels, most notably the Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams, the first craft brewery to make a splash), which makes 2.5 million barrels; there are about 100 craft breweries that produce between 15,000 and 6,000,000 barrelsnote
termed "regional craft breweries." These beers have come into their own as a high-class drinking option, with many places even having beer sommeliers who can recommend the best beer to complement your meal. These brews tend to be more flavorful (and there are literally hundreds of brands to choose from), but are much more expensive, due both to the smaller batch sizes and to the higher variety of flavors calling for more varied ingredients. Snobs drink exclusively craft beer, and look down upon mainstream brands in much the same way (and for much the same reasons) as foreigners are stereotyped as doing. These breweries also tend to have a quirky, tongue-in-cheek style to their packaging, and the actual beers are often creative, and indeed wildly experimental, combining strange ingredientsnote
and methods from disparate beer styles, to the distaste of some (mostly European) traditionalists, though the prevailing sentiment abroad seems to be "American brewers will try anything once, and while it doesn't always work, it's awesome when it does". American craft beer also tends to be highly alcoholic (particularly barleywines and Russian imperial stouts, which almost always go into double-digit ABV counts and are a go-to for any craft brewer looking for a high-gravity dark beer) and unusually hoppy, as well, although a few breweries—mostly those that have a primarily English influence (e.g. Yards of Philadelphia)—do buck that trend. The old joking about American mass-market lager is slowly being replaced by an argument between American and European beer snobs about whether or not the US is currently the best place in the world to drink beer. Some states with a significant craft beer culture are California, Colorado, Oregon note
, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Michigan,note
Louisiana, Maine, and Washington.note
Much of the microbrew trend can be attributed to President Jimmy Carter
repealing a ban on home brewing, giving Americans room to experiment.note
Meanwhile, his brother
was promoting "Billy Beer," a... distinct
mainstream brew that seemed to capitalize on Billy's love of alcohol.
The US also has a fairly old tradition of viticulture. Upper-class Americans, like upper-class people everywhere in the West
, have always had a taste for wine, and in the West, the Spanish missionary monks grew vines, mostly for sacramental purposes. In the colonial period and early Republic, however, this was mostly imported from Europe; consumption patterns mirrored those of Britain, with claret, sherry, and especially Madeira wine dominating the market. Although the US has a large number of indigenous grape species, it was quickly discovered that these generally produce crappynote
wine, and attempts to plant their European cousin Vitis vinifera
—the standard wine grape—frequently ran into problems. Nevertheless, a wine industry eventually took rootnote
in America, partly depending on the American grapes, and partly on European grapes in those areas—like California—where they took hold. By the time of Prohibition, Missourinote
, New York and Ohio had reasonably strong viticulture, but the reputation of American wine was still low.note
Prohibition only made that worse, basically destroying the wine industry; when Prohibition was lifted, the major center of production in California began churning out cheap, highly alcoholic fortified wines sold in bulk—the famous "bum wine" or "jug wine" associated with poor drinkers.
The concept of terroir
in American wine is limited compared to Europe; only a few places such as Napa Valley in California really mean anything to wine drinkers. Although some wines are still labeled using the old "semi-generic" system (using names of French wines like Burgundy or Champagne), most are now varietally labeled. American vintners are not permitted to use chapetalization (adding sugar to boost alcohol content for balance purposes), partly because the warmer growing climate means the wines are strong enough anyway. Most of the top selling wine varietals are French ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot. However, Zinfandel, an American growth of what was originally a Croatian varietal, is a strong seller in both red (a strong, rich, jammy, and highly alcoholic wine, but nonetheless well respected when properly done) and white (actually a rosé—who are we kidding, only "blush" works for this—sugary horror often compared to alcoholic Kool-Aidnote
) varieties, and is often considered a distinctly American wine. There is also one small specialty area where the US is being recognized: America has an unusual bounty of regions where the climate is good for growing grapes but can also expect a hard frost every year; this makes these regions excellent for producing ice wine. Wineries in Northern Michigan (particularly the Grand Traverse Bay) have capitalized on this, and along with Canada's similar discovery (Southern Ontario in particular has a similar climate), North America is producing ice wine to rival the products of its native Germany.
In the 1970s, however, there was a revival of viticulture across the country. Starting in California, American wine gradually grew away from its traditional bum-wine-and-imitation-European model into something new. Today, certain American wine regions have reputations rivaling those of the Old World.
While the vast majority of American wine, as noted, is produced from Old World grape species, there are small wineries that work with New World grapes scattered throughout the country. These wines tend to be very regional, and clearly labeled as not being standard issue wine with good reason. Sea grape wine, for example, is almost impossible to find away from old and historic parts of the Florida coast and the odd imitator in more urban areas. New World grape wine typically tastes significantly different from traditional wines, but there is invariably a small group of people who swear by their local specialty.
Other American booze
Although America is very firmly beer country today, it wasn't always so. In The Colonial Period
and up until the presidency of Andrew Jackson
(more or less), hard cider and applejack—a freeze-distilled brandy made from cider—were the drinks of choice for Americans. In fact, at least one major successful presidential campaign during that eranote
openly played up the image that the candidate was a rough-and-tumble man's man
who lived in a log cabin and loved drinking cider. The vast open spaces of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Basins had yet to be settled by whites, and so America—strange to say—was grain-poor. So they made their drinks from apples—which were easy to grow in America's climate and terrain—instead. New England was also big on rum in the colonial period, buying molasses to distill into rum with the proceeds of its triangular-trade shipping fees ("Molaaaassssses to rummm, to slaaaves
These drinks fell out of favor as the US expanded west and gained more arable land for grain production. Today, only one distillery in the country—Laird's of Monmouth County, New Jerseynote
—produces applejack (and even then the stuff is only partly distilled from apples—the rest is rectified grain spirit), and New England is better known for beer than rum. Cider production also largely disappeared, although it has undergone a revival alongside the craft brewing movement in apple-growing regions; the most famous cider in the contemporary US is probably Woodchuck Hard Cider from Vermont, but production has also picked up in New England and in Michigan, New York, and Washington.note
But with expansion came a problem—too much grain. Namely, now that you have more than enough wheat, barley, corn, and rye, what do you do with it? Not all of it could be sold as-is or used in local markets: America is a big
country, and sometimes transportation links didn't catch up fast enough with patterns of settlement to allow a farmer to ship his grain to major centers of demand before the rats and bugs got to it. Besides, sometimes even farmers who could ship their grain to major cities had too much grain to sell. Thus came the American traditions of brewing and most especially distilling, as a means to make efficient use of excess grain. Thus was born American whiskey.
The most important region for whiskey-making in the United States is the state of Kentucky. This is for several reasons; it's located in the middle of prime corn-growing territory, the water from the state is filtered through limestone which makes it better for whiskey yeast, it provided easy shipping via the Ohio River, and historically it was the destination for distillers from the east coast, fleeing federal excise taxes or religious discrimination (many were from Catholic Maryland, which became more and more Protestant over time and passed onerous restrictions on its former majority). Almost all of the largest distilleries in the United States are located in Kentucky, and whiskey tourism is a big source of revenue in the state.
Note that like its Irish cousin and unlike the products of Scotland and Canada, the American spirit, with notable exceptions, is spelled with an "e." This is often made out to be a bigger deal than it really is (especially by Scotch drinkers/snobs). The divergence in whiskey traditions pre-dates Noah Webster and standardized spelling, and claims that the American whiskey tradition is the product of a specifically Scotch-Irish culture lack credibility. The earliest whiskeys in the United States were made by the English Puritans, and the most prolific and historically significant distilling family in the US, the Beamsnote
, were German
American whiskey comes in several varieties, but a few characteristics stand out:
- American whiskey is generally classified by the primary type of grain it is derived from. Usually the name of the grain gives the name of the whiskey, but it gets tricky: "Bourbon whiskey" is made from corn, as is "Corn whiskey", but the two are substantially different. There is also "blended whiskey", which is usually (although not always) cheap swill, consisting of up to 80% neutral spirits (vodka).
- The vast majority of non-blended American whiskey is either bourbon or Tennessee whiskey (see below). Once associated with cheap, harsh spirits, bourbon's fortunes started to turn around in the later part of the twentieth century, and is currently a very popular spirit both in the United States and abroad, particularly super-premium "small batch" varieties. Rye whiskey, once the most popular spirit in the United States, underwent a swift decline and has only recently began to recover, spurred on by bourbon's rise in popularity (the two are similar enough production-wise to where any bourbon distillery can switch to rye production and back with minimal trouble). Corn whiskey is generally marketed with some sort of "moonshine chic," following the success of brand Georgia Moon, sold in a Mason jar. Wheat and barley malt whiskey, the other two categories of whiskey designated by US regulatory agencies, are close to non-existent.
- American whiskey, like Canadian whisky, comes from a mixture of grains. Unlike Canadian whiskey, these grains are combined before the spirit is fermented or distilled. For example, during the cooking process, bourbon distillers will add corn, rye (or wheat), and barley malt (with the corn—by law—forming at least 51% of the mash). The ensuing mixture is fermented, distilled to a relatively low proof (legally no higher than 160 proof—i.e. 80% abv—as higher proofs destroy flavors), and aged (entering the barrel at no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% abv).
- Bourbon, rye, wheat, malt, and Tennessee whiskey must be aged in charred new oak barrels. Corn whiskey must either be unaged or aged in anything other than an charred new oak barrel (old bourbon barrels are popular). No minimum aging time is specified, but a spirit that has aged at least two years in such manner may be labeled as "straight" whiskey, and a spirit aged less than four years must display the aging time of the youngest whiskey in the bottling mix. Unlike most international whiskeys, any American whiskey labeled as "straight" may not incorporate artificial colors or flavors; due to the new oak barrels, most are distinctly red rather than amber. Due to the use of new barrels and the hotter temperate climate of the southern US, aging times for American whiskey are much shorter than those for Scotch or Irish whiskey; most bourbons aged past 10 years are effectively undrinkable, although some longer-aged bourbons do exist and live up to the hype (Heaven Hill Distillery's premium Elijah Craig brand has a 12-year single-barrel as its standard, and has released reasonably well-received 18-, 20, and 21-year-old bourbons). The new oak barrels, once used, are also popular for aging beer, wine, and other spirits; the US does a healthy trade in old bourbon barrels, going to Europe to age certain wines and spirits (Scotch and cognac distilleries are major purchasers).
- There is one interesting microdistillery in Michigan—New Holland—that takes a standard bourbon aged in new oak (allowing it to be called bourbon), then moves it for three months to barrels that used to contain the brewery's Dragon's Milk Stout (a very high-gravity beer)...which in turn was aged in old bourbon barrels. Confusing, but delicious.
- There are, in addition, several qualifiers often used to denote a higher quality product. The oldest is "bottled-in-bond," which denotes a 100 proof spirit aged in a US government controlled warehouse; these must all be the product of a single distillery, distiller, and distilling year. When labeling laws were much murkier than today, these spirits were often regarded as "the good stuff." "Single barrel" whiskeys indicate that the whiskey is bottled more or less straight from the barrel, rather than mixing a number of barrels to meet a predesignated taste profile; since most distillers won't select "bad" barrels for these spirits, they tend to denote higher quality and price. "Small batch" is less meaningful, but denotes a greater degree of selection; the most popular "small batch" whiskey, Knob Creek, is produced by Jim Beam by specially selecting barrels from its massive warehouses over 9 years old.
- To settle an age-old bar bet: Tennessee whiskey (which includes the top selling spirit in the world, Jack Daniel's) by US law—specifically the North American Free Trade Agreementnote —must be a straight bourbon whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee. Most, but not all, Tennessee whiskeys undergo an extensive charcoal filtration process before (and, for high end brands, also after) entering the barrel for aging, eliminating unpleasant cogeners and jump-starting the aging process; this process involves vats filled with sugar maple charcoal several feet tall, and takes several days for the whiskey to trickle all the way through. Conversely, any "charcoal-filtered" Kentucky bourbon (even those in a square black-labeled bottle with "CHARCOAL FILTERED" in big letters on the bottom), is only given a brief filtering before bottling to eliminate a phenomena known as "chill haze." (And that doesn't even work all the time; ask anyone who's ever bought Heaven Hill Black Label.note ) In 2013, the state of Tennessee passed a law that essentially codified Tennessee whiskey as a charcoal-mellowed straight bourbon produced in Tennessee, with an exemption for one microdistiller that produces an unfiltered bourbon.
- Microdistilleries exist, but haven't gained the same traction as microbrews. This is mostly due to the aging required for quality whiskey; most micros (but, we must emphasize, not all!) sell an under-aged product with an inflated history (and pricetag) that is bought more out of local/state pride or a desire to "support the little guy" than a notion of superior quality. The success of several small distilleries has lead to what some reviewers refer to as the "Potemkin craft distillery", a distillery-in-name-only that sources whiskey from the big soulless corporations and passes it off as their own.
- Some small distilleries have adopted new techniques that pump new whiskey through wood to simulate aging, cutting production time down from years to days. This practice is more than a little controversial among whiskey drinkers, with some question over whether these products can be called "whiskey." Similar experiments have involved using temperature and pressure-controlled "warehouses," which can simulate several years worth of wood aging in a short period of time. While these can impart a wood flavor, they can't perform the other half of aging, in which cogeners are oxidized over the course of several years. However, you can still suss out quality by following a lot of the same guidelines as apply to whiskey generally: if it's labeled "straight" and from a microdistiller, it's probably pretty decent (even if potentially slightly overpriced), as a distiller, and particularly a small distiller, won't bother to go to the trouble of actually aging the whiskey for at least two years if it doesn't intend to pay at least some attention to quality. Alternatively, it's been sourced from elsewhere.
- Beginning in 2014, several non-distiller producers (including the most famous/infamous, Templeton Rye) are facing lawsuits over whether or not they have misrepresented their place of origin.
- A substantial number of microdistilleries avoid this problem by producing spirits that do not require aging, including "moonshine" corn whiskey (which is clear), vodka, gin, and rum. Rum and gin are particularly common choices for East Coast micros, as they can claim a connection to history (particularly as respects rum).
- The United States is also a leading producer of other distilled spirits, such as vodka, brandy (due to the large California wineries), and rum (particularly in US-held Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; the former has many distilleries that fled the Cuban Revolution).
- And finally, we get to good old white lightning, or moonshine. Common myth is that this is a spirit mostly made from corn, served in Mason jars and capable of getting hillbillies drunk with one thimbleful. In reality, the term "moonshine" refers to any untaxed spirit (almost all are made entirely from table sugar; Hawaiian sugar farm subsidies and the lack of alcohol taxes allow makers to undercut cheap vodka and rum); most is not particularly potent, loaded with unpleasant fusel alcohols (which are believed to be a big contributing factor to hangovers) due to low-tech equipment and lack of distilling knowledge, and most sellers have eschewed the timeless jars in favor of gallon milk jugs. During national Prohibition, most spirits consumed in the U.S. were illicitly imported, or "reconstituted" by diluting and flavoring industrial ethanol note . This hasn't stopped a number of distillers from marketing what they call "legal moonshine;" generally a corn whiskey sold in a jug-like bottle or Mason jar. To mask the taste (which is usually pretty terrible), most of those aforementioned legal moonshines are given some sort of fruit flavoring.
- Those involved with transporting moonshine in the early to mid-20th century used home-built high performance cars with hidden storage compartments suited for the purpose. Races between these drivers evolved into NASCAR.