Earlier today, on the eve of that Birthday of the United States of America, the 4th of July, Deborah posed a real, well, poser of a question: “What is American food?”
On the surface, this was a very easy question to answer. “Hamburgers!” “Hot dogs!” “Apple pie!” “Chop suey!” “Barbeque!” “Pizza!” were amongst the most vociferously voiced suggestions. And despite the fact that each of those originated in another continent (if not country), I completely agree.
But as an amateur food historian, I could counter those with “Popcorn!””Peanut butter!” “Turkey!” “Cranberries!” as each of those foods are actually native to the USA. Well, … Okay, so peanuts are actually native to South America, and the peanut butter we eat today was possibly loosely based on a Cuban culinary practice-but it became peanut butter in the USA. And no, it was not invented by George Washington Carver, but I’ve covered that story here.)
And anyway, I started to think about the question in a different, more personal, way. I thought about:
- how I’m half American and have a deeply British side;
- how-visits aside- I’ve only lived 4 of my 48 years in the USA; how I drink tea rather than coffee;
- how I have a deeply emotional connection to Marmite and find the idea of mint or cranberry jelly rather than sauce unspeakable;
- how I can be a tad snooty about the difference between Italian and Italian-American cuisine;
- and how the only apple pie I’ve ever actually liked is made by my fully Irish aunt.
But then I thought about:
- how whenever I move to a new neighborhood in London my first field trip is all about locating the nearest source of American peanut butter (the British version is at best tolerable);
- how, about every three months, I have to have a Big Mac, or at least a good burger (it really doesn’t matter which);
- how both sodas and beers to me are somewhat depressing unless they are ice cold;
- how, for all their ingenuity in finding new flavors for crisps (potato chips, natch), the British have yet match the so-wrong-it’s-right deliciousness of the Cool Ranch Dorito;
- and how I firmly believe that no party is complete without California Dip.
So what what then is American food to me? Is it just burgers and chips rather than crisps?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for me American food is not just about examples of given foodstuffs, but rather about context. It’s about the experience; how eating (or drinking-what’s a better example of epicurean Americana than root beer?) makes me feel American when I’m not there, or makes me absolutely certain I’m in the right place when I am. It’s about combinations of food and drink, and most certainly all about the situations too.
Because culturally (and personally) all food is more than the sum of its ingredients. It becomes cultural because of when we eat it, when we share it, and who we share it with. Food becomes cultural because of how we feel about it.
So, with that realization in mind, let me dish up some examples of what American food means to me:
- It means sharing a big tub of over-buttered popcorn for a Hollywood blockbuster, but nursing an iced coffee for an arthouse film.
- It means a plain beef burger cooked at a friend’s backyard barbeque, with my choice of toppings.
- It means being asked to bring a potato salad for that barbeque.
- It means turkey at Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
- It means eating cold Chinese food- with chopsticks- out of a cardboard takeout carton the morning after a heavy night.
- It also means cold pizza the morning after a heavy night.
- It means peanuts and popcorn on the bar to keep me thirsty, that heavy night before.
- It means pumpkin, not apple, pie, damn it.
- It means ordering a starter as a main course, because the portions are too big for me.
- It means having a big old baked potato and sour cream with my steak, instead of “frites”.
- It means pancakes with maple syrup, not sugar and lemon.
- It means having those pancakes with maple syrup at a diner at 3am.
- It means a near stranger telling me to sit down and stay for dinner when I’m one more than they had cooked for.
- It means them Cool Ranch Doritos and a big glass of Hawaiian Punch over ice while I spend an afternoon watching American soaps.
- It means donuts doused in powdered sugar.
- It means at least two bowls of Apple Jacks while I’m watching old Looney Tunes cartoons.
- It means the big smile on a host’s face when I ask for second helpings.
- It means tearing corn off the cob with my teeth and not caring how much butter drips down my chin, or how many niblets are wedged in my gums.
- It means arguing vehemently about what makes the perfect tuna salad sandwich and tt means having that tuna salad sandwich with a chocolate milkshake.
- It means hot dogs that taste best outside on a chilly night, and bought on the street from some guy with a cart.
- It means that singular chilly smell when you step into an American supermarket on a hot summer’s day.
- It means iced tea on a hot summer afternoon and Long Island Iced Tea on a hot summer night.
- It means piling all the junk food I can manage into the car when I’m off on a road trip with friends.
- It means stopping off on that road trip for a roast beef sandwich with extra onions at the first Roy Rogers Restaurant I see.
- It means lemonade so sour my stomach puckers.
- It means tearing a lobster apart at a beach side shack while I’m wearing a plastic bib.
- It means egg nog at Christmas parties.
- It means having too much when I’m there and missing too much when I’m not.
I’m feeling quite American homesick now. But that’s okay. Because American food does on occasion still manage to be a moveable feast even outside its borders. I may not be spending the 4th of July eating junk food on a road trip to a shack where I can get lobster. And I won’t be having iced tea of either variety. But though I am here in the UK, I am going to an American barbeque, so that burger- just the way I want it, with my choice of toppings- is in my future. And yes, I’m bringing a potato salad.
Happy 4th of July folks! And if you’ve got a minute between mouthfuls, what does American food mean to you?