Known for its size, diversity, and history, it’s no wonder that the United States’ most famous foods pull inspiration from across the world. Described as fifty countries masquerading as one, the constant blending of cultures has created multiple unique cooking styles that vary from state to state.
In the South, southern cuisine reigns supreme, meanwhile, in the midwest, hearty meals with different game meats are common. Head to the coasts, and you’ll often find seafood to be the star of the dinner table. With that being said, there are a few items that are truly ingrained in American culture, no matter where you are.
In no particular order, here are a dozen of the most famous foods in the United States of America:
One of the first things that come to mind when you think about food in the United States is the cheeseburger. In 1924, 16-year-old Lionel Sternberger had the idea to put a slice of American cheese onto a hamburger while cooking at the family’s sandwich shop in Pasadena, California. The rest is history and the iconic food has become a staple of American culture.
While this quintessentially American food has always been simple in nature, a patty of ground beef with cheese in between two buns, there have been endless variations over the years. Often using local ingredients, every region in the US has a preferred way to prepare its ideal cheeseburger.
In Minnesota, the Juicy Lucy is a popular take on the burger that includes a beef patty that is filled with molten cheddar or American cheese. New Mexico enjoys the Green Chile Cheeseburger which adds chopped green chiles to add an extra kick of spice and flavor. While the varieties are countless, everyone can agree that the cheeseburger is one of America’s greatest culinary inventions.
Another symbol of US food culture is the hot dog. Taking inspiration from the frankfurter, a pork sausage originating in Germany, the hot dog has become a truly American dish. Although initially not sold in a bun as we know it today, one origin theory claims that in 1901, Harry M. Stevens ran out of the wax paper he was serving his frankfurters with and substituted a small roll instead.
This new invention would become a mainstay at baseball games and barbecues all across the country. Today, there are many different versions of the hot dog enjoyed by Americans across the country. Popular toppings include ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, and chili just to name a few.
A variety of meats have come to be used outside of the traditional beef and pork as well. In some regions, exotic meats such as alligator, elk, and rattlesnake have started to become more in demand.
An invention of the early 20th century, the Reuben Sandwich has become synonymous with the American delicatessen. The sandwich is made of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing served warm between two slices of rye bread.
While several people claim to be the originator, Arnold Reuben, the owner of Reuben’s Delicatessen in NYC, is reported to be the mastermind behind the sandwich’s creation.
One food journalist asserts that around the year 1914, famous broadway actress Marjorie Rambeau came to Reuben’s deli for a late-night meal but the cupboards were bare. Using what he had on hand, Mr. Reuben came up with his namesake sandwich on the spot, and thus a famous American dish was born.
Named after the city in which they were invented, Buffalo wings have become a must-have at backyard barbecues and tailgate parties since the 1960s. This New York dish is made by first deep-frying unbreaded chicken wings or drummettes and then coating them in a vinegar-based cayenne pepper hot sauce.
Often served with ranch or blue cheese to help reduce the spice level, at the time of their origin, chicken wings were not considered a desirable food and were often used in the making of stocks.
One theory of their invention involves Teresa Bellisimo, owner of Anchor Bar in the city of Buffalo, NY, who needed a quick snack for the late-night arrival of her son from college along with his friends. The wings were a hit and quickly spread across the country.
Biscuits and Gravy
Perhaps one of America’s oldest dishes, biscuits and gravy is a hearty, filling meal that’s adored by many, especially in the southern regions of the country. Soft flour biscuits are covered in a white gravy made from pork sausage drippings, flour, milk, pepper, and often bits of sausage or bacon.
With origins in the late 18th century, biscuits and gravy were a dish meant to sustain a worker facing a long day of physical labor in the American south. If you’re looking for breakfast to help you through a busy day, look no further than this southern classic.
Peanut Butter and Jelly
If you went to school in the US chances are that the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was a regular item in your lunch box. Known affectionately as the PB&J, the sandwich has been a part of American culture since at least 1901. Consisting of two pieces of bread, often white or wheat, peanut butter is spread on one side of the bread and fruit jelly on the other before being combined.
The sandwich is enjoyed so much in the United States that April 2nd has been designated as National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day.
A sandwich so popular that it’s known by its initials, the BLT consists of bacon, lettuce, and tomato that’s placed between two slices of toasted bread. Often a sauce such as mayonnaise is added for additional flavor.
Originally suggested as a recipe in an American cookbook in 1903, the BLT skyrocketed in popularity post-World War II when ingredients started to become available year-round. Popular variations on the sandwich include the addition of avocado and even turkey, turning it into another well-known American sandwich, the club.
Mac and Cheese
Short for macaroni and cheese, this dish has origins all the way back to the 18th century and even involves a former President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Popular in Europe since the release of the recipe in an English cookbook in 1769, Thomas Jefferson tasted the dish while abroad and became obsessed with bringing it back to the States.
He imported macaroni pasta and parmesan cheese for his personal use and even served the dish to guests at a state dinner in 1802. It would take time for the dish to catch on, but in 1824, the first macaroni and cheese recipe appeared in an American cookbook and there was no looking back.
While there are a variety of preparations, the most common ingredients include macaroni pasta, a cheese sauce usually made of cheddar, and breadcrumbs that are baked together until melted and golden brown.
Barbecue is an essential part of American cuisine and one dish that the country’s eaters adore is barbecued ribs. Often using pork and beef, barbecue restaurants across the country, especially in the American south, have turned this cooking preparation into an art form. Pitmasters will often spend many hours preparing their ribs to ensure the meat is tender and falls off the bone.
Every region has its own special way of preparing this staple of American barbecue. Memphis, Tennessee is known for its dry rub that includes a mixture of garlic, onion, and paprika. Kansas City, Missouri barbecuers prefer a molasses and tomato-based sauce that provides sweetness and acidity.
St. Louis, Missouri pitmasters will often smoke their ribs using cherry and applewood leading to enhanced flavor before topping them with a tomato-based barbecue sauce. Everyone will tell you their particular style is the best but the real winners are all of us who get to enjoy the delicious food that is barbecued ribs.
A favorite in the northeast regions of the country, lobster rolls are an indulgent sandwich native to New England. Melted butter, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper are added to lobster meat and served on a grilled bun. Originating in 1929 at a Connecticut restaurant called Perry’s, the New England staple was served warm but came to include a cold preparation.
Although the lobster roll is hugely popular in the northeast, and especially in Maine, the sandwich does not yet seem to have spread in popularity to the rest of the United States.
Chocolate Chip Cookie
One of the most popular desserts in the United States, the chocolate chip cookie was invented in 1938 by Ruth Graves Wakefield, the owner of the famous Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. Mrs. Wakefield was trying to come up with a new cookie for her customers when she had the idea to chop up a Nestle chocolate bar and add it to the dough.
The resulting cookie would change the baking world and has become a mainstay in the American diet. Traditionally the sweet treat is made with a dough of flour, butter, brown and white sugar, eggs, vanilla, and semi-sweet chocolate chips. Popular versions include the addition of nuts or oatmeal for more texture.
A dish so embedded in the fabric of American culture, this beloved dessert has been called an unofficial symbol of the country and even spawned the popular phrase, “as American as apple pie,” showing just how much it has become a part of the national identity. Interestingly, both apple pie and the fruit we enjoy today do not have origins in the US
The first recorded recipe for the dessert was written in 1381 in England and the apples we commonly consume came from cuttings of European trees. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the dish we know now as apple pie was brought to the US by English and Dutch settlers and became hugely popular.
Today, the iconic dessert is usually prepared by filling a pie crust with a mixture of chopped apples, nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon juice. It’s often covered by a pastry crust and then baked and served warm, often with whipped cream or ice cream as an accompaniment.
Yes, American cuisine is the fascinating result of a country with a rich history of diversity in cultures and ingredients that has led to an endlessly fascinating food scene. You could be forgiven for getting lost in a single region or even state on your next trip but that just means you have an excuse to visit again to see just what every corner of the beautiful country has to offer.