So what is American food exactly? If we wanted to get technical about it, we could argue that it consists of bison, salmon, beans, corn, squash, and any other native flora and fauna. Conversely, if we wanted to get sentimental about it, we could point to all those symbols of the good old red, white, and blue we celebrate in ads, like Chevrolet’s hot dogs and apple pie. American food, as we know, it is all about change, thanks to an endless interweaving of immigrant traditions and modern technologies. At one stage, hamburgers seemed exotic; the next, they available at our neighborhood joint. We could say that the ultimate examples of American food are those dishes that have changed us — our diets, our culture, even our landscape — as much we’ve changed them. Here are some cases in point.
From the Super Bowl to cookouts and picnics, throwing a party in America always means there’s going to be chips. That includes parties of one: Be it a busy weekday in front of the computer or a lazy evening in front of the TV, many of us can’t get from lunch to dinner without sneaking a chip or two — or 20, or the whole bag before you know it. Nowadays, we are snackers, and chips top our list of picks.
The exact origin of this old-school Chinese-American staple is a matter of some debate. Maybe it was invented in Gold Rush-era San Francisco; perhaps it was invented in fin de siècle New York City. Maybe it was loosely based on a Cantonese recipe called shap sui, or “odds and ends,” reflecting its use of leftover ingredients. But what’s certain is that the veggie stir fry — with or without meat, eggs, rice, or noodles — was just familiar-looking and mild-flavored enough to catch on, becoming synonymous with Chinese food for generations of Americans. They visited the “chop suey houses” that swept the nation over the decades. In short, chop suey was the driving force behind, well, the driving force of vehicles that brought American-style Chinese food to our doorsteps and into our lives — while opening the door for many of us to the stunningly diverse collection of regional traditions that defines the cuisine.
No group of immigrants has proven that the way to America’s heart is through its stomach quite like the Italians, whose contributions to our great melting pot were essential to many of the foods we now eat daily. And there’s no better example of that than pizza — which as The Guardian writes, “truly is America’s national food, statistically speaking,” with one in eight of us consuming it every day.
Whether street-style on soft corn tortillas or fast-food style in hard shells, tacos are officially America’s edible sweetheart. We love them so much we’ve devoted a day of the week to them. We dress our kids to resemble them. Hell, we throw weddings at Taco Bell. We could all raise a toast to Taco Bell founder Glen Bell for introducing us to the Mexican snack. We could call this the “Americanization of Mexican food, celebrates what might instead be viewed as the Mexicanization of American palates.” Ironically, Bell’s taco proved so popular that his franchise became a gateway as much as an alternative to real-deal taquerias, where we’re now perfectly comfortable ordering burritos, tamales, and various other specialties.