In Search Of American Food


If I invited you over for dinner, is this what you’d expect me to make for dessert?  Maybe, because of its resemblance to a classic American strawberry shortcake, it wouldn’t be totally unexpected.  Until I cut it open, that is, and revealed its heart of arborio rice simmered in milk and folded with ricotta.  It’s a lovely Italian Easter cake, and so, doesn’t that make it perfectly American?

We had a quartet of French dinner guests last night, all new to us, and we debated long and hard about how to feed them.  We ourselves, if invited by a French family, would be really surprised if they served us American food, or anything other than French food.  Didn’t it follow, then, that French people coming here expect to be served American food?  And would it please them if I did?  And even if it would, what the heck could I serve that would really seem American?  I say “seem” because, as all Americans know, Chinese food is American, Mexican food is American, as is Italian, Japanese, German, Thai, and so on.  Americans know this, but it’s not necessarily the case that French people understand it.  Because of their long and noble culinary tradition, it’s nearly inconceivable to the average French person that  Americans have trouble defining their own cuisine. 

On the other hand, whatever I serve then, French people always make gratifying guests.  They really taste their food, dissect its elements, talk about how it was made, ask for recipes mid-bite, discuss the merits of various accompanying wines, and they always clean their plates.  They’re super well brought up, always bringing wine, flowers, gifts, and interesting conversation.  One reason that lunch or dinner here can easily last four or five hours is that good mealtime conversation is highly prized.  I’m sure that somewhere in France people sit down in front of the TV, eat, and go about their business, but we haven’t met them yet.  Politics, philosophy, cuisine, jokes, and a second helping of politics are all fodder for discussion at the French table.  That, plus at our house, there’s often the added element of “we didn’t know that Americans could cook.”  It’s sweet, but sad.

The movie SuperSize Me has recently made it across the Atlantic, and McDonald’s invaded France long ago.  There’s really no other American food that’s widely available here, and so we’re not the only ones wondering what real American food is.  I honestly think that when we invite people they’re half-expecting to be served hamburgers.  There you go, a real hamburger, a juicy beef patty on good bread, maybe a bit of cheese, some lettuce, a few condiments, now that’s American food.  Except for the fact that Hamburg is in Germany.

If you have a good response to the question “what is American food?”, please tell us, so that I’ll have a better answer the next time someone asks.  And if you want to make the beautiful and delicious cake I made last night, the recipe is here.  I made it exactly according to the recipe, except that my springform is considerably larger than the specified pan, more like 10″, and I think that size works best.  It’s a tall cake at that diameter, rich, heavy, and irresistable.  The next time I make it I’m going to add a little orange flower water, just to lighten it up a tad.  And I have to admit that it’s also great for breakfast the next morning.  Hey, maybe that’s what makes it American.  Would an Italian eat dessert for breakfast?

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17 Comments on “In Search Of American Food”

  1. Anne-Marie Says:

    I had the thought in my last trip to France that it wasnt so much WHAT was served (as you say, we ‘mericans tend to be blissfully culturally omnivorous) but HOW it was served.

    Large, full glasses of wine, with a wedge of iceberg and chunky blue cheese dressing (which when well made can be lovely), followed by a single plate containing a piece of meat, a green vegetable and roasted or mashed root veggies. Dessert follwed, served WITH coffee

    the homesick among our group breathed a sigh of relief when our American hosts served us “all the food on one plate”. I hadnt noticed that the multiple courses with pauses for a new (small) glass of wine and conversation had been de rigeur on our trip until it wasnt.

  2. Eden Says:

    Quanto bella!
    Given that Italians usually eat sweets for breakfast the general answer to your last question would be Yes. But in fact I have never seen anything quite as rich & heavy as that cake served – more things like brioche & pastries, so the specific answer would probably be no :>

    Really looking forward to sharing “american” foods from all nations with you in a few weeks!

  3. Abra Bennett Says:

    Large full glasses of wine – nope. But many small glasses – yep. Iceberg lettuce – where on Earth did they even find it? Bleu cheese dressing – n’existe pas, never seen it here. Courses – I do it too, it’s a wonderful way to eat. But what I do that dumbfounds the French is that I plate the food in the kitchen. The only French person we know who does that used to be in the restaurant business. And it’s true that last night they asked me if I’d had a restaurant in the US. I laughed, but I’m pretty sure it was the plating that did it.

  4. Jan Says:

    So, do the French serve food family style then? Does everyone help themselves or does the host serve everyone at the table? Very interesting topic and of course, there’s nothing American that didn’t, in some way, originate in another country/culture because America is so young and everyone is from elsewhere. BBQ maybe? Carrot Cake? Cole slaw?

  5. Arne Says:

    “I say “seem” because, as all Americans know, Chinese food is American, Mexican food is American, as is Italian, Japanese, German, Thai, and so on. ”

    Not sure what you mean by this Abra. Is this part of the “melting pot” philosphy? Because, when I eat “authentic” Chinese in Vancouver for example, I think of it as Chinese, not Chinese-Canadian, and certainly not Canadian.

  6. Abra Bennett Says:

    Jan – yes, family style if the plate is passable, or the host serves if not. Just like at a traditional American family meal from times past. I think you’re right about BBQ, carrot cake, and coleslaw – those have to be 100% American. Arne’s going to argue, though!

    Arne – I think the case of Vancouver and Chinese food might be a bit different, since there’s been an enormous wave of recent immigration from Hong Kong. Maybe in a generation or two Canadian west coasters will consider Chinese food to be Canadian, as we do in the US. Non?

  7. Arne Says:

    No argument here. I think BBQ as I know it is 100% American. It’s just that it has been improved upon elsewhere … 😉

    I’m still not clear about what you mean by Chinese or Mexican food being American. Is it that you feel these cuisines have been adopted by the American palate, or that what has become of these cuisines in the USA has become something distinct from the original?

  8. Lori in PA Says:

    When I think of American food, I think of different regions and also of ingredients native to North America. When international friends visit, they love it when I make fried steak, cream gravy, biscuits and simple mayonnaise slaw as served by my Southern family. They also get excited about fried chicken (w/ mashed potatoes and veggies), which is something I almost never make otherwise. Pancakes w/ real maple syrup and bacon is an enormous hit. Ditto chocolate chip cookies. Most desserts here are too sweet for European palates, though.

  9. Linda Hanselman Says:

    i say;

    macaroni and cheese
    BBQ Ribs
    American Potato Salad with pickles and eggs
    Creamy Coleslaw
    Chocolate Creme Pie

    Sounds pretty lousy when you can eat great french food!

  10. Abra Bennett Says:

    Linda – I agree about those dishes, they’re distinctly American in flavor

    Lori – I’ll bet your guests are happy with those foods! They all seem exotic to me, except the pancakes, since if I were to make them, even in the US, I’d be thinking I was making “Southern” food.

    Arne – take for example our little island near Seattle. Of the 30 odd places to eat (which includes pizza joints and a McDonald’s) there are (or were, when last we were there) 2 Mexican, 2 Thai, 2 Japanese, 1 Chinese, and 1 pan-Asian fusion, and possibly I’m forgetting something. That’s more than 25% of what’s available, and I think it’s thoroughly integrated into just plain eating out, as opposed to going out for some “foreign” food.

  11. Eden Says:

    Arne brings up ome of my favorite subsets of american food which is the foods that have been modified by our melting pot.
    Italian American food, though similar to the foods of southern italy especially is the same as what you get in Italy. Likewise Mexican-American, Chinese-American etc. One of my favorite dishes back in CA was a particular Tomato Beef Chow Mein which we lovingly referred to as Chinese Speaghetti. it was SO good, but I doubt anyone from China would recognize it as related to their national cuisine…

    I think that we have grown as a country & eat many more “authentic” immigrant dishes now, to the point that we don’t even think of them as foreign, but we got there by habituating ourselves first, over many many years, to the bastard children…

  12. Wendy Says:

    So Abra, is an “american bbq” in the works for your french friends before you leave? I think you did something like that last july 4th?

  13. Abra Bennett Says:

    Well, no, but I am making carrot cake for some folks on Friday.

  14. Michael Says:

    We live half the time in NYC and half the time near Nice. We entertain French people a lot. I agree with the comment above about plating the food in the kitchen, which I always do. That also implies no second helpings.

    One very American item which always wows French guests is properly prepared wild rice. I bring top quality long-grain wild rice over. I cook it thoroughly in chicken stock. The French mix it with white rice, which only takes a third as much cooking time, and so it is served hard and almost inedible.

  15. Abra Bennett Says:

    But I do always offer seconds, and every so often someone takes me up on it. I think my portions are a bit more generous than a French person might normally take (although I’ve reduced them considerably since we’ve lived here) and so seconds might be out on that account alone.

    Wild rice, cool idea!

  16. Forest Says:

    I get this question of ‘what is american food’ a lot here too. True, we have such a range of styles and flavors, not to mention those types of cuisines that have ‘melted’ into the culture and become American which you mentioned. And, I think – as touched on by Lori above – Southern food is definitely something I consider truly American: grits, fried chicken, catfish, greens, black eyed peas etc. While some of the ingrediants are prevalent in other cuisines (black eye peas in Asian cuisine, etc), i think the preperation and the spirit of Southern cooking is very American. In fact, I’ve been thinking about having some French friends around soon for that kind of American dinner.

  17. Forest Says:

    oh, yes, and clean the plates, the French do. After 7 years, it still amazes me to see every single French guest eat the entire plate and always sop up anything remaining with the bread.

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