If you think you know all about American food because you’ve been to McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, think again. It’s true that many of us eat processed and fast food and favor chips and French fries over cabbage. But this isn’t the whole story.
Feast and Famine
At one end of the spectrum, Americans are embracing a wider range of flavors than ever before. During the past decade, restaurants catering to the middle/upper-middle class and Millennials have popularized previously shunned vegetables like kale, fennel, beets, and cauliflower. Plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, and seitan are going mainstream, as are whole grains like teff, quinoa, amaranth, and forbidden rice. It is easier than ever to get local produce by visiting farmers’ markets or participating in food cooperatives and community supported agriculture programs. And if these aren’t convenient, warehouse stores like Costco might be. At ours, you can get everything from giant bags of frozen organic broccoli and tubs of Greek yogurt to cans of sardines and sacks of hemp seed.
Thus from a foodie perspective, America has become more creative and delicious in this millennium. Just look at this brunch menu from one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, Cliff’s Edge. (Also on the menu but outside the photo are Brussel sprouts, toast with smoked trout and quail eggs, and lemon ricotta pancakes). As a child of the 1980s raised on Hamburger Helper and Froot Loops, I can say that our palates have come a long way.
Yet at the other end of the spectrum, 14% of the population (and 20% of households with children) remain food-insecure. (According to the US Department of Agriculture, this means that they do not have enough food at all times to live a healthy, active life). People tend to think of this as an urban problem, but households outside metro areas are more likely to be hungry – as are those in certain regions, races, ethnicities, and family structures. For example, the South and Midwest have higher rates of food insecurity than the Northeast and West; Black and Hispanic families have higher rates than Whites; and single mothers with children have higher rates than married couples with children. Viewed this way, it is clear that many people are much more concerned with getting food, period – and aren’t the slightest bit interested in artisanal toast.
But that’s not the whole story either. Around a third of Americans don’t know how to cook or don’t want to. These two factors go hand-in-hand: When you don’t feel confident, you’re less willing to spend time on shopping, washing, chopping, cooking, and cleaning up. From a utilitarian perspective, food is functional: It should cost as little as possible, take as little time and effort as possible, and fill you up as much as possible. This was the case in the busy family I grew up in: Both of my parents worked – and when they weren’t at work, they were shuttling three kids to activities. Dinners at home consisted of whatever they could throw together. (Kraft macaroni and cheese with canned tuna and peas added in was one of my dad’s go-to meals). If we wanted a feast for the senses, we went out. Perhaps for this reason, “fast-casual” dining (a step up from fast food, but below a full service restaurant) is a growing market – and Americans increasingly have high expectations of what it entails.
Beyond food trends, food access, and food literacy, there is a fourth factor influencing how America eats: regional culture. Breaking the country down into categories is hardly an exact science; the Census Bureau identifies 9 regions, a cooking site lists 10, and a recent book outlines 11. However you slice it, regional food cultures emerged according to two conditions: geography (what is available) and the heritages of the people who live there.
Let’s put it in concrete terms. In Arizona, we have fresh produce, enjoy spicy food, and are influenced by our proximity to Mexico. One of my favorite foods growing up was a burro – known elsewhere as a burrito. This is a tortilla filled with refried beans, and cheese (and sometimes meat) smothered in salsa and accompanied by a small lettuce salad. My sister’s favorite was the cheese crisp: an open-faced tortilla blanketed in cheese and baked in the oven. To us, this was classic American food – but people elsewhere might disagree.
For example, my husband grew up with a deep appreciation for Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern foods because his father was from Maryland. He craves things that I never even tasted until my young adult years and could live without, like crab cakes, oysters, lobster, and Boston Cream Pie. Even in my own family, foods varied by region. My Oklahoma relatives prepared meals featuring fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits – but when we visited family in Nebraska, we ate Volga-German dishes like kraut bierocks/runzas, and every meal seemed to have a Jell-0 salad.
And the variety goes on: When we moved to Minnesota, we became acquainted with foods made possible by the state’s many lakes, such as wild rice and walleye. Later, when we lived in Georgia, we were introduced to Southern food like sweet tea, chicken and waffles, grits, and collard greens. We had our first taste of alligator and conch in Florida – and almost 3,000 miles away in Washington we delighted in fresh salmon and cherries. I’m getting hungry just thinking about all of this – and I haven’t even mentioned the rising influence of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cultures!
Culture & Policy
Why do we see so much variety? Part of it can be understood through our values. Americans are very individualistic, and food choices are one way that we signify our identities. (You are definitely making a different statement with a grocery cart full of tofu, kefir, and dandelion greens than you are with one carrying ground beef and cereal). Another aspect of individualism is that many view their diet as a matter of personal choice and responsibility – in other words, not something the government should manage. A result of this mindset is that people who do not have enough must fend for themselves, either by going to a food pantry or by going without. In the U.S., you have a right to free speech and a right to bear arms, but no constitutionally-enshrined right to eat.
Other values also play a role in our behavior. Consider our time and success orientations. As mentioned above, people here place a premium value on their time – and if they can afford it, they may prefer to buy meals that are already prepared. This may sound lazy, but considering that Americans work longer hours than almost anywhere, and have little social support, many view the time spent on food preparation as a waste.
Finally, as a generalization we can say that Americans enjoy novelty and are open to taking risks. This makes us fairly open to trying new foods and to adapting foreign flavors to local preferences. Like many things in the U.S., this is not without controversy or detractors – for example, some people feel very strongly that Chinese food in the U.S. is not authentic, while others view Americanized Chinese food as its own unique category. At one extreme, there are also activists who view food as cultural property and at another, there those who are committed to never leaving their comfort zones. On the whole, however, Americans embrace difference, and this has resulted in a dynamic eating culture that is among the world’s best.
Want to know more? Are you curious about some kind of American food, or would you like to share your favorite? Leave me a comment below!