“American cooking” – what’s it to you?

A fat package in the mail got me thinking this week.  It was The Great American Cookbook, by Clementine Paddleford–a revised edition of an older Rizzoli publication, How America Eats

I peeked inside and saw curried potato salad from Arkansas, apple muffins from Washington, oyster pie from New York, borscht from Michigan.  I saw sauerbraten from Colorado and barbecued shrimp from Hawaii.

That begged the question.  What do all these things have in common?   I mean, when we think of Italian food, we think of garlic and olive oil.  When we think of French food, we think of butter. When we think of Southeast Asian food, we think of lemongrass and coconut milk.  Chinese food? ginger, garlic, and soy.

Granted, these are sweeping stereotypes.  Each of these places has a deep and diverse set of culinary influences, and you can certainly find Italian recipes without garlic or olive oil.  Still, it’s possible for me to generalize and for you to know what I’m talking about.  

But in this country, what are our sweeping stereotypes?  Some would grimly say, fast food.  But I’m not buying that.  Some would say, local farm produce–before realizing that every country has its own local farms.  When I ask myself that question–What do American dishes have in common?–the answer always seems to be: Nothing.  There’s American Southern culinary stereotypes: fried chicken, slowcooked greens, biscuits and gravy.  But no national identity.

I guess that’s why, in the bookcase that holds my ethnic, regional, and international cookbooks, my American cookbooks are split into two equally illogical sections.  Half of them are in a section under “S” for “South”.  And half of them are at the very top of the shelf, in a section tellingly called “American/Unclassifiable”.

As an American cook, sometimes I like being unclassifiable.  But other times I wouldn’t mind a label.  Or maybe a Post-It, which is to say a label I could take on and off at will. 

What’s “American” cooking to you?  what do you expect at an “American” restaurant?  And do you, too, think of yourself as an “American” cook?

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