Like many countries, America has a long, long history. And with that history comes lots of food! People tend to associate American food with hot dogs and burgers, and there’s plenty more where that came from! Here are the Top 10 Foods That Built America.
10. Buffalo Chicken Wings
While deep-fried chicken wings have been a staple of Southern cooking for as long as we can remember, they weren’t always the hot, peppery kind. The person who thought that one up was none other than Teressa Bellissimo, a co-owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. Legend has it that one night, Teressa cooked leftover wings in hot sauce as a late-night snack for her son and his friends. They loved them so much that the Bellisimos put them on the menu the next day. This brand new dish was served with celery slices and blue cheese sauce, and soon enough, people far and wide wanted a taste of these Buffalo Wings. Eventually, Dick Winger, a hot sauce salesman, went on the road with Teressa’s son, Dominic. They were trying to promote Buffalo Wings and sell hot sauce, and the recipe gained more and more popularity. The Buffalo wings status was cemented in 1990 when McDonald’s began selling its Mighty Wings. A year later, KFC was rolling out Hot Wings, and a few years after that, it was Domino Pizza’s turn. McDonald’s was back in the wing business in 2013, and its Mighty Wings were featured nationwide at most restaurants through the first quarter of 2014. Say what you will about Buffalo Chicken Wings, but they are hot hot hot! And it seems as though everyone wants a piece of them!
9. Tater Tots
Everyone knows these nuggets of potato-y goodness, but where did they come from? Well, the origin story for this cafeteria classic began in the early 1950s. Two brothers, Nephi and Golden Griggs had been working on their family’s farm. While they’d made their money selling corn and potatoes, the brothers decided to take a risk and break into the frozen food industry. They mortgaged their land to buy a flash-freezing plant. The factory, which was located on the border of Oregon and Idaho, was the inspiration for the name of this new company – Ore-Ida. There was big money to be made in quick-cooking french fries, and the brothers knew it. But, they soon encountered a problem: their machinery had trouble separating the nicely-cut fries from the weirdly-shaped defects. This meant that they were producing lots of irregularly shaped potatoes, which definitely couldn’t be sold as french fries. The brothers added a new mechanism to help sort and eliminate unwanted potato pieces, but that meant the brothers had plenty of unwanted potato pieces. What would they do with them? At first, they did what most farmers would do with scraps, they fed it to the livestock on their family farm. But the brothers wanted to know if there was something else they could do with their oddly-shaped potato scraps, something that would turn a profit. So, they smashed them together to form small, bite-sized nuggets, and the tater tot was born! So, the next time you have some of these delicious potato bits, remember the innovation of the brothers behind it!
8. Hot Dogs
Nothing quite says summer like having a good ol’ hot dog. Whether it’s at a picnic with your friends or family, or at a baseball game, a hot dog is just the thing to elevate the mood. But the thing about the hot dog is that we don’t really know where it came from. There are plenty of stories, though. One states that the name came from a newspaper cartoon illustrated by a man named Dorgan. As the legend goes, Dorgan observed a vendor selling the “hot dachshund sausages” during a game at the New York Polo Grounds and shouting, “Get your red-hot dachshund sausages!” Dorgan illustrated this scene with a dachshund dog nestled in a bun with the caption “get your hot dogs.” The thing is, no one has been able to find a copy of this cartoon. Was it lost to time, or did it even ever exist in the first place? Some people think that it was an inside joke between Dorgan and the vendor, but it was never confirmed. While that is one of the more popular versions of the story, the truth is that hot dogs can be traced to German immigrants in the 1800s! German immigrants brought not only the sausage to the U.S. with them in the late 1800s but also dachshund dogs. Hot dog historians say the name hot dog may have begun as a joke about the Germans’ small, long, thin dogs. While this food’s origin might be lost to time, we can all agree that hot dogs are delicious and an American staple!
7. Apple Pie
Nothing is quite as American as apple pie. Whether bought from the store, the local bakery, or made by granny, we can all agree that apple pie is the best way to warm up after a long, hard day. But while we all associate apple pie with America, did you know that it didn’t actually originate here? So, where did it come from? Well, the first written pie recipe traces back to England. It was written in 1381, and it included apples, figs, raisins, pears, and a pastry shell. On top of that, there’s evidence that apple pie wasn’t just invented there, but some form of it exists all over Europe. For example, evidence of Dutch apple pies goes back to the 1600s. For those of you wondering, Dutch pies include lemon and cinnamon and sometimes raisins and icing. The French also invented Tarte Tatin, which was created by accident when a hotel owner by the name of Stephanie Tatin was trying to make traditional apple pie in the 1880s. So, while we’ve all heard the phrase “as American as apple pie,” that might not actually be true. But, because America is where so many cultures come together, we’re not surprised that apple pie ended up a U.S. treasure, even if it was invented somewhere else.
6. Barbecue Ribs
Barbecued ribs are an early 20th-century innovation driven by the rise of industrial meatpacking, mechanical refrigeration, and commercial barbecue stands. Before mechanical refrigeration and railroad transport, people didn’t eat meat year-round because there was no way to keep it from spoiling. Farmers had to wait until the first cold winter weeks to slaughter their pigs; it needed to be cold enough—below 40°F—for the carcass to cool quickly and not spoil, but also not so cold that the meat would freeze. The hog slaughter entailed a huge celebration, and almost every part of the animal was put to use: the blood, which was reserved for puddings, and the fat, which was rendered into lard in giant kettles. Smaller scraps of meat and fat were ground into sausages, and the heads and feet were boiled to make “souse meat” or rendered into a thick, savory stew – hash and rice, South Carolina’s traditional barbecue side dish. Friends and neighbors were invited over, and they would dine into the night. As technology advanced, people got more access to ribs, and industrial pork packing rose in the early 19th century. The only issue was that the pig’s spareribs didn’t fit into the barrels, which meant these factories had plenty of unwanted spareribs. It was said that during the hog slaughter season, you could go to a slaughterhouse and receive free spare ribs. But, as refrigeration became more commonplace, people were able to have spare ribs year-long, which meant that they had more time to experiment with recipes. In the early 20th century, barbecued ribs started popping up all over the country, and the rest is history!
5. Reuben Sandwich
The Reuben sandwich is a grilled American sandwich made up of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. Whether you’re making it at home or shoveling it down during your lunch break, it’s easy to see why these things are classics. But, like many other foods on this list, the Reuben Sandwich has a few origin stories. One of these stories is told by the Kulakofsky family. Legend says that the sandwich was invented by none other than Reuben Kulakofsky, a Jewish Lithuanian-born grocer residing in Omaha, Nebraska. One day, at his weekly poker game, held in the Blackstone Hotel, Reuben asked for a sandwich made of corned beef and sauerkraut. A chef named Schimmel made it for him, adding swiss cheese and thousand islands dressing to his order, putting the whole thing on rye bread. After realizing that it was a good combination, Schimmel put it on the Blackstone’s lunch menu, and its fame spread when a former employee of the hotel won the national sandwich idea contest with the recipe. Another story states that it wasn’t Reuben Kulakofsky who invented the sandwich, but rather Arnold Reuben, a German-Jewish restaurant owner. He lived in New York City, and according to stories, Reuben created the “Reuben Special” around 1914. There’s plenty of other stories, but the fact remains that once a type of food gets popular, everyone wants to claim its invention. Whatever the truth, the Reuben Sandwich remains a classic for a reason.
4. Biscuits and Gravy
Who doesn’t love a hot plate of biscuits and gravy? The flaky, buttery biscuits, paired with the decadent gravy are truly a match made in heaven. Wherever you go – diners, cafes, fast-food outlets – you can find some variation on this dish. This meal is enjoyed by everyone who’s had the pleasure of tasting it, and while now it’s considered a classic, it wasn’t always like that. Biscuits and gravy were invented in Southern Appalachia in the late 1800s. Because lumber was one of the main industries, the recipe was ideal for cheap, calorie-dense fuel to keep the workers energy and spirits up. The biscuits used were called “beaten biscuits,” and they got their leavening and smooth texture from being vigorously beaten and folded. These biscuits eventually became too much effort to make, so in 1877, a machine was invented to make them instead. This machine single-handedly saved beaten biscuits from extinction and made them smoother, prettier, and even more popular than before. A few years later, baking powder and baking soda became commercially available, with increased availability of flour, which meant that the biscuits underwent yet another freshen-up. At this point, people were able to make a pretty good biscuit. So why is it always paired with gravy? Gravy is made from sausage, pan drippings, flour, and milk, many of the things that were available after the American Revolutionary War. Biscuits and gravy have been linked ever since, and we couldn’t be happier.
Ah, meatloaf. Whether it’s prepared by your mom, or you get it from a random diner, who doesn’t love a good loaf of meat? But where did it all begin? The first recorded recipe for meatloaf as we know it is from the late 1870s. The book instructed the cook to finely chop “whatever cold meat you have.” That meat would’ve likely been beef because people often slaughtered their cows before winter and tried to take full advantage of every last bit of meat. The meatloaf provided a great way to make use of those leftover cuts. On top of the cold meat, they added pepper, salt, onion, slices of milk-soaked bread, and egg. If you’ve ever made meatloaf, you might be shocked to see that the recipe has managed to stay virtually the same for centuries. But there is one difference: back then, meatloaf wasn’t for dinner. It was for breakfast. Once industrial-scale meatpacking took off, meatloaf was elevated to a whole new level. This is because meatpacking created plenty of scraps, which is precisely what you need for a meatloaf. During the Great Depression, meatloaf became a staple of many American’s diets because it helped home cooks extend precious protein farther than it might otherwise go. Since then, it has stayed as an American staple, and it will continue to be so for centuries to come.
Grits is another classic, and it’s been a staple for centuries. It was first introduced by Native Americans in the 16th century, who were already eating soft, mashed corn. This recipe was first introduced to European colonizers in 1584. One evening in North Carolina, Sir Walter Raleigh and his men dined with local Native Americans, and one of the men wrote of the “very white, fair, and well tasted” boiled corn that was served to them. That dish was called ‘rockahomine’ by the Native Americans, which was then shortened to ‘hominy’ by the colonizers. This dish was then offered to settlers in Virginia, and they liked it so much that the Native Americans taught them how to make the dish! Once they learned, it quickly became a part of the American diet. Grits grew in popularity, and within a few years, it became a tradition for nearly every Southern state, especially South Carolina. Due to its proximity to the sea, grits became a simple breakfast for the fishermen, who liked to add shrimp to it. Grits are made using stone-ground corn or hominy, boiled and mixed with butter and milk, and often served with shrimp. That being said, there are plenty of other variations that are just as good!
Last but certainly not least is the hamburger. Truly, nothing could be more American than a well-made burger. And the best part? There are plenty of options! Traditional, gourmet, fast food, sliders, with bacon, with green chili… the list of variations and toppings are infinite! And there are plenty of places that are willing to serve this dish, whether it be McDonald’s, a fancy dining room, or your local diner. The hamburger first appeared in the late 19th century, and the modern hamburger emerged due to a few things. During industrialization, society was changing rapidly. Both the middle and working-class emerged, which resulted in the demand for mass-produced, affordable food that could be grabbed on the go. There is considerable evidence saying either the USA or Germany (specifically Hamburg) was the first country to create the hamburger. At the end of the day, does it truly matter where it came from? What matters is where it’s going, which is into the mouths of thousands of people every single day, and that, our dear audience, is where the hamburger thrives.