American cuisine is a melting pot of foods from all over the globe. Whittling them down to just 21 is probably a futile task, but we tried anyway. In no particular order, here are our favourite American meals, from breakfast to dessert.
Where better to start than with breakfast? Pancakes aren’t just made in the USA, but a stack of soft and fluffy ones – often topped with maple syrup, a knob of butter, and bacon – are distinctively American.
The British can call their cookies biscuits if they like, but here in the good ol’ USA, we know the one true biscuit is hot, savoury and ideal for mopping up gravy. (Often a white gravy with chunks of sausage.) They’re a delicious and energy-packed food with a long history of keeping stomachs full throughout a long and arduous day’s work.
There are all manner of classic American sandwiches we could go for, but we’ll start by showing some love to Miami’s own Cuban sandwich. It was created by immigrants from – where else? – Cuba, who craved their own take on the classic grilled ham and cheese using the bread of their home country.
Everyone’s favourite comfort food supposedly evolved from a dish Thomas Jefferson enjoyed on a trip to Europe that he called “macaroni pie”. Not long after, his cousin, Mary Randolph, published a cookbook which included her own take on the dish, this time under the name “macaroni and cheese.”However, its popularity didn’t explode until the introduction of boxed meals in the 1930s and 40s.
OK, so the USA can’t lay claim to inventing either spaghetti or meatballs per se, but the combination of both is 100% a New York concoction, originating at the end of the 19th century. Unsurprisingly, the dish was created by Italian immigrants. The reason? They simply had access to a more plentiful supply of meat than back in their homeland, so why not? We’re certainly grateful that they tried.
Lobster rolls are New England’s quintessential street food. Or should that be coast food? Originating from the go-to lunch of New England’s lobster fisherman, then supposedly perfected at a Connecticut diner called Perry’s, succulent lobster rolls soon became a sensation up and down the New England coastline, where they continue to be a staple.
Who’d have thought Southern-fried chicken and syrup-soaked waffles would go together like bread and butter? Thought to have been started by African Americans migrating from the South to the North following the Civil War, chicken and waffles were soon being served up in Harlem jazz clubs. Now, of course, they’re enjoyed across the country.
Try explaining this one to non-Americans. Chicken-fried steak actually doesn’t contain any chicken at all, but a thin, tenderized cut of steak. It started with Austrian and German immigrants in Texas trying to recreate their beloved Wiener Schnitzel without veal. Instead they chose beef, which was plentiful in the region, breading and frying it like Southern chicken, hence the name.
Cornbread is a staple of Southern cooking and is enjoyed south of the Mason-Dixon line with just about anything. Of course, it’s also made in a variety of ways and is versatile enough to be flavored with anything from cheese to herbs to jalapeños.
There are a lot of different styles of pizza across the USA, but it’s in Chicago where it strays furthest from the classic Italian style. Deep dish means a high, doughy crust, which envelops an amount of cheese and tomato sauce that would be sickening if it wasn’t so delicious. When you hear Americans talk about a pizza pie, they’re not just talking any pizza – they’re talking Chicago pizza.
If we had to whittle this list down to the single most iconic American dish, there’s a good chance the humble hamburger would be it. According the Library of Congress, the hamburger was invented in 1900 by Louis Lassen, a Danish immigrant (notably not from Hamburg), at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. Supposedly, the cheeseburger was invented at the same diner 50 years later.
People from Philly know how to enjoy a hot dog. Just replace the sausage with thin strips of tender steak and use melted cheese in place of ketchup and mustard. The onions stay. OK, so it’s not really a hotdog anymore, but who cares?
Despite its prevalence, Mexican food doesn’t quite fit the remit of “iconic USA dishes”, but Tex-Mex has to count. The history of fajitas isn’t a happy one, with immigrant cattle ranchers often being paid in throwaway cuts of meat. The vaqueros would grill the skirt steak (or faja) and load it into tortillas, later adding peppers, onions, cheese, sour cream and salsa, as their ingenious creation began to spread into mainstream cuisine.
New York’s favourite bar snack hails from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. These deep-fried chicken wings marinated in butter and hot sauce are best served with blue cheese dip, celery sticks, and a ball game.
OK, it’s another sandwich, but hear us out. Comprised of corn beef, sauerkraut, russian dressing, and swiss cheese on rye bread, the eponymous sandwich of Reuben’s Delicatessen in Manhattan is so good that it’s become a favorite across Jewish delis despite not being kosher.
Louisiana’s signature dish is essentially any protein cooked with rice and the Cajun trinity of celery, peppers, onions. But what people usually mean by “any protein” is actually shrimp and andouille sausage.
OK, so Louisiana has another signature dish, but please don’t make us choose. Gumbo is a Mardi Gras classic, with Gumbo chefs competing to cook the best one for their community in so-called Gumbo cook-offs. As with Jambalaya, Gumbo came about as a mish-mash of different cuisines, from West Africa, France, Spain and Native American.
Pulled pork has taken the foodie world by storm in the past couple of years, except maybe North Carolina, where people have been quietly enjoying it their whole lives. Tar Heels sure know how to do comfort food right, and it rarely tastes more right than marinated and slow-cooked barbecue pork.
It’s time for dessert, and where better to start than with that most American of pies? But hold on a second. Unlike most other foods on this list, Apple pie predates the formation of the United States. It probably hails from England – or somewhere in Europe at the very least. Yet somehow it’s become such a prominent part of American identity that it’s about the closest thing we have to a benchmark for it. Yes, something might be technically American, but is it “as American as apple pie?”
Key Lime Pie
It was a tough choice to cut New York cheesecake from this list, but there’s no room for both that and Key lime pie. In the end, the latter is just more unique and unequivocally born in the USA, even if Key limes themselves are, in fact, native to Southeast Asia. They only arrived in the Florida Keys via the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily, Andalucia, the Carribean and Mexico.
It seems fitting to wrap this up with a dessert that’s definitively American. Pecans are endemic to Mexico and the Southern United States, and it’s the cuisine of the latter that we have to thank for this sticky and delicious pie. It’s as authentically American as it gets, so it makes sense that it’s also a Thanksgiving dinner staple.