What with the theme of the upcoming Starchefs ICC being "What is American Food," the question has either been on my mind or below the surface of my thoughts a lot lately. While preparing dinner the other night, it hit me that the dinner I was making was the epitome of "American Food." No, it wasn't hamburgers or hot dogs, though in the minds of many, they are the consummation of the term. What I was making was not an established dish, nor was it based on any particular recipe or tradition. It did, however, employ a variety of techniques and ingredients used in a number of culinary traditions. It was a fusion of culinary cultures without any conscious attempt at "fusion" cooking, though a consciously creating a fusion doesn't necessarily make a dish "un-American.". I simply took a number of ingredients at hand and created a dish that owed a lot to different cultures, but wasn't the clear product of any of them other than American "melting pot" culture. In short, American cuisine is the natural conglomeration of products and techniques available on our shores without specific regard to where they came from, although specific cultural debts exist and may be acknowledged.
Of course, this has been true for any cuisine throughout history. It is difficult to imagine Italian cuisine without the tomato in the south and corn in the north; Spanish cuisine without pimientos or rice, Indian cuisine without chilis or Mexican cuisine without pork, beef or chicken, though clearly much cooking of those areas does quite well without those ingredients.
Many foods commonly accepted now as "American" had their origins elsewhere, but have adapted to this country. Pizza is certainly of Italian origin, but it has become an American staple, in the vast majority of cases vastly different than its Italian ancestor. The hot dog, as American as it gets, has plenty of European roots. Is there even such a thing as General Tso's chicken in China? The United States, a nation of immigrants including the very first immigrants that predated the Europeans, has always included the culinary traditions of those immigrants, at first as pure as they could be based on the ingredients at hand, before ultimately incorporating other influences and dilutions to become distinctly American. With few exceptions, the "Italian" food that I make today is vastly different to that my grandparents made.
So, what was my "American" dish? Given my Italian-American roots, I made pasta, using an Italian brand, short, wide tubes called "calamarata". Pasta, though common enough in this country, was obviously not the defining ingredient. Nor was it the corn that I had cut from the cob (I made a corn broth with the cobs that I used to cook the pasta) to use in my sauce, nor the tomato, nor the jalapeño, nor the tomatillos, nor the garlic, nor the cultured cream, nor the arugula. The point is, there is no defining ingredient in American cooking. It was the combination of those ingredients and the techniques used to combine them that makes the dish and the cooking "American."