Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

American Food and Culture


When it comes to the American food and culture, it is for good reason that Israel Zangwill’s term “Melting Pot” for the name of a play in 1908 still serves as an apt description of the United States today. The United States is a nation of immigrants, each ethnic group retaining customs, festivals and food traditions with great pride and yet with a stamp that is unmistakably American.

Huge areas of fertile land, abundant natural resources, and some of the world’s most advanced technology, marketing and transportation systems combine to give the United States one of the highest living standards in the world. Immigrants to America were dazzled by the space, opportunities, freedoms and diversity of things around them. Their glowing letters sent home spoke more of “you can get anything here!” than of the hard struggle to get ahead in a new land and often with a new language.

Though a visitor to the U.S. may conclude that the country’s staple foods are hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries, washed down with soft drinks and topped off with ice cream, a more careful examination reveals regional as well as ethnic specialties.

The first generation of European immigrants had little time for Old World traditions. Making a living, creating a home and raising a family were the realities of everyday life. Food was whatever was available and affordable to fill an empty stomach. But as they became established, the newcomers found solace in grouping together in neighborhoods where the familiar languages, customs, and compatriots gave them strength for whatever the future might hold. It was good to share a glass of homemade wine, a pint of beer, or a schnapps. It was comforting to smell the familiar scents of cooking and baking and, even better, to drown a day’s hard work in a homey soup or familiar stew. Adapting available foods to familiar recipes helped a little to make them feel at home.

But long before all the others, Aboriginal peoples, whose ancestors had probably crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years before the European had even heard of America, made their way southward in the great continent, founding villages and developing languages and social systems and adapting to the land in unique and often ingenious ways.

It was from the Indians that the earliest pioneers learned how to prepare such staples as corn, tomatoes, squash, peanuts, pumpkin, tobacco, turkeys, wild rice, pumpkins and squash, and even to tap wild maple trees for sweet maple syrup. In order to avoid cooking on the sabbath, the Puritans adopted the Indian clambake technique and used it to make slow-simmered beans cooked in the Indian way (today called New England baked beans) using a sealed bean pot buried overnight in a pit of embers. In its modified version – slow-baked overnight in the oven – it is enjoyed to this day.

As the pioneers settled into the land, they adapted the ethnic foods they brought with them to the new and different produce that was so plentiful. Ethnic foods melded into regional specialties, and although few writers dare to define the exact borders of these regions, distinctive ways of preparing, cooking, combining, seasoning, and even serving foods do exist.

Still another powerful influence came to America through the Atlantic slave trade from West African countries to the New World. The West African slaves adapted many New World foods to their own basic methods of frying, stewing, and preparing sauces for enhancing simple food. They introduced many flavorful, healthy varieties of greens to the European diet. They added grilled meats, wrapped foods in cabbage leaves (instead of banana leaves) for roasting in fires, and turned many of their own classic dishes like rice and black-eyed peas into Southern traditions like Hoppin’ John. The use of a baffling array of peppers, spices, roots, tubers, and greens, and the skillful metamorphosis of every part of the pig or chicken into delectable morsels of food are all now imbedded not only in America’s cuisine, but also in the cuisines of many Caribbean countries and Brazil.

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