American Food Culture: How Did We Get Here?

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It may seem like only fast food and french fries at times but American food culture has a rich history of diversity and innovation.

Shake Shack burgers and firies
Shake Shack Burgers and Fries credit: evr222@ Pinterest

When traveling from state to state you will find that American food culture has been influenced by the arrival and absorption of many cultures into all regions of the country. 

From Native Americans, to the first European settlers, to immigrant groups who later popularized many classic American foods, the country has fostered a spirit of experimentation with local cuisines and cultures.

Here are a few facts about the history of American food culture that will shed an interesting light on some of what we eat in the US today.

Native American Food Culture 

In pre-colonial times, Native American groups were as diverse in their culinary culture as we are today. With over 500 different tribes and spread out over thousands of miles of space this is no surprise. Diet and food customs were dictated by availability and tradition. 

Corn,or maize, is a native of Central America and was introduced to North America when Native Americans began cultivating the crop around 8000 BC. 

The first Europeans to encounter corn were the Spanish, who encountered it in the West Indies. As colonization began around 1492, so did the blending of cuisines as the different groups introduced each other to new ingredients. 

Natives taught the europeans how to grow, process, and cook corn in multiple and invaluable ways.

Corn has always been a staple of the Native American diet. Today the United States is the biggest producer of corn in the world. It is integrated into almost every part of the American diet.

Cornbread is considered an iconic American food especially loved and eaten in the south.

sliced loaf of cornbread

Unfortunately, when traveling the country today it will be difficult to find many traditional Native recipes and dishes in American restaurants. 

Only about 2% of the US population today remains indigenous.

Much of the culinary traditions of the past were passed on through oral retellings and are sadly lost as there is little or no written history. 

However, if you are ever in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area be sure to try out Owamni.

A rare full service Indigenous restaurant located along the banks of the Mississippi River.  

English Tea Time

One of the first waves of European immigrants to arrive in the United States was the English. From the early 1600s until the mid-1800s, millions of English people immigrated to the country. 

Far from home and the accessibility of familiar ingredients a culture of experimentation and innovation was created. These settlers discovered new ingredients in addition to introducing many new ingredients and dishes to the U.S. diet. 

One of the most significant and enduring aspects of the English influence on American food culture is tea. 

For centuries, tea had been the drink of choice in England. The new colonists brought tea with them to North America and soon began cultivating the plant in their own gardens.

The Dutch Brought Starbucks Coffee to America

If you are like me you can’t imagine starting your day without a cup or two of coffee.

During the 1600s Dutch traders explored the American interior and were the first Europeans to bring coffee beans to the United States. 

Soon after, colonists working in the coffee trade began bringing beans to New York City and exporting them. Coffee soon came to be a popular commodity on many American trading routes. 

The popularity of coffee drinking really increased in response to the Boston Tea Party. Colonists boycotted tea in a protest against British taxation. To show their patriotism to the colonies they turned to drinking coffee instead.

Today there is a tremendous coffee culture in America.

With the introduction of artisanal and specialty blends its popularity continues to grow.

girl's hands holding a cup of coffee

Italian Immigrants: Bringing New Dishes and Flavors

The largest group of Italian immigrants to arrive to the United States in the late 1800s were those who came to work in the agricultural sector. 

These farm workers brought with them a love of vegetables and a preference for fresh produce. 

Their culinary skills gained popularity in the country as the result of a growing interest in organic and healthy eating. 

Italian immigrants also brought new flavors and ingredients to American cuisine. 

The use of tomatoes, for example, dates back to ancient Rome and was likely introduced to the United States by Italian immigrants. 

Other ingredients such as garlic, mushrooms, olives, and peppers also trace their origins to Italy.

cloves of fresh garlic on the counter

The African Influence 

The undeniable but shadowed influence of the African people is evident in American food culture, particularly in the southern regions. 

Enslaved Africans were very often the primary cooks on plantations and in households pre-Civil War, contributing their West African ingredients and recipes to the culinary heritage of the South.

Gumbo, jambalaya, okra, and greens are just a few of the recipes and ingredients that were introduced.

Post Civil War freed African Americans migrated across the US bringing their culinary influence to the rest of the country. 

For some authentic southern cooking try Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans.

bowl of Gumbo

Jewish Immigrants: Bagels and More

By the mid-1800s, the majority of American Jews who immigrated to the country were from Europe. 

These immigrants brought with them a culture of cooking and preparing traditional foods from their home countries, becoming major contributors to the nation’s food culture.

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s many jewish immigrants came through Ellis Island from Poland. The bakers of Poland brought bagels with them.

The impact today reaches far beyond the tri-state area. Any trip to New York City must include a lunchtime stop at a deli for a taste of some Jewish specialties. Katz’s Delicatessen is legendary. 

Many foods, like bagels and pierogies, were made and eaten by the Jewish immigrants for daily consumption.

Pike Market- Seattle, Washington
Pike Market- Seattle, Washington

At that same time on the west coast, Jewish immigrants from Turkey and Greece were an intregal part of developing markets. 

The Pike Place Market in Seattle was founded in 1907 and is still running today. Today it is a must stop for any visitor to Seattle, Washington. 

Asian Immigrants Fostered Modern American Cooking Techniques

One of the most significant developments in American food culture came when groups of Chinese immigrants began arriving to the west coast in the mid-1800s. 

With them came the introduction of many exotic ingredients, food textures, and recipes previously unknown to the US.

Asian immigrants introduced many new techniques to American cooking as well, including canning vegetables, fermenting vegetables, and steaming vegetables. 

They also popularized the stir-fry, one of the most common Asian-American dishes. 

In the past 175 years Asian immigrants from many countries have added to the richness and diversity of American cuisine. Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Pilipino to name a few. 

American Food Culture Today

What I have shared here barely scratches the surface of the unique culinary history of the US. Just about every cuisine you could imagine stretches from sea to shining sea.

American food culture has developed over the centuries to become a global cuisine encompassing many cultures from around the world.

As you travel around the country today what you will feast on is the result of decades of experimentation, innovation, and cultural exchange. 

It is a vibrant, diverse, and ever-changing tradition that has been shaped by immigrants, pioneers, and the ever-changing landscape of the United States. 

Read about Florida’s Iconic Foods here.


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