Washington — The United States is a nation of immigrants, with only American Indians claiming this land as their ancestral home. Other Americans came to this land, or their ancestors came from many other places to a nation often called “the melting pot of the world.”
U.S. cooking is as diverse as its population. Because the American cookpot contains a blend of cuisines from many countries, the term “American cooking” loosely defines a collection of traditional dishes that have gained popularity across the country.
There’s no shared definition of traditional American cooking, but simple dishes like roast beef, fried chicken, grilled steak, stuffed turkey, meatloaf, corn on the cob, potato salad, apple pie, clam chowder, hamburgers, hotdogs and hot chicken wings would be on most lists.
Contrary to popular belief, Americans do not eat fast food every day. They often eat real food in sit-down restaurants, and sometimes even prepare home-cooked meals.
But there are plenty of fast-food establishments and chain restaurants in the United States, convenient places that offer a consistent quality of food in clean surroundings with good service. Many allow visitors to try a sampling of local dishes.
Cuisine in different parts of the United States developed independently. Each region was influenced by the nationality of colonists that settled in the area and by the ingredients locally available.
New England, the northeastern part of the nation, is renowned for hearty dishes imported by British colonists and for its coldwater seafood harvested locally. This is the land of Yankee pot roast and Boston baked beans. When visiting New England, sample the seafood and be sure to try New England clam chowder and Maine lobster.
Southeastern states are home to “down home southern cooking,” characterized by farm-style cooking with plenty of deep fried foods, heavy sauces and sweet desserts. Elvis Presley loved southern cooking, and it was reflected in his growing waistline. Deep-fried chicken, known as southern-fried chicken, and chicken-fried steak, a deep-fried beef cutlet, are often served with a thick white sauce called home-style gravy.
Southerners love barbeque, but unlike westerners, they do not favor sweet tomato-based sauces. Eastern barbeque usually means pork, especially pork ribs, well spiced or marinated and slowly cooked over glowing coals. Greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread are common side dishes. Pecan pie, peach cobbler, banana pudding and sweet potato pie are some favorite desserts.
New Orleans has a distinctly European culture with its own unique cuisine. This city at the mouth of the great Mississippi River was influenced by Spanish and French colonists and by the many African immigrants. It developed some of the finest cuisine in the USA.
The city’s Creole and Cajun cuisine is a mixture of Spanish and French cooking spiced with African and West Indian flavors. Blackened fish and steaks are grilled with coatings of pepper and hot spices. Jambalaya and gumbo are flavored stews of meats, sausage and seafood. Much Cajun cooking is highly spiced with hot pepper and chili, but not all of the dishes are fiery. Traditional Spanish and French cooking and local variations of them are available in many fine restaurants throughout the city.
Cuisine in the southwestern states has been influenced by American Indians, early Spanish settlers and the United States’ Mexican neighbors. Southwestern cuisine includes a wide variety of dishes prepared with local ingredients and liberally sprinkled with Mexican spices. Southwestern restaurants create some interesting variations of familiar dishes by the creative use of unfamiliar ingredients and exotic spices.
Tex-Mex is a variant of southwestern cooking that is most popular in Texas and along the Mexican border. It includes barbeque and chili. These cowboy-inspired dishes are so popular in the southwest and across the nation that many places have annual chili festivals and barbeque cook-offs with prizes for the best recipes. It is also the home of salsa, nachos, tacos and burritos.
California is blessed with a bountiful supply of fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood in all seasons. Its ethnically diverse population has developed a refreshingly healthy cuisine that uses fresh ingredients flavored with unusual combinations of spices.
Fresh green salads topped with avocados and citrus fruits might be served with Asian spiced peanut sauce. Fish could be lightly grilled in salsa and served with Chinese vegetables and Native American fry bread. Almost any combination of ethnic food styles can be combined in California cooking. This is the home of avant-garde, experimental cuisine.