Fall is by far my favorite season, not least of all because of the food. Hearty soups and chili, cozy casseroles, pumpkin everything—you know the drill. The other weekend it was 75 and sunny in Paris but I made a big batch of pumpkin chili anyway because it’s supposed to be October.
As I thought about my favorite fall foods, it made me wonder:
What exactly is "traditional" American food?
Right up there with "what do you miss most about the U.S.?" this is one of the more frequent questions I get living abroad.
I still remember the first time a friend asked me this question back in my Montpellier days. We were on a ski trip so we were, naturally, eating all the typical Savoyard dishes ending in -ette. Raclette, tartiflette, and croziflette are the stars of ski season cuisine, with melted cheese as the common theme.
As we sat there à table, talking about food (is there anything French people love more?), the focus of the conversation suddenly turned to me. Qu'est-ce que vous mangez aux États-Unis? C'est quoi le plat typique?
For a minute I drew a blank. What do we eat in Minnesota or even the U.S. that could be considered typical or traditional? For some reason, my mom's spaghetti and meatballs came to mind first. Then I started to think about the other foods I grew up eating in Minnesota: hamburger hot dish (you betcha) in the winter, lefse at Christmas and fried fish in the summer.
As I tried to think of an answer to this question, one that could sum up "American" food as neatly as the famous French classics, I couldn't.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the answer seems to be there is no real answer to this question. The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures and our somewhat eclectic cuisine is a reflection of that mix. We have traditions when it comes to food, sure, but they are newer and seemingly more flexible than the storied cuisines of the old countries in Europe.
I remember making a crustless “quiche” (basically an egg bake) in an oval baking dish, rather than a round tart pan. To me, it was just an egg bake, made with whatever ingredients I had on hand. To my French friends, it was impossible - a quiche without a crust, and in the wrong pan!
Compared to French cooking which follows a set of very specific rules, American food seems to be more casual, inventive and open to interpretation, with more fusion and street food influence.
On the other hand, the ingredient base is limited compared to what you'll find in France. In the U.S., at least in the Midwest, it's pretty much chicken or beef for protein; potatoes and carrots for vegetables. That is, of course, oversimplifying it, but I've lived in France for over two years now and I'm still finding vegetables at the market I can't identify. It becomes a game: me vs. the French vegetable market. To play, just buy the weirdest-looking vegetable you can find and figure out what to make with it!
Finally, American desserts are satisfying and uncomplicated compared to the elaborate pastries you see here. Brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and banana bread are all one-bowl recipes, nearly impossible to screw up.