America's 50 greatest foods
Fast, junk, processed -- when it comes to food, the United States is best known for the stuff that's described by words better suited to greasy, grinding industrial output.
But Americans have an impressive appetite for good stuff, too.
To celebrate its endless culinary creativity, we’re throwing our list of 50 delicious American foods at you.
We know you’re going to want to throw back. Ground rules: acknowledge that even trying to define American food is tough; further acknowledge that picking favorite American items inevitably means leaving out or accidentally overlooking some much-loved regional specialties.
Tell us about your favorite U.S. foods in the comments!
Now get the rubber apron on because we’re going first. Let the food fight begin.
50. Key lime pie
If life gives you limes, don’t make limeade, make a Key lime pie. The official state pie of Florida, this sassy tart has made herself a worldwide reputation, which started in -- where else? -- the Florida Keys, from whence come the tiny limes that gave the pie its name.
Aunt Sally, a cook for Florida’s first self-made millionaire, ship salvager William Curry, gets the credit for making the first Key lime pie in the late 1800s.
But you might also thank Florida sponge fisherman for likely originating the concoction of key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks, which could be “cooked” (by a thickening chemical reaction of the ingredients) at sea.
49. Tater tots
We love French fries, but for a variation on the potato theme, one beloved at Sonic drive-ins and school cafeterias everywhere, consider the Tater Tot.
Notice it often has the registered trademark -- these commercial hash brown cylinders are indeed proprietary to the Ore-Ida company. If you’d been one of the Grigg brothers who founded Ore-Ida, you’d have wanted to come up with something to do with leftover slivers of cut-up potatoes, too.
They added some flour and seasoning and shaped the mash into tiny tots and put them on the market in 1956. A little more than 50 years later, America is eating about 32 million kilos of these taters annually.
48. San Francisco sourdough bread
Sourdough’s as old as the pyramids and not coincidentally was eaten in ancient Egypt. But the hands-down American favorite, and the sourest variety, comes from San Francisco.
As much a part of NoCal culinary culture as Napa Valley wine, sourdough bread’s been a staple since Gold Rush days. Once upon a frontier time, miners (called “sourdoughs” for surviving on the stuff) and settlers carried sourdough starter (more reliable than other leavening) in pouches around their necks or on their belts.
Thank goodness that’s not the way they do it at Boudin Bakery, which has been turning out the bread that bites back in the City by the Bay since 1849.
47. Cobb salad
The chef’s salad originated back East, but salad innovators out west weren’t going to be outdone.
In 1937, Bob Cobb, the owner of The Brown Derby, was scrounging around at the restaurant’s North Vine location for a meal for Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Theater when he put together a salad with what he found in the fridge: a head of lettuce, an avocado, some romaine, watercress, tomatoes, some cold chicken breast, a hard-boiled egg, chives, cheese, and some old-fashioned French dressing.
Brown Derby lore says, “He started chopping. Added some crisp bacon, swiped from a busy chef.” The salad went onto the menu and straight into the heart of Hollywood.
46. Pot roast
The childhood Sunday family dinner of baby boomers everywhere, pot roast claims a sentimental favorite place in the top 10 of American comfort foods. There’s a whole generation that would be lost without it.
Beef brisket, bottom or top round, or chuck set in a deep roasting pan with potatoes, carrots, onions, and whatever else your mom threw in to be infused with the meat’s simmering juices, the pot roast could be anointed with red wine or even beer, then covered and cooked on the stovetop or in the oven.
Hostess’ iconic “Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling” has been sugaring us up since James Dewar invented it at the Continental Baking Company in Schiller Park, Illinois, in 1930.
The Twinkie forsook its original banana cream filling for vanilla when bananas were scarce during World War II. As if they weren’t ridiculously good enough already, the Texas State Fair started the fad of deep-frying them.
Dumped in hot oil or simply torn from their packaging, Twinkies endear with their name (inspired by a billboard advertising Twinkle Toe Shoes), their ladyfinger shape (pierced three times to inject the filling), and their evocations of lunchtime recess.
Note to hoarders: supposed shelf life of decades is in truth 25 days.
Dehydrated meat shriveled almost beyond recognition -- an unlikely source of so much gustatory pleasure, but jerky is a high-protein favorite of backpackers, road trippers, and snackers everywhere.
We like the creation myth that says it’s the direct descendant of American Indian pemmican, which mixed fire-cured meat with animal fat.
Beef, turkey, chicken, venison, buffalo, even ostrich, alligator, yak, and emu. Peppered, barbecued, hickory-smoked, honey glazed. Flavored with teriyaki, jalapeno, lemon pepper, chili.
Jerky is so versatile and portable and packs such nutritional power that the Army is experimenting with jerky sticks that have the caffeine equivalent of a cup of coffee.
However you take your jerky -- caf or decaf; in strips, chips, or shreds -- prepare to chew long and hard. You’ve still got your own teeth, right?
Take some vaqueros working on the range and the cattle slaughtered to feed them. Throw in the throwaway cuts of meat as part of the hands’ take-home pay, and let cowboy ingenuity go to work.
Grill skirt steak (faja in Spanish) over the campfire, wrap in a tortilla, and you’ve got the beginning of a Rio Grande region tradition. The fajita is thought to have come off the range and into popular culture when a certain Sonny Falcon began operating fajita taco stands at outdoor events and rodeos in Texas beginning in 1969.
It wasn’t long before the dish was making its way onto menus in the Lone Star State and spreading with its beloved array of condiments -- grilled onions and green pepper, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, and sour cream -- across the country. Don’t forget the Altoids.
42. Banana split
Like the banana makes it good for you. Still, kudos to whomever invented the variation of the sundae known as the banana split.
There’s the 1904 Latrobe, Pennsylvania, story, in which future optometrist David Strickler was experimenting with sundaes at a pharmacy soda fountain, split a banana lengthwise, and put it in a long boat dish.
And the 1907 Wilmington, Ohio, story, wherein restaurant owner Ernest Hazard came up with it to draw students from a nearby college.
Fame spread after a Walgreens in Chicago made the split its signature dessert in the 1920s.
Whatever the history, you’ll find plenty food for thought at the Banana Split Festival the second weekend in June in Wilmington.
It’s one of the pillars of Southern cooking, but cornbread is the soul food of many a culture -- black, white, and Native American -- and not just south of the Mason-Dixon.
Grind corn coarsely and you’ve got grits; soak kernels in alkali, and you’ve got hominy (which we encourage you to cook up into posole). Leaven finely ground cornmeal with baking powder, and you’ve got cornbread.
Southern hushpuppies and corn pone, New England johnnycakes; cooked in a skillet or in muffin tins; flavored with cheese, herbs, or jalapeños -- cornbread in any incarnation remains the quick and easy go-to bread that historically made it a favorite of Indian and pioneer mothers and keeps it on tables across the country today.
“Good Old Raisins and Peanuts,” GORP is the energy salvation of backpackers everywhere. Centuries before trail mix came by the bag and the bin, it was eaten in Europe, where hiking’s practically a national pastime.
The thing to remember here is that the stuff is rocket fuel. Add all the granola, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, candied ginger, and M&Ms you want. Just be sure to store in a bear-proof canister because suspending from a branch in a nylon sack isn’t going to do it.
Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo … what dish could be so evocative that it inspired Hank Williams to write a party song for it in 1952 and dozens more to cover it (including everyone from Jo Stafford to Credence Clearwater Revival to Emmylou Harris)?
The sweep-up-the-kitchen cousin of Spanish paella, jambalaya comes in red (Creole, with tomatoes) and brown (Cajun, without). Made with meat, vegetables (a trinity of celery, peppers, and onions), and rice, Louisiana’s signature dish might be most memorable when made with shrimp and andouille sausage.
Whatever the color and secret ingredients, you can be sure of one thing when you sit down with friends to a big bowlful: son of a gun, gonna have big fun on the bayou.
38. Biscuits ’n’ gravy
An irresistible Southern favorite, biscuits and gravy would be a cliché if they weren’t so darned delicious. The biscuits are traditionally made with butter or lard and buttermilk; the milk (or “sawmill” or country) gravy with meat drippings and (usually) chunks of good fresh pork sausage and black pepper.
Cheap and requiring only widely available ingredients, a meal of biscuits and gravy was a filling way for slaves and sharecroppers to face a hard day in the fields.
“The Southern way with gravies was born of privation. When folks are poor, they make do. Which means folks make gravy,” says The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. The soul, you might say, of soul food.
37. Smithfield ham
“Ham, history, and hospitality.” That’s the motto of Smithfield, Virginia, the Smithfield of Smithfield Virginia ham. Notice “ham” comes before history, which really says something considering this hamlet of 8,100 was first colonized in 1634.
Epicenter of curing and production of a head-spinning number of hogs, Smithfield comes by the title Ham Capital of the World honestly: lots of ham is called Virginia, but there’s only one Smithfield, as defined by a 1926 law that says it must be processed within the city limits.
The original country style American ham was dry cured for preservation; salty and hard, it could keep until soaked in water (to remove the salt and reconstitute) before cooking. The deliciously authentic cured Virginia country ham happens to have been the favorite of that famous Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.
36. Chicken fried steak
A guilty pleasure if there ever was one, chicken fried steak was born to go with all-American sides like mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas.
A slab of tenderized steak breaded in seasoned flour and pan fried, it’s kin to the Weiner Schnitzel brought to Texas by Austrian and German immigrants, who adapted their veal recipe to use the bountiful beef found in Texas.
Lamesa, on the cattle-ranching South Texas plains, claims to be the birthplace of the dish, but John “White Gravy” Neutzling of Lone Star State cowboy town of Bandera insisted he invented it. Do you care, or do you just want to ladle on that peppery white gravy and dig in?
35. Wild Alaska salmon
Guys risk life and limb fishing for this delish superfood.
Unlike Atlantic salmon, which is 99.8 percent farmed, Alaska salmon is wild, which means the fish live free and eat clean -- all the better to glaze with Dijon mustard or real maple syrup. Alaska salmon season coincides with their return to spawning streams (it’s an amazing sense of smell that guides them to the exact spot where they were born).
Worry not: before fishing season, state biologists ensure that plenty of salmon have already passed upstream to lay eggs. But let’s get to that cedar plank, the preferred method of cooking for the many Pacific Northwest Indian tribes whose mythologies and diets include salmon.
Use red cedar (it has no preservatives), and cook slow, for that rich, smoky flavor. Barring that, there’s always lox and bagels.
34. California roll
So much more than the gateway sushi, the California roll isn’t just for wimps who can’t go it raw. But that’s essentially the way it got its start in Los Angeles, where sushi chefs from Japan were trying to gain a beachhead in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Most credit chef Manashita Ichiro and his assistant Mashita Ichiro, at L.A.’s Tokyo Kaikan restaurant, which had one of the country’s first sushi bars, with creating the “inside out” roll that preempted Americans’ aversions by putting the nori (seaweed) on the inside of the rice and substituting avocado for toro (raw fatty tuna).
The avocado-crab-cucumber roll became a hit, and from that SoCal beachhead, sushi conquered the country. After leading the charge for the sushi invasion of the 1980s, the California roll now occupies grocery stores everywhere. Wasabi anyone?
The most humble of comfort food. Who would have imagined when the recipe for “Cannelon of Beef” showed up in Fannie Farmer’s 1918 "Boston Cooking School Cook Book" that every mom in America would someday have her own version?
Fannie made hers with slices of salt pork laid over the top and served it with brown mushroom sauce. (In her day, you had to cut the meat finely by hand; the advent of commercial grinders changed all that.)
However your mom made it -- we’re guessing ketchup on top? -- she probably served that oh-so-reliable meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans.
And you were probably made to sit there, all night if need be, if you didn’t eat all your beans. A better threat might have been no meatloaf sandwich in your lunch tomorrow.
People who didn’t grow up eating them wonder what the heck they are. People who did grow up eating them (and that would be just about everyone in the South) wonder how anyone could live without them.
Grits, beloved and misunderstood -- and American down to their Native roots. They’re the favored hot breakfast in the so-called Grits Belt, which girdles everything from Virginia to Texas and where the dish is a standard offering on diner menus.
Grits are nothing if not versatile: They can go plain, savory, or sweet; pan-fried or porridge-like. Simple and cheap, grits are also profoundly satisfying.
Which might be why Charleston’s The Post and Courier opined in 1952 that “Given enough [grits], the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace.” Now don’t that just butter your grits?
31. Macaroni and cheese
The ultimate comfort food, macaroni and cheese is also the salvation of many a mom placating a finicky toddler.
Nothing particularly American about pasta and cheese -- except for the fact that on a European trip, Thomas Jefferson liked a certain noodle dish so much he took notes and had it served back home at a state dinner as “macaroni pie.”
Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph included a recipe for “macaroni and cheese” in her 1824 cookbook "The Virginia Housewife." So whether you’re eating a gourmet version by one of the countless chefs who’ve put their own spin on it, or just digging like a desperado in the pantry for that box of Kraft, give mac and cheese its patriotic props.
30. Maryland crabcakes
The Chesapeake Bay yields more than just the regatta-loving suntanned class in their sock-free topsiders. It’s the home habitat of the blue crab, which both Maryland and Virginia claim as their own.
Boardwalk style (mixed with fillers and served on a bun) or restaurant/gourmet style; fried, broiled, or baked, crab cakes can be made with any kind of crab, but the blue crabs of Chesapeake Bay are preferred for both tradition and taste.
When Baltimore magazine rounded up the best places to get the city’s signature food, editors declared simplicity the key, while lamenting the fact that most crabmeat doesn’t even come from home turf these days. Kind of makes you crabby, doesn’t it?
29. Potato chips
We have a high-maintenance resort guest to thank for America’s hands-down favorite snack.
Saratoga Springs, New York, 1853: American Indian chef George Crum is in the kitchen at the elegant Moon Lake Lodge. A persnickety customer sends back his French fries (then highfalutin fare eaten with a fork) for being too thick. Crum makes a second, thinner, order.
Still too thick for the picky diner. Annoyed, Crum makes the next batch with a little attitude, slicing the potatoes so thin, the crispy things can’t possibly be picked up with a fork. Surprise: the wafer-thin fried potatoes are a hit.
Traveling salesman Herman Lay sold them out of the trunk of his car before founding Lay’s Potato Chips, the first nationally marketed brand. Lay’s would ultimately merge in 1961 with Frito to create the snack behemoth Frito-Lay.
San Francisco’s answer to French bouillabaisse, cioppino (cho-pea-no) is fish stew with an Italian flair. It’s been around since the late 1800s, when Portuguese and Italian fishermen who settled the North Beach section of the city brought their on-board catch-of-the-day stew back to land and area restaurants picked up on it.
Cooked in a tomato base with wine and spices and chopped fish (whatever was plentiful, but almost always crab), cioppino probably takes its name from the classic fish stew of Italy’s Liguria region, where many Gold Rush era fishermen came from.
Get a memorable bowl at Sotto Mare in North Beach, Scoma’s on Fisherman’s Wharf, and Anchor Oyster Bar in the Castro District. Don’t feel bad about going with the “lazy man’s” cioppino -- it only means you’re not going to spend half the meal cracking shellfish.
27. Fortune cookies
Culinary snobs like to look down their holier-than-thou chopsticks at ABC (American-born Chinese) food, but we're not afraid to stand up for the honor of such North American favorites as General Tso's chicken, Mongolian beef, broccoli beef, lemon chicken, deep-fried spring rolls and that nuclear orange sauce that covers sweet-and-sour anything.
As the seminal symbol of all great American-born Chinese grub, however, we salute the mighty fortune cookie. Almost certainly invented in California in the early 1900s (origin stories vary between San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Japan), the buttery sweet crescents are now found in Chinese joints around the world ... with the notable exception of China.
That's OK -- the crunchy biscuits are still our favorite way to close out any Chinese meal.
26. Peanut butter sandwich
Creamy or chunky? To each his own, but everybody -- except those afflicted with the dreaded and dangerous peanut allergy and the moms who worry sick about them -- loves a good peanut butter sandwich.
First served to clients at Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, peanut paste was improved upon when chemist Joseph Rosefield added hydrogenated vegetable oil and called his spread Skippy.
That was 1922; not quite 100 years later, peanut butter is an American mainstay, often paired with jelly for that lunchbox workhorse the PB&J. For a rocking alternative, try peanut butter sandwiches the way Elvis Presley liked them: with ripe mashed bananas, grilled in butter.
25. Baked beans
It’s not a cookout, potluck, or the end of a long day in the saddle without a bubbling pot full of them. Just ask the Pioneer Woman, who waxes rhapsodic about the baked-bean recipe on her site (not a version with little weenies, but how fun are they?).
Yummy and plenty historical. Long before Bostonians were baking their navy beans for hours in molasses -- and earning the nickname Beantown in the process -- New England Indians were mixing beans with maple syrup and bear fat and putting them in a hole in the ground for slow cooking.
Favored on the frontier for being cheap and portable, chuck wagon, or cowboy, beans will forever live hilariously in popular culture as the catalyst behind the "Blazing Saddles" campfire scene, which you can review in unabashed immaturity on YouTube.
As the imperative on the Orville Redenbacher site urges: “All hail the super snack.” The bow-tied entrepreneur pitched his popcorn tent in Valparaiso, Indiana, which celebrates its heritage at the Valparaiso Popcorn Festival the first Saturday after Labor Day.
It’s just one of several Midwestern corn belt towns that vie for the title of Popcorn Capital of the World, but centuries before Orville’s obsession aromatically inflated in microwaves or Jiffy Pop magically expanded on stovetops, Native Americans in New Mexico discovered corn could be popped — way back in 3600 B.C.
According to www.popcorn.org, Americans currently consume about 15 billion liters a year; that’s 48 liters per man, woman, and child.
23. Fried chicken and waffles
Scottish immigrants brought the deep-fry method across the pond, and it was good old Colonel Saunders who really locked in on the commercial potential in 1930 when he started pressure-frying chicken breaded in his secret spices at his service station in Corbin, Kentucky, paving the way for Kentucky Fried and all the other fried chickens to come.
Nuggets, fingers, popcorn, bites, patties -- one of our all-time favorite ways to eat fried chicken is with waffles. And one of our favorite places to eat it is at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles.
Immortalized in "Pulp Fiction" and "Swingers," the L.A. institution got the soul-food seal of approval when Obama himself related to Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" that he’d popped in for some wings and waffles and downed them in the presidential limo.
22. New England clam chowder
Gone are the days when Catholics religiously abstained from eating meat on Fridays, but you’ll still find clam chowder traditionally served in some East Coast locales -- not that it reminds anyone of penance these days.
There are time-honored versions of chowder from Maine to Florida, but the most famous and favorite has to be New England style: creamy white with potatoes and onions.
There’s Manhattan: clear with tomatoes. And there’s even Minorcan (from around St. Augustine, Florida): spicy with hot datil pepper. The variations on East Coast clam chowder are deliciously numerous.
Even the West Coast has a version (with salmon instead of pork). With your fistful of oyster crackers ready to dump in, you might stop to wonder: What were the Pilgrims thinking when they fed clams to their hogs?
21. New Mexican flat enchiladas
It was the pre-Columbian Maya who invented tortillas, and apparently the Aztecs who started wrapping them around bits of fish and meat. You have only to go to any Mexican or Tex-Mex place to see what those ancients wrought when someone dipped tortillas “en chile” (hence, the name).
“Flat” (the stacked New Mexico style) or rolled, smothered in red chili sauce or green (or both, for “Christmas” style), enchiladas are the source of much cultural pride in the Land of Enchantment; they’re particularly enchanting made with the state’s famed blue-corn tortillas -- fried egg on top optional.
Have a giant flat red one in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the last weekend in September at the Whole Enchilada Fiesta, where the main event is the making and partaking of the world’s biggest enchilada.
Proust’s madeleines? We’ll go you one better on remembrance of things past: s’mores. Gooey, melty, warm, and sweet -- nothing nostalgically evokes family vacations and carefree camping under the stars quite like ’em.
Whether they were first to roast marshmallows and squish them between graham crackers with a bar of chocolate no one seems to know, but the Girl Scouts were the first to get the recipe down in the 1927 "Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts," transforming many a standard-issue campfire into a quintessential experience.
Celebrate sweetly on August 10: It’s National S’mores Day. Get those marshmallow sticks sharpened.
19. Lobster rolls
Boiled or steamed alive -- animal cruelty some insist -- lobsters practically define a great Down East occasion. And maybe nowhere more so than in Maine, which provides 80 percent of the clawed creatures, and where lobster shacks and lobster bakes are culinary institutions.
Melted butter on knuckle, claw, or tail meat -- we love it simple. But the perfect accompaniment to a salty sea air day in Vacationland would have to be the lobster roll. Chunks of sweet lobster meat lightly dressed with mayo or lemon or both, heaped in a buttered hot dog bun makes for some seriously satisfying finger food.
Fabulous finger-licking lobster time in Maine is during shack season, May to October, and every August, when Rockland puts on its annual lobster festival. Suggested soundtrack for a weekend of shacking: B-52s’ “Rock Lobster.”
18. Buffalo wings
Long before Troy Aikman became pitchman for Wingstop, folks in Buffalo, New York, were enjoying the hot and spicy wings that most agree came into being by the hands of Teressa Bellissimo, who owned the Anchor Bar and first tossed chicken wings in cayenne pepper hot sauce and butter in 1964.
According to Calvin Trillin, hot wings might have originated with John Young, and his “mambo sauce” -- also in Buffalo. Either way, they came from Buffalo, which, by the way, doesn’t call them Buffalo wings.
If you think your kitchen table or couch-in-front-of-football represents the extreme in wing eating, think again: Every Labor Day weekend, Buffalo celebrates its great contribution to the nation’s pub grub with the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival.
At the 2011 event, 85,000 people snarfed 37 tons of the things.
17. Indian frybread
If you’ve had it at Indian Market in Santa Fe or to a powwow or pueblo anywhere in the country, you’re probably salivating at the very thought. Who would think that a flat chunk of leavened dough fried or deep-fried could be so addictive?
Tradition says it was the Navajo who created frybread with the flour, sugar, salt, and lard given to them by the government when they were relocated from Arizona to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, 150 years ago.
Frybread’s a calorie bomb all right, but drizzled with honey or topped with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and lettuce for an Indian taco or all by its lonesome, it’s an American Indian staple not to be missed.
16. Barbecue ribs
Pork or beef, slathered or smoked -- we’re not about to wade into which is more embraced, what’s more authentic, or even what needs more napkins. There are cook-offs all over the country for your own judging pleasure.
But we will admit we’re partial to pork ribs. The Rib ’Cue Capital? We’re not going to touch that one with a three-meter tong, either. We’ll just follow signs of grinning pigs in the South, where the tradition of gathering for barbecues dates to before the Civil War and serious attention to the finer points of pork earn the region the title of the Barbecue Belt.
Outside of the belt, Texas smokes its way to a claim as a barbecue (beef) epicenter -- check out the ’cue-rich town of Lockhart. And let’s not forget Kansas City, where the sauce is the thing. But why debate it when you can just eat it?
How many sandwiches get to go by their initials? When tomatoes come into season, there’s hardly a better way to celebrate the bounty than with a juicy bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Food guru John Mariani says the BLT is the no. 2 favorite sandwich in the United States (after ham), and it’s no. 1 in the United Kingdom.
Bread can be toasted or un, bacon crispy or limp, lettuce iceberg or other (but iceberg is preferred for imparting crunch and no interfering flavor), and mayo good quality or just forget about it.
Provenance of the BLT isn’t clear, but a remarkably similar club sandwich showed up in the 1903 Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book. Even if the sodium level gives the health-minded pause, the BLT tastes like summer -- and who can resist that?
14. Apple pie
According to a pie chart (seriously) from the American Pie Council, apple really is our national favorite -- followed by pumpkin, chocolate, lemon meringue and cherry.
Not to burst the patriotic bubble, but it’s not American in its origins. Food critic John Mariani dates the appearance of apple pies in the United States to 1780, long after they were popular in England. Apples aren’t even native to the continent; the Pilgrims brought seeds.
So what’s the deal with the star-spangled association? The pie council’s John Lehndorff explains: “When you say that something is ‘as American as apple pie,’ what you're really saying is that the item came to this country from elsewhere and was transformed into a distinctly American experience.”
And you’re saying Americans know something good enough to be an icon when we eat it, with or without the cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream on top.
13. Frito pie
Even the most modest chili has legions of fans. Consider Kit Carson, whose dying regret was that he didn’t have time for one more bowl. Or the mysterious “La Dama de Azul,” a Spanish nun named Sister Mary of Agreda, who reportedly never left her convent in Spain but came back from one of her astral projections preaching Christianity to Indians in the New World with their recipe for venison chili.
Less apocryphally, “chili queens” in 1880s San Antonio, Texas, sold their spicy stew from stands, and the “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the 1893 Chicago world's fair secured chili’s nationwide fame.
We really love the American ingenuity that added corn chips and cheddar cheese to make Frito pie, a kitschy delight you can order served in the bag at the Five & Dime on the Santa Fe Plaza, the same physical location of the original Woolworth’s lunch counter that came up with it.
12. Po’ boy
The muffaletta might be the signature sandwich of Crescent City, but the po’ boy is the “shotgun house of New Orleans cuisine.”
The traditional Louisiana sub is said to have originated in 1929, when Bennie and Clovis Martin -- both of whom had been streetcar conductors and union members before opening the coffee shop that legend says became the birthplace of the po’ boy -- supported striking streetcar motormen and conductors with food.
"We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended,” Bennie was quoted. “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’”
Enjoy the beloved everyman sandwich in its seemingly infinite variety (the traditional fried oyster and shrimp can’t be beat) and fight the encroachment of chain sub shops at the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival in November. www.poboyfest.com
11. Green chili stew
Have pork and green chiles ever spent such delicious time together? Green chile stew has been called the queen of the New Mexican winter table, but we don’t need a cold winter day to eat this fragrant favorite.
We like it anytime -- so long as the Hatch chiles are roasted fresh. Order them from Hatch Chile Express in Hatch, New Mexico, the Chile Capital of the World; they come already roasted, peeled, deseeded, chopped, and frozen.
Better yet, make the trip to green chile stew country and order up a bowl. Whether you eat it in New Mexico at a table near a kiva fireplace or at your own kitchen table, the aroma and taste are to die for, and the comfort level remarkable on the resurrection scale.
10. Chocolate-chip cookies
Today the name most associated with the killer cookie might be Mrs. Fields, but we actually have Ruth Wakefield, who owned the Toll House Inn, a popular spot for home cooking in 1930s Whitman, Massachusetts, to thank for all spoon-licking love shared through chocolate chip cookies.
Was Mrs. Wakefield making her Butter Drop Do cookies when, lacking baker’s chocolate, she substituted a cut-up Nestle’s semisweet chocolate bar? Or did the vibrations of a Hobart mixer knock some chocolate bars off a shelf and into her sugar-cookie dough?
However chocolate chips ended up in the batter, a new cookie was born. Andrew Nestle reputedly got the recipe from her -- it remains on the package to this day -- and Wakefield got a lifetime supply of chocolate chips. Can you feel the serotonin and endorphins releasing?
9. Blueberry cobbler
Also charmingly called slump, grunt, and buckle, cobbler got its start with early oven-less colonists who came up with the no-crust-on-the-bottom fruit dish that could cook in a pan or pot over a fire.
They might have been lofting a mocking revolutionary middle finger at the mother country by making a sloppy American version of the refined British steamed fruit and dough pudding. Cobblers become doubly American when made with blueberries, which are native to North America (Maine practically has a monopoly on them).
We love blueberries for how they sex up practically any crust, dough, or batter, maybe most of all in cobblers and that other all-American favorite, the blueberry muffin.
8. Delmonico’s steak
There are steakhouses all over the country but perhaps none so storied -- with a universally acclaimed steak named for it no less -- as the original Delmonico’s in New York.
The first diner called by the French name restaurant, Delmonico’s opened in 1837 with unheard-of things like printed menus, tablecloths, private dining rooms, and lunch and dinner offerings. Among other firsts, the restaurant served the “Delmonico Steak.” Whatever the excellent cut (the current restaurant uses boneless rib eye), the term Delmonico’s Steak has come to mean the best.
Lightly seasoned with salt, basted with melted butter, and grilled over a live fire, it’s traditionally served with a thin clear gravy and Delmonico’s potatoes, made with cream, white pepper, Parmesan cheese, and nutmeg -- a rumored favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s.
7. Chicago-style pizza
Naples gave us the first pizza, but the City of Big Shoulders (and even bigger pizzas) gave us the deep dish. The legend goes that in 1943, a visionary named Ike Sewell opened Uno’s Pizzeria in Chicago with the idea that if you made it hearty enough, pizza, which up till then had been considered a snack, could be eaten as a meal.
Whether he or his original chef Rudy Malnati originated it, one of those patron saints of pizza made it deep and piled it high, filling a tall buttery crust with lots of meat, cheese, tomato chunks, and authentic Italian spices.
Thin-crust pizza made in a brick oven has its place, but if you lust for crust, nothing satisfies quite like Chicago-style.
The bane of diets and the boon of happy hours -- could there be a more perfect calorie-dense accompaniment to a pitcher of margaritas?
Less rhetorically: why does Piedras Negras, Mexico, just over the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, host The International Nacho Festival and the Biggest Nacho in the World Contest every October?
Because it was there that Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya invented nachos when a gaggle of shopping wives of American soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan arrived at the Victory Club restaurant after closing time.
Maitre d’ Ignacio improvised something for the gals with what he had on hand, christening his melty creation nachos especiales. From thence they have gone forth across the border, the continent and the world.
5. Philly cheese steak
It’s a sandwich so greasy and hallowed in its hometown that the posture you must adopt to eat it without ruining your clothes has a name: “the Philadelphia Lean.”
Made of “frizzled beef,” chopped while being grilled in grease, the Philly cheese steak sandwich gets the rest of its greasy goodness from onions and cheese (American, provolone, or Cheese Whiz), all of which is laid into a long locally made Amoroso bun.
Pat and Harry Olivieri get the credit for making the first cheese steaks (originally with pizza sauce -- cheese apparently came later, courtesy of one of Pat’s cooks) and selling them from their hot dog stand in south Philly.
Pat later opened Pat’s King of Steaks, which still operates today and vies with rival Geno’s Steaks for the title of best cheese steak in town.
4. Hot dogs
Nothing complements a baseball game or summer cookout quite like a hot dog. For that we owe a debt to a similar sausage from Frankfurt, Germany (hence, “frankfurter” and “frank”) and German immigrant Charles Feltman, who is often credited with inventing the hot dog by using buns to save on plates.
But it was Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker’s hot dog stand on Coney Island that turned the hot dog into an icon. Every Fourth of July since 1916, the very same Nathan’s has put on the International Hot Dog Eating Contest (current five-time winner Joey Chestnut took the title in 2011, downing 62 hot dogs and buns in the 10-minute face-stuffing).
Meanwhile in Windy City, the steamed or water-simmered all-beef Chicago dog (Vienna Beef, please) is still being “dragged through the garden” and served on a poppy seed bun -- absolutely without ketchup.
3. Reuben sandwich
Who knew sauerkraut could be so sexy? Was it the late-night inspiration of grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, who improvised the eponymous sandwich in 1925 to feed poker players at Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel? Or perhaps the brainchild of Arnold Rueben, the German owner of New York’s now-defunct Reuben’s Delicatessen, who came up with it in 1914?
The answer might be important for dictionary etymologies, but the better part of the secret to the Reuben is not who it’s named after but what it’s dressed with. Aficionados agree: no store-bought Russian or Thousand Island -- the sauce needs to be homemade.
And you’ll want thick hand-sliced rye or pumpernickel, and good pastrami or corned beef. Don’t have a serious deli near you? Go to www.foodnetwork.com and try the recipe from Ann Arbor, Michigan’s famed Zingerman’s deli -- proof you don’t have to be named Reuben to do this classic right.
Lunch counter, traditional, gourmet, sliders, Kobe. White Castle, Whataburger, Burger King, In-N-Out, McDonald’s, Steak N’ Shake, Five Guys, The Heart Attack Grill. It’s hard to believe, but it all began with a simple mistake.
Or so say the folks in Pasadena, California, who claims the classic cheeseburger was born there in the late 1920s when a young chef at The Rite Spot accidentally burned a burger and slapped on some cheese to cover his blunder.
Our favorite rendition might be the way they do cheeseburgers in New Mexico: with green chilis, natch. Follow the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail at www.newmexico.org (don’t miss them at Bobcat Bite and Bert’s Burger Bowl in Santa Fe).
1. Thanksgiving dinner
No fancy centerpieces or long-simmering family squabbles at that first Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims decided not to fast but to party with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621 Plymouth.
Today we eschew the venison they most certainly ate, and we cram their three days of feasting into one gluttonous gorge.
Indigestion notwithstanding, nothing tastes so good as that quintessential all-American meal of turkey (roasted or deep-fried bird, or tofurkey, or that weirdly popular Louisiana contribution turducken), dressing (old loaf bread or cornbread, onion and celery, sausage, fruit, chestnuts, oysters -- whatever your mom did, the sage was the thing), cranberry sauce, mashed and sweet potatoes, that funky green bean casserole with the French-fried onion rings on top, and pumpkin pie.
Almost as iconic (and if you ask most kids, as delicious) is the turkey TV dinner, the 1953 brainchild of a Swanson salesman looking to use up 260 overestimated tons of frozen birds. No joke: He got the idea, he said, from tidily packaged airplane food. We do love those leftovers.
Tell us about your favorite U.S. foods in the comments!