The History of American Food


    There are a variety of foods that are considered to be uniquely American, but are they, really? “As American as apple pie,” people say – even though apple pie was eaten in Europe as early as the 14th century! Regardless, Americans have some things that are claimed by Americans as our own food, and that is fair, because even though many of these foods originated in other countries, Americans have taken them and put their own spin on them and made them ours.

    It is possible to divide the common foods known as American food into several categories. These include native food (that is the foods that were in America before the colonists arrived), adapted foods, blended ethnic foods, regional foods, fad and traditional foods, and processed foods. 

    Native foods include foods such as corn, beans, and squash, which were the basis of several dishes preferred by Native Americans, and bison, which was the primary meat. However, the different areas in the country had different foods that were included in the diet, such as salmon in the Pacific northwest, cactus in the southwest, buffalo in the great plains, and maple syrup in the northeast, for instance.

    Most of these dishes were simple to cook over an outdoor fire or in a fireplace, since those were the available methods for cooking at the time. Recipes changed somewhat over time, following technological advances. 

    In the nineteenth century, these advances, in the kitchen, introduced some fundamental changes that affected both what foods were eaten and how they were prepared and eaten. Technology brought in refrigeration, electricity, and gas, as well as canning and grocery delivery. Stoves replaced fireplaces and by the 1900s, things were pretty much what we have now, though older versions, of course.

    In some areas of the country, meals were a part of society events, and manners and etiquette were carefully observed. Meals were quite formal and it was rare to have casual meals in these societies. This included dining out, which was mostly in hotel dining rooms in big cities in the mid to late 1800s. Just before the turn of the century, restaurants began to pop up in many areas, offering sustenance from other countries and luxurious meals. However, dining out became much more common with the advent of automobiles, which made it much easier – and perhaps more fun – to leave the house for food and entertainment. 

    Some foods considered the most American of American foods became more popular in the 1900s; some of them were invented much more recently than we might have expected. Food became much more politicized and advertised during the world wars, due to rationing and scarcity, and the politicizing and advertising never really stopped. 

    grilling hotdogs

    The hot dog, which has been one of the popular street foods in America, but it became even more popular around 1916 in Coney Island, New York, when Nathan (of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs) decided to accept a server’s challenge to create a better coney. He and his wife added spices and lowered the price and this one-two punch succeeded amazingly and his business model was followed by many restaurants that came after. However, the original coney came from Jackson, Michigan, and then Detroit, where it fed many working-class people of the time.

    The humble hot dog has many varieties, as well, including corn dogs which are typical fair food, and pig-in-a-blanket, among others.

    Apple pie, of “as American as apple pie” fame, must be one of the top foods that is associated with America, even though it did not start in this country. It was made part of this phrase between the 1920s and 1940s. The apples we use in apple pie were brought to North America from northern Asia, and it was, indeed, planted around the United States by Johnny Chapman, who was known as Johnny Appleseed. The wheat we use was also brought from Russia. It was a variety they called Turkey Red. The tasty dessert became popular during the Civil War, from whence it became a symbol of home, comfort, and wholesomeness.

    Macaroni and cheese was reportedly brought to the United States from France by Thomas Jefferson, though some dispute this claim. Regardless how it found its way here, this is definitely one of the most iconic American foods. Elbow pasta, in a casserole with cheese, sometimes topped with a crunchy topping of crackers or crumble, and sometimes just with more cheese, is a staple at many American potlucks and family dinners. Of course, we know that macaroni was a known as early as the song Yankee Doodle, which was written in the mid-1700s.

    A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is another ubiquitous American food, which most Americans have had as daily lunch fare at school. Because peanuts were one of the premier crops of the southern United States, peanut butter was easy to get (it was not rationed) and its protein content and good flavor made it an excellent choice for a good meal. Of course, adults enjoy a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, too!


    Spaghetti and meatballs, while many think of it as Italian, is only based on an Italian dish. Spaghetti is not prepared or served in Italy in the same way it is in America; the American way is uniquely American. In Italy, meatballs are a separate dish from spaghetti, and are only put together to appease American tourists. It became a staple in America because it was inexpensive and filling due to a high carbohydrate content.

    Cheeseburgers have been an American favorite since the turn of the century. Beef became plentiful due to cattle ranching in the Great Plains and ground beef debuted in America as an inexpensive form of protein. Adding a slice of cheese to this boosts the flavor, making this an iconic American food.

    Pizza did begin in Italy, but America took it over and made it our own. The pizza in Naples was much simpler than America’s version, and by the first decade of the twentieth century it was easier to find pizza in New York City than most Italian cities. While pizza was mostly eaten at home in the early days, in the ‘50s and ‘60s it became more industrialized. Places like Domino’s and Pizza Hut spread the cuisine throughout most of the country, although they were late to the party in Chicago, which had already developed its own style. 

    Nachos are a Mexican style dish that were developed on the southern US border around 1943, according to Adriana P. Orr. She says that a group of military wives near Fort Duncan, Texas, stopped for some dinner but most restaurants were closed. Ignacio Anaya, at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras threw together some tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapenos, baked it for a couple minutes, and served it. The name came from Ignacio’s nickname, Nacho; he called it “Nachos Especiales” or the Nacho Special. 

    S’mores, the favorite campfire snack of most Americans, begins with a marshmallow. Once marshmallows were mass-produced in the mid-1800s, they became accessible to the general public. Before that, they were done by hand and were quite expensive. Additionally, chocolate, which began to be made in its current form around 1875, became less expensive once Nestle, Hershey, and Cadbury began to produce it in larger quantities. Graham crackers, named after Sylvester Graham, whose idea they were, were first made of whole wheat flour. The concoction that includes the three together was first recorded in 1927, in a Girl Scout manual. It first included the name “s’more” in a camping guide in 1938. It has been referred to as a type of Moon Pie, as it contains the same ingredients. 

    The root beer float debuted around 1874 in Philadelphia, when Robert McCay Green, as he as serving customers soda, ran out of ice. Because he still wanted to make the drinks cold, he grabbed some ice cream instead. His story is disputed by others, including an employee of his, but regardless how it started, it has become a popular American dessert or snack. 

    Chocolate chip cookies began in 1930 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Ruth Wakefield wanted to make a chocolate cookie, so she added chopped chocolate to her cookie recipe, expecting it to melt and mix. Though it did not, she served the cookies and they were a hit. She made a deal with Nestle to allow them to print the recipe on their chocolate bar wrappers if they would give her free chocolate to use at the Inn. In 1939, Nestle began making chocolate morsels (or chocolate chips) like we use today. 

    Banana splits are a traditional, delectable dessert. Three scoops of three different kinds of ice cream, nestled between two halves of a banana, topped with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry – sometimes with chopped nuts, pineapple, and/or strawberries. It is said that this dish began in 1904, by a pharmacy apprentice in Pennsylvania named David Evans Strickler. 

    Every human needs food just to live, but Americans desire to enjoy food, not just use it for survival. Healthy eating has become something that people seek in recent years, as the nutritional value of pre-prepared meals become less than ideal. However, for many years, food was made from real food, things that were grown in home gardens or purchased at local grocery stores from local farms. Meat came from farm animals that lived in fields and were cared for, rather than living in cages and never seeing sunlight, as happens in many of today’s commercial meat providers. Still, the meals provided in American homes and restaurants are tasty, regardless whether the nutritional value is high or low. 


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