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:
American Food"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). 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. Many of these restaurants 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'Chili-Bee'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, Longhorn, and Outback Steakhouse. 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
Foods By Region
SouthernThe South is most narrowly defined as the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War - 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, which seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War, may also be included in broad definitions, although the northern half of the state is more Midwestern or Mid-Atlantic (depending on location). Finally, the southern parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana have a considerable cultural affinity with the South. Depending on who you ask, Southern cuisine is either the very best (and to some 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, 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; the South can get hot and really humid. Frying is probably the fastest cooking technique there is, and so frying is a way to avoid spending long hours in a hot kitchen.
Soul FoodClosely related—so closely 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. 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). The actual term "soul food" arose in the 1960s, by analogy with Soul Music.
Famous Southern and Soul Food dishesThe 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, served at breakfast, usually with butter and some form of seasoning) 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 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 Sweetened iced tea is a common drink (see below), and almost all major brands of carbonated soft drink (Coca-Colanote , Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dewnote , and regional favorite R.C.) 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.
Cajun/CreoleSpeaking 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 main divide separating the two would probably be the incorporation of tomatoes and/or butter in Creole dishes; authentic Cajun dishes eschew tomatoes and generally use vegetable oil as their main cooking fat. 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.
BarbecueBarbecue 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: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, and the Carolinas.
Great Lakes/Upper MidwesternThe "Upper Midwest" is typically considered to be anything from Lake Erie to the east, Minnesota to the west, and Chicago to the south. 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. 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 Dognote and the Coney Island Dog (a type of chili dog that, despite its name, originates from Detroit and the rest of southeastern Michigan—for no apparent reason, diners in the Detroit area tend to be called "Coney Islands"). 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. Also: Cincinnati is famous for its really weird chili (it involves 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 ).
Country-styleA 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).
CalifornianComposed 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 McDonalds. Other examples of major chains include Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, and regional favorite In-N-Out Burger.
NortheasternWhen 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), scrapple (cornmeal and pork scraps and entrails — Slavic and German-influenced rural Pennsylvania's answer to haggis), and pretty much anything to do with clams, but especially chowder and softshell clams, either cooked by themselves (steamers) or shucked and breaded (fried clams). Cod and haddock are also quite popular; 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. 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 McDonalds 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. 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 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) 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. 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 it's 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 home) and soft pretzels. 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 Salvadorian or Columbian.note In New England, very little of the Latino population is Mexican, and is often not even Hispanic [[note]Brazilians speak Portuguese, Haitians speak French[[/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
ChineseIt'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). 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, 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 nth-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. 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 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 peasant in Hunan Province, pretended that these were all dishes from Hunan, and Nixon returned to the US singing the praises of Hunan cuisine.
FrenchSometimes 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.note
ItalianOccasionally 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). One of the largest national chains is the Olive Garden, which is (apparently) the best Italian food in Atlanta.
PizzaWhile 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:
MexicanMexican 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 Southwest or Santa Fe-Mex. 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 "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-insipired" 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).
Native AmericanAs 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 and well worth the trip (unfortunately, it's likely as not packed, since the Smithsonian employees quickly found out that Mitsitam is really good, 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.
FusionSo 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.
The DinerDiners 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 and Syracuse, 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, 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.note 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.
The DeliShort 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" 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:
Tailgating...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.
Food CartsNot 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. 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.
CoffeeDuring 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 markets 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 McCafe 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.
TeaContrary 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. 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. 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.
BeerBeer 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.note This is not a very nice thing to say about anyone's alcohol, and casual drinkers don't like hearing it. 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 and hop strains can often be more robust and overpowering than their European counterparts due to the warmer growing climate. 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. 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. 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 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, Wisconsin, Michigan,note Louisiana, 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.
WineThe 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 crappy (or at least very strange) wine, and attempts to plant their European cousin Vitis vinifera—the standard wine grape—frequently ran into problems. Nevertheless, a wine industry eventually took root 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) 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.
Other American boozeAlthough 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. 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: