That Distinctive Taste of American Food

American cooking, as we know, is a hybrid of cuisines. Since our earliest days as a nation, we’ve adopted and adapted cooking styles from every nation.

Which raises the question: Is there such as a thing as essentially American food?

Writing a century ago, Irvin Cobb believed our cuisine was based on the crops of Native Americans.

We owe a lot to our red brother. From him we derived a knowledge of the values and attractions of the succulent clam… We got the original idea of the shore dinner and the barbecue, the planked shad and the hoecake. By following in his footsteps we learned about succotash and hominy. He conferred upon us the inestimable boon of his maize—hence corn bread, corn fritters, fried corn and roasting ears; also his pumpkin and sweet potato—hence the pumpkin pie of the North and its blood brother of the South, the sweet-potato pie. We inherited the crook-neck squash and the okra, gumbo, and the rattlesnake watermelon and the wild good plum and many another delectable thing.

Chuckwagon by Mead Schaeffer
“Chuckwagon” Mead Schaeffer September 14, 1946

Waves of settlers adopted these native foods and began improvising New World dishes: clam chowder, Indian pudding, baked beans, crab cakes, jambalaya, smoked ham, chile con carne, cranberry sauce, eggnog, oyster stew, pancakes, peach cobbler, fried chicken, and apple pie.

But other countries borrowed our native foods so completely that they have lost their American identity. Imagine the menus of Ireland and Germany without the American potato. Or the bill of fare at Italian restaurants without the South American tomato.

Many of America’s great culinary creations share a characteristic besides local flavors: outdoor preparation. Early American cooks built their repertoire in open country. When  meal time arrived, pioneer mothers, fishermen, trappers, lumberjacks, and cowboys grabbed what they could find and worked it into a meal over a campfire or inside a rock oven. Questions about the best proportions, seasonings, and cooking time were settled on what tasted best in open air.

In 1932, when food critic George Rector wrote about the best American food he’d known, he focused on open-air cuisine:  the roast pig, barbecue, clambake, and roasted corn—all American, all outdoors.

Leaving metaphysics and the good life out of it, the combination of grub, a fire, and a hungry human being out-of-doors produces food that is tops in any language.

We don’t stock mysticism here, gentlemen; we don’t have to… I go on record with the cheering fact that never in my life, no matter how much I ate, did I ever have to resort to bicarbonate after a meal cooked and stowed in the open air.

Cobb’s love of al fresco cooking began in his youth when, released on weekends from his boarding school, he and his friends scavenged the countryside for food.

We were particularly fond of lifting a hill of potatoes, building a fire in a spot sufficiently secluded so the farmer wouldn’t see the smoke, and, when she had burned down enough, burying the potatoes in the hot ashes. During the subsequent forty-five years I have met, eaten and learned to juggle some of the finest and most celebrated dishes in the world, but I have yet to recapture the satisfaction we got out of those potatoes when we finally raked them out and ripped them open and got down to business.

They looked like round lumps of soft coal, being a quarter of an inch thick with black ash. But that blackened skin only made the appearance of the snow-white, fluffy interior all the more dramatic. We ate them without salt or butter, just as they steamed and puffed au naturel.

We were all convinced that a potato baked in an open fire with fresh-air sauce and holiday garnish was the best discoverable provender. I still think so—or at least I certainly would if I could get back to being twelve years old again, which I more than suspect had a great deal to do with it.

Any discussion of American food, Mr Rector realized, should at least mention the hot dog, another delicacy created for outdoor dining.

A plethora of bad jokes has never made the slightest dent in the well-deserved popularity of the wienie, the frankfurter, the redhot, or whatever you choose to call it, as the great American snack. A fire, baked potatoes, and a pound of franks will kid almost any timid soul into thinking he’s an al fresco cook.

Naturally, he suggests the best way to cook what he calls the canis frankfortiensis.

Country Gentleman Cover May 5, 1934
Country Gentleman Cover May 5, 1934

Buy a long skewer or use a piece of fence wire, if it’s your fence. But if you want to get close to nature, a long green twig, sharpened at both ends, does beautifully, especially if you pierce holes in the meat before impaling it. Exercise discretion and whatever botanical knowledge you possess in picking your twig. Oak makes the meat bitter, and so does willow; and I can’t hope to give you a notion of the rich reek of turpentine you’ll get out of pine or any other coniferous tree. Maple is sweet and harmless, but best of all is probably a robust shoot from an old apple tree.

I have no objections to your roasting your hand along with the meat by holding the skewer over the fire, but it always suited my book best to jab the end into the ground so that it leaned picturesquely over the coals, and then shift it end for end to cook the upper half as brown as the lower. When the meat is dark-brown and tender, slide it off, and don’t eat too fast.

Unfortunately, he is silent on the great controversy of condiments; i.e, should ketchup ever be put on a hot dog?