Defining American Cuisine

By Bill Daley

What is American cuisine?

Frankly, it depends whom you ask. We’ve posed the question to cutting-edge chefs, revered authors, hungry hell-raisers and ordinary folks. Their answers ranged from broad statements about what we eat in general across the country to regional cooking styles such as Carolina barbecue to specific foods such as fried chicken, hamburgers and steaks. No one agreed with anyone else. The lack of consensus reminded us of Justice Potter Stewart’s classic definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. And even that old adage was gently challenged.

“In a sense, you know it when you don’t see it,” e-mailed Peter Liem, a senior correspondent and wine critic for Wine & Spirits magazine based in the Champagne region of France. “Living in Europe has convinced me, ironically, that the most dynamic, progressive and quality-conscious movements in food are happening in the U.S.”

The James Beard Foundation pursued the question of the national diet in a 2008 survey, “The State of American Cuisine.” It found our “national cuisine exists in a regional form.” Survey responders said what makes “American cuisine a cuisine is precisely its disunity. American cuisine morphs, adapts, borrows, creates and roots itself where people enjoy it.”

Backing the regional cuisine idea is Judy Rogers, chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. She thinks the United States is too big and too varied for a single cuisine.

“I don’t think there are coherent, consistent givens on how you are going to approach cooking that are universally American, that would apply in Alaska and apply in Florida,” she said.

Betty Fussell, the food writer and author, believes our food today is rooted in our cultural history, particularly in the waves of immigrants who began arriving, and adapting, in the 19th century.

“We’re open to the new, to fusion, to the casual, fast and impromptu,” she said. “We are willing to be the opposite of traditional. We’re willing to experiment with flavors.”

Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of the cutting-edge wd-50 restaurant in Manhattan, has made his reputation doing just that.

“What I like about the term ’American cuisine’ is that it can encompass ingredients and techniques from around the world because that’s what it is,” he added. “To say ’American,’ ’New American,’ ’Contemporary American,’ means it can be Japanese ingredients prepared with Spanish techniques.”

Dufresne has just begun serving an international riff on the traditional French confit of duck. He’s reshaping the bird and serving it with Thai palm seeds dressed in calamansi, a citrus especially popular in the Philippines, and a corn pudding made from freeze-dried sweet corn and microwaved popcorn, two indigenous foods. Then, in a nod to Italy, there’s a lovage pesto on the plate.

“It’s a dish encompassing several different cultures. To me, that’s very American,” Dufresne said.

For an ex-pat such as Liem, this ability to cross cuisines and flavors is a terribly important American skill.

“Americans have access to a staggering diversity of foodstuffs from around the world, a luxury that most people don’t appreciate, and more importantly, they understand what to do with them in a way that nobody else does,” he wrote. “Look at what atrocities French chefs commit with cumin or lemongrass. It’s not fusion that I’m talking about. It’s something entirely original.”

Agreeing with Liem is Christophe Bakunas, owner of Local Wine Co., a Midwest-based development, sales and marketing company representing artisan wines from California, Oregon and Washington.

“I think American cuisine is already here, just like American wine,” he said.

“Can we stop being so afraid of branding our own gastronomic prowess and stop referencing our food and wine back to Europe? Do we have to wait another 200 years before we say we have terroir (a sense of place)? Before we say we have regional farming? I say it’s here already.”

Certain foods symbolize American cuisine

What comes to mind when you think American cuisine?

The debate about American food has been swirling for decades. It will likely continue almost as long. Still, people keep trying to nail down an answer, often zeroing in on a specific food.

Karen Resta, a Virginia-based writer and blogger, went all out. She listed some 40 iconic American foods, from shad bakes to soft-serve ice cream, as a way of providing a definition, but then got fed up. “This is ridiculous,” she wrote on Facebook. “There’s no end to this question. I have to say two more things: fluffernutter and Larry Forgione (the restaurateur behind An American Place restaurant in St. Louis — the legendary Manhattan original has closed — and the so-called “godfather of American cuisine”). Really. Why always Alice Waters (of California’s Chez Panisse) and no Larry Forgione?”

Molly O’Neill, editor of “American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes,” told a crowd at the Printers Row Lit Fest last month that the American food icon is fried chicken. She explained: “Because it goes across class lines, regional lines and cultural and ethnic lines. The idea of fried chicken was spread by churches. It’s a great equalizer.”

Clark Wolf, the guru of hot food trends, cheese expert and author, described the American appetite this way: “We love the whole food, the whole chicken kind of thing, while when it comes to beef we want it sliced and we want steak. American food seems like Western European food meeting Japanese simplicity.”

Roy Finamore, a cookbook editor and author, said his mind goes straight to “the juicy cheeseburger that drips down your arms when you eat it,” especially when “American” is coupled with “4th of July.” He added: “No matter what part of the country you’re from, baked beans and potato salad are American. ... And so’s apple pie.”

Finamore thinks the term “American cuisine” suggests an agreed-to conformity that American fare doesn’t quite have.

“American cooking is in flux all of the time,” he said. “We’re still adapting.”

The people have spoken

Is there an American cuisine? Results of a 2007 James Beard Foundation Taste America survey:

Yes: 90.8 percent

No: 9.2 percent

If there is an American cuisine, how would you define it? Top five answers from the Beard Foundation survey:

1. Region or regional.

2. Culture.

3. Comfort.

4. Melting pot.

5. Native.

Beyond apple pie

Iconic American foods, in order of popularity:

1. Hamburgers and cheese- burgers.

2. Barbecue.

3. Fried chicken.

4. Mac ’n’ cheese.

5. Apple pie.

Source: 2007 James Beard Foundation’s Taste America Survey

Author Roy Finamore uses the following recipe from his “Tasty” cookbook to illustrate what he thinks is a fundamental shift in American cooking thanks to the availability of Asian ingredients in supermarkets. This light pasta dish is also versatile and quick, two hallmarks of American food.


Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 11 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 tablespoons each: peanut oil, roasted sesame oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, cold water

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

1 teaspoon sambal oelek (chili paste)

10 ounces spinach linguine

3 green onions, trimmed, cut into thin slivers

2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, chopped, optional

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Combine the oils, soy and oyster sauces, cold water, salt and chili paste in a large serving bowl. Whisk to blend.

Add the linguine to the boiling water. Cook according to package directions until al dente, about 11 minutes. Drain. Add to the sauce; toss to coat. Top with onions and peanuts; serve hot or at room temperature.

Nutrition information

Per serving: 376 calories, 36 percent of calories from fat, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 51 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 2105 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.

Dorie Greenspan adapted the following recipe from her book, “Baking: From My Home to Yours.” “It’s a very simple blueberry cake, kind of like a coffee cake, that you can eat with your fingers,” she says.


Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 35 minutes

Makes: 12 servings

11‚Ñ3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1‚Ñ2 teaspoon cinnamon, optional

1‚Ñ4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, separated

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1‚Ñ2 cup milk

1 pint blueberries

Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and 1‚Ñ8 teaspoon of the salt in a mixing bowl. Beat the egg whites and remaining salt with a mixer until they form firm, glossy peaks. Gently scrape the whites into a clean bowl.

Beat together the butter and sugar in the mixing bowl on medium speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks; beat two minutes. Beat in vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; beat in half of the flour mixture. Beat in the milk. Beat in remaining flour mixture until smooth. Stir in about 1‚Ñ4 of the beaten egg whites. Gently fold in the rest of the whites. Gently fold in the blueberries. Pour batter into a buttered 11-by-7-inch baking pan; place the pan on a baking sheet.

Bake until golden and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack; cool 30 minutes. Dust the top with confectioners’ sugar. Cut the cake into squares.

Nutrition information

Per serving: 183 calories, 42 percent of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 131 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Clark Wolf thinks cooking for comfort has become the major theme in American cooking today. As such, he points to the following recipe from Marian Burros republished in his book, “American Cheeses.” The quality and sharpness of the cheese is key to this recipe. Wolf uses a white Cheddar that has been aged at least two years; Grafton Village cheese from Vermont is always his choice.


Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 50 minutes

Makes: 4 main dish servings

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons each: butter, flour

2 cups low-fat milk

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

12 ounces grated extra sharp aged white Cheddar

1 teaspoon salt

1‚Ñ2 teaspoon each: white pepper, ground nutmeg

1‚Ñ4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

8 ounces cavatappi or corkscrew pasta

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the rack in the bottom third of the oven. Cook the onion in the butter over low heat in a large saucepan until the onion is soft but not browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in the flour. Remove from heat and whisk in the milk. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture begins to thicken, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; stir in the mustard and 21‚Ñ2 cups of the Cheddar, the salt, pepper, nutmeg and hot pepper sauce.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain but do not rinse. Stir immediately into the cheese sauce until well blended. Spoon the mixture into a 11-by-7-inch baking pan or oval gratin dish. Top with remaining Cheddar and the Parmesan. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and golden, about 30 minutes.

Nutrition information

Per serving: 699 calories, 46 percent of calories from fat, 36 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 59 g carbohydrates, 35 g protein, 1262 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

New, fast, fusion, casual and cooked on the grill are all hallmarks of American cuisine for author Betty Fussell. The following recipe embodies all these characteristics and comes from her latest book, “Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef.” It is adapted from “The Niman Ranch Cookbook: From Farm to Table with America’s Finest Meat.”


Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 17 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

4 fresh dry-aged rib-eye steaks, 3‚Ñ4 pound each

2‚Ñ3 cup extra virgin olive oil

12 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon firmly packed fresh Thai basil leaves, chopped

1 cup firmly packed fresh mint leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Minced zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon each: sugar, Dijon mustard

1‚Ñ2 teaspoon salt

1‚Ñ4 teaspoon pepper

Prepare a charcoal grill for direct cooking. Bring the steaks to room temperature. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic. Cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes. Stir in the basil, mint, thyme, lemon zest. Remove pan from heat. Combine the lemon juice and sugar in a small bowl. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the mustard; whisk in the herb mixture.

Grill steaks directly over the coals. Spread a spoonful of the herb mixture over each steak. Cook uncovered, 4-5 minutes. Turn the steaks; spread the sauce over each steak. (You will have some sauce remaining for serving.) Cook uncovered to medium rare, 4-5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak.

Transfer steak to a cutting board. Let rest 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve whole or cut across the grain into slices. Serve remaining herb mixture at the table.

Nutrition information

Per serving: 872 calories, 71 percent of calories from fat, 69 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 248 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 53 g protein, 429 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

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