The United States is a melting pot of cultures, with people coming from all over the world throughout its history. Upon their arrival, we celebrate their languages, traditions, and, of course, food. You might be surprised at how many of your favorite “ethnic” dishes are actually made in America.
General Tso’s Chicken
You’ll find General Tso’s on most Chinese menus in the U.S. The battered and fried dark meat chicken, covered in a sweet sauce on top of broccoli and rice, was named after a historically famous Chinese military general and was created by a Chinese chef. Peng Chang-kuei created the sensation in 1973 in the Big Apple; however, when he tried to take it back to China, it failed miserably, being too sweet for their taste.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Spaghetti is definitely Italian, and polpette (meatballs) are also Italian. However, the combination of the two is very American. The popular dish was created by Italian Americans in New York. Italians generally serve their pasta and meat dishes as separate courses.
Macaroni and Cheese
The version of macaroni and cheese we love so much today was brought to us by Thomas Jefferson after a trip to Europe. It’s said he was so infatuated by French pasta dishes that he brought back the idea and a pasta maker to the colonies. Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph included a recipe for “macaroni and cheese” in her 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife.
They may be your favorite thing to order with a margarita at your local Mexican restaurant, but this meal served on a hot metal platter sizzled to your plate from Texas. Fajitas were originally trail food cooked up by Texas chuckwagon chefs on cattle drives.
Reader’s Digest reports crab rangoon is one of America’s top 50 favorite foods. “This Polynesian-inspired appetizer can trace its roots back to the 1940s and the renowned Los Angeles tiki restaurant Trader Vic’s. Unlike the crab rangoon many of us order from American Chinese restaurants, Trader Vic’s dish was made with real crab meat and A.1. steak sauce in addition to cream cheese.”
Greek salad (also known as horiatiki salad), with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, kalamata olives, and red onion, is covered in feta cheese, which adds a richness that’s hard to beat. Though not Greek, the salad gained popularity among Greek diners in America.
Invented in Los Angeles, the sushi roll was introduced in the 1960s. A chef needed a replacement for tuna, so he used avocado and crab. He also turned the roll inside out, placing the white rice outside the nori to appeal to Americans who might not love the idea of eating seaweed.
Food and Wine Magazine tells multiple stories of the possible invention of chop suey; was it a Chinese ambassador trying to appease her American guests, a tired restaurant owner throwing together scraps for hungry miners, or something else? Perhaps we will never know, but what we do know is that it originated in the U.S.
It’s thought that the very popular version of garlic bread we enjoy today stems from its Italian cousin, bruschetta. Italian Americans created the one we find at the table next to the spaghetti and meatballs today. And we can thank Cole’s Quality Foods in Muskegon, Michigan, for inventing the frozen version in the 1970s.
German Chocolate Cake
If you ask someone from Germany where to get the best German chocolate cake, you’ll just be met with a sigh. German chocolate cake was invented in 1957 in Dallas, Texas, by Mrs. George Calay. A recipe for “German’s Chocolate Cake” appeared as the “Recipe of the Day” in The Dallas Morning News, which used the baking chocolate introduced in 1853 by American baker Samuel German for the Baker’s Chocolate Company.
Italian Salad Dressing
Italian dressing is ubiquitous in the U.S., but salad dressings, in the sense Americans think of them, aren’t a thing in Europe. Instead, Italians generally dress salads with oil and vinegar, or oil and lemon, and perhaps a bit of salt.
As the story goes, Monica Flin worked in Tucson, Arizona, and one day in 1922, she accidentally dropped a burrito into a vat of hot oil. Thinking she had made a mistake, she hurriedly pulled the burrito out of the frying liquid. In her frustration, she shouted “Chimichanga,” which is now the name of the delicious dish she accidentally created.
This original Cuban sandwich was made from a Spanish-style sausage called salchichón. In the mid-19th century, with the rise of communism, many Cubans began immigrating to Florida. When salchichón was nearly impossible to get in Florida, there were some improvisations made, giving us the Cuban sandwich we know and love today.
In 1894, a New York resident named Samuel Bath Thomas created a unique style of crumpet. Thomas’s mother was British, and during her life, she made a wonderful tea cake. After she was gone, Thomas missed his mother’s cooking. Searching for a way to make it in America, he stumbled upon this crumpet-like creation.
Chili con Carne
Many Mexican dishes combine chiles with meat, which is literally what “chili con carne” means. Chili, as we know it, comes from southern Texas. It may have been concocted first by trail cooks on cattle drives. Another theory is that it was devised in the state’s prison kitchens as an inexpensive, filling way to feed prisoners.
French Roast Coffee
Before the rise of specialty coffee shops in the U.S., American coffee drinkers traditionally preferred lighter roasts than European drinkers did. Dutch-American businessman Alfred Peet, founder of Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Berkeley, California, in 1966, was a pioneer in sourcing and roasting high-quality coffee beans in America. With the European model in mind, he developed a dark roast with reduced acidity and a hint of burnt character, which he called “French roast.”
Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream
In the 1920s, at the age of 10, Polish Jewish immigrant Reuben Mattus started helping an uncle who sold Italian ice in Brooklyn. Years later, in 1960, as head of the company, Mattus decided to produce a line of premium ice creams. He wanted to give it a Danish-sounding name, possibly as a tribute to the Danish Resistance heroes who saved most of their country’s Jewish people during World War II.
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