What is American food?

Natasha Gelling at Smithsonian Mag:

Are there any dishes or foods that you would classify as typically, or even exclusively, “American?”

A number of iconic foods—hot dogs and hamburgers, snack food—are hand-held. They’re novelties associated with entertainment. These are the kinds of food you eat at the ballpark, buy at a fair and eventually eat in your home. I think that there is a pattern there of iconic foods being quick and hand-held that speaks to the pace of American life, and also speaks to freedom. You’re free from the injunctions of Victorian manners and having to eat with a fork and knife and hold them properly, sit at the table and sit up straight and have your napkin properly placed. These foods shirk all that. There’s a sense of independence and a celebration of childhood in some of those foods, and we value that informality, the freedom and the fun that is associated with them.


I grew up eating mainly a mix of my mom's homemade Chinese cooking and then random American dishes when she was busy, so the primary attribute I associate with American food is convenience. TV dinners, pizza delivered to your door, frozen hamburger patties you can throw on the grill, something you can toss in the microwave, cereal you can dump out of a box and finish with a pour of milk. With two busy working parents and a houseful of kids to feed, dining is a daily hurdle to be leaped three times, it has to be built into one's schedule. An occasional shortcut that satisfies that requirement with minimal work is bound to be popular.

Nowadays, my dining is definitely shifted around to accommodate my work schedule, thus Gelling's quote rings so true: “It’s not the meal that shapes work, it’s the work that shapes the meal.”

It's fascinating to hear her discuss the social conventions that came to shape the three meal a day tradition that is the dominant model in the U.S. today as it is so instructive as to how dining differs from country to country and why.

How did the associations between certain meals and certain foods, like cereal for breakfast, form?

You start in the very early colonial era with one meal in the middle of the day—and it’s the hot meal of the day, dinner. Farmers and laborers ate earlier because they were up really early, and the elite were eating later in the day because they could sleep in. Breakfast and supper were kind of like glorified snacks, often leftovers or cornmeal mush, and there was not a lot of emphasis placed on these meals. Dinner, the main meal, at which people did tend to sit down together and eat, was really not the kind of social event that it has become. People did not emphasize manners, they did not emphasize conversation, and if conversation did take place it wasn’t very formal: it was really about eating and refueling. That’s the time where there are very blurry lines between what is and what isn’t a meal, and very blurry lines between what is breakfast, dinner and lunch.

Then, with the Industrial Revolution, everything changed, because people’s work schedules changed drastically. People were moving from the agrarian lifestyle to an urban, factory-driven lifestyle, and weren’t able to go home in the middle of the day. Instead, they could all come home and have dinner together, so that meal becomes special. And that’s when manners become very important, and protocol and formality. It’s really around then that people start to associate specific foods with certain meals.

Then, with dinner shifting you have the vacuum in the middle of the day that lunch is invented to fill. People are bringing pie for lunch, they’re bringing biscuits, but the sandwich really lends itself to lunch well. So the popularity of the sandwich really does have something to do with the rise of lunch—and especially the rise of children’s lunch, because it’s not messy. You don’t need utensils, you don’t have to clean up—you can stick it in a lunch pail really easily.


Gelling's upcoming book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal sounds quite promising.

h/t Marginal Revolution