American cuisine is an amalgamation of food from different cultures, with strong influences from the British Isles, southern Italy, West Africa, France, Germany, Mexico, and China, and from Native American ingredients and techniques. Almost every kind of food in the world can be found in the United States, and most have been adapted into forms that may be barely recognizable in the country of origin.
American cuisine has a lot in common with its people: it's a "melting pot" of almost everything imaginable, and while restaurants that serve American cuisine have a lot in common (usually televisions for sports around the building, a sizeable bar, large eating areas, etc.), there are many restaurants in the United States that do not serve American cuisine, making those that do serve the cuisine almost a minority.
Another distinctive factor of American cuisine is that many immigrant cuisines are not only present in the US, but, due to the often ghettoized nature of immigrant communities, they can be more "authentic" in line with food in the "old country" than in some places, as they have to cater less to the general population. To give just one example, Turkish food in Germany is usually heavily "Germanized" even though Germans of Turkish ancestry are one of the largest minority groups. In contrast, it is entirely possible to find authentic Ethiopian or Tamil food in America's larger cities.
However, there are two very striking examples of "Americanizations" that might seem bizarre to those familiar with the original cuisine behind it. The American interpretation of Italian cuisine is influenced by the large proportion of 19th-century Italian immigrants coming from the (poorer) southern parts of Italy, which is culturally and culinarily distinct from northern Italy. The prevalence of meatballs, which is stereotypical of American Italian cuisine, is rarely found in any part of Italy.
Another even more absurd story is "Hunan cuisine", which many American Chinese restaurants advertise, but barely any serve. The story goes that during the famous visit of Nixon to China chairman Mao (who was born in Hunan to wealthy farmers) would always reply "from Hunan" when Nixon asked him where a dish he particularly liked originated. This was almost certainly due to Mao's local patriotism and the fact that nobody of the Chinese present dared contradict him (and the Americans didn't know any better), but upon returning Nixon would praise Hunan cuisine, which is why many Chinese restaurants started advertising it, despite them actually serving vastly different styles of Chinese cuisine.
Traditionally, most Americans have eaten three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with perhaps a mid-afternoon snack for children. In the last few decades, more people have started "grazing", or eating small snacks throughout the day, so that eating is informal, often solitary, and done quickly between other activities.
Many restaurants aren't open for breakfast, and some Americans routinely skip breakfast. Those that are serve eggs, toast, pancakes, waffles, hot and cold cereals, sausages, coffee, etc. Most restaurants stop serving breakfast between 10 and 11AM, but some, especially diners, offer an "all-day breakfast" menu alongside their lunch and dinner menus.
Eggs are popular, and are most often seen in two basic versions: "eggs with" and "eggs in". Eggs with potatoes are usually seen in diners or roadside restaurants, and eggs in some kind of bread are usually seen in fast-food or take-away places. In the first category, the eggs with potatoes can usually be had fried, scrambled, poached, or as an omelet, and the potatoes will usually be the regional interpretation of hash browns. You'll be able to choose whether you want to add meat (often bacon, sausage, hot ham, and sometimes a beef steak). In the second category, an egg may be fried and in an English muffin, a bagel, or a croissant, or scrambled and inside a taco or burrito.
As an alternative to a restaurant breakfast, you can grab breakfast food such as doughnuts, muffins, fruits, coffee, and packaged drinks at almost any gas station, coffee shop, or convenience store.
Continental breakfast is a term primarily used by hotels and motels to describe a cold breakfast. In a small hotel offering a free breakfast, the continental breakfast might be as limited as a box of doughnuts and a pot of coffee, but it more commonly includes cold cereal, breads, muffins, fruit, yogurt, etc. Milk, fruit juices, coffee and tea are the typical beverages. There is usually a toaster and often also a waffle iron. This is a quick and cheap way for hotels to serve breakfast.
Many restaurants serve Sunday brunch, served morning through early afternoon (and sometimes on Saturdays), with both breakfast and lunch items. There is often a buffet, or you might order from a menu. Sunday brunch is the stereotypical family event for Mother's Day in May, and restaurants open for brunch that morning will be crowded.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food, and it's a common way for hotels to handle breakfast. For a single price, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. However, since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can be poorer than what you would normally be served at a restaurant. Usually, buffets are self-serve, but some items, such as a large piece of roasted meat or a made-to-order omelet station, might have a staff person to serve you. If you go back for a second helping of something, you are expected to get a clean plate every time.
If you are staying at someone's home, then most Americans eat some kind of toast or cereal for breakfast at home, or perhaps you will be offered eggs, fruit, or yogurt.
Lunch can be a good way to get food from a restaurant whose dinners are out of your price range. Lunch prices are typically cheaper, and can be as little as half the price of the dinner menu. Lunch is most often eaten around 12; it's uncommon to eat as late as 2 in much of the country, with some exceptions, including the New York City area.
Common lunch options include fast-food restaurants, sandwich shops, ethnic specialty restaurants (e.g., Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Thai), hamburgers, and pizza.
Lunch buffets usually serve American or Chinese food, but other cuisines, such as Indian, are sometimes served this way. Salad bars, baked potato bars, and taco bars are specific versions of buffets, geared towards building your ideal salad, flavored potato, or taco dish.
Dinner is the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 9PM, although it can be much earlier in the day on Sundays and holidays. Making reservations is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, upscale, or you are dining in a large group.
Restaurants that serve American cuisine will usually serve at least one pasta dish (macaroni and spaghetti are common); some steaks and similar meat dishes that are served with vegetables and/or french fries; and maybe some salads or vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items.
- Corn – often enjoyed by itself with dishes like corn on the cob, or as an ingredient in larger dishes. Very commonly grilled at summer cookouts and county or state fairs.
- Potato – widely used from French fries to hashbrowns (shredded and fried) to mashed potatoes to potato salad to baked potatoes
- Green beans (string beans) – often accompany corn, popular in Southern dishes. Also a common diner side.
- Peas - Often used in split pea soup or as a side to meat.
- Broccoli - Often served as a side to meat, in Italian-American cuisine, or as part of a soup.
- Cucumber – Often enjoyed as pickles, or as an ingredient in wraps or salads.
- Cabbage - Often used in coleslaw and German-American dishes
- Lettuce and spinach are often used in salads, wraps, and sandwiches. A bit of lettuce is often used to give hamburgers a little crunch.
- Carrots – widely used to accompany beef, also often part of "mixed vegetables" sides, which may include broccoli or cauliflower
- Sweet potatoes, often called "yams" and frequently candied (glazed with syrup) but also often baked or made into sweet potato fries
- Beets - Often used as part of a salad, or as part of a health conscious smoothie.
- Kale - Often used for salad and in various kinds of dishes
- Collard greens - A staple of soul food and Southern food, frequently served with ham
Grain & nuts
- Wheat – used in bread and beer.
- Rice – used in Southern and Tex-Mex cuisines, among others.
- Peanuts – enjoyed by themselves, or as peanut butter. Some restaurants and bars serve peanuts for free as part of a meal.
- Pistachio – California is known for its pistachios.
- Pecans - Used along with molasses, brown sugar or caramel and sometimes bourbon in a widely available classic American (and particularly Southern) pie
- Apples – one of the most popular fruits. "As American as apple pie" is a popular saying.
- Oranges – Florida is known for its oranges.
- Peach – Georgia is known for its peaches.
- Cherries – Widely grown, Michigan is known for its cherries.
- Grapes - Common and appreciated in purple, green and red varieties, these are common at buffets and also at homes. Artificial grape flavor is more commonly used than in Europe.
- Strawberries – mostly grown in California, with peak season from May to July.
- Lemon - More commonly used as a garnish for cocktails in the U.S. than limes, in tea, and in lemon meringue pie and other desserts
- Lime - The crucial ingredient in Key lime pie
- Pineapple - grown in Hawaii and one of the first tropical fruits to be widely imported in cans
- Watermelon - Very common and greatly enjoyed in the summer, a staple of cookouts
- Tomatoes – widely used, especially in Italian American dishes and salads.
- Squash and pumpkins are widely used in the fall.
- Avocado – often used in Tex-Mex and California food, either by itself or as guacamole.
- Beef – part of the origin of the cowboy is linked to the early cattle industry.
- Pork – pig meat is widely used, particularly in bacon and ham.
- Chicken – fried chicken is very popular.
- Turkey – not as popular as other meats, its widely enjoyed during Thanksgiving, and to a lesser extent Christmas and widely used sliced in sandwiches.
- Seafood – particularly in New England, the Gulf Coast, the West Coast and Maryland. Lobsters, cod and scrod are part of the identity of New England, blue crabs for the Chesapeake Bay area centered around Maryland, Gulf shrimps and crawfish in and around Louisiana, catfish throughout the South, salmon and halibut in the Pacific Northwest including Alaska, mahi mahi in Hawaii, and a wide variety of fish and seafood in California. Freshwater fish is popular in the Great Lakes region.
- Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are a fruit native to America. They spoil quickly, but are enjoyed by the few areas that cultivate them.
- Okra is occasionally used in southern cuisine.
- See also: Tex-Mex
Grits are a common side in restaurants in the South, especially for brunch or lunch. Grits are made from ground corn that is served steaming from being boiled, usually with plenty of butter added and sometimes other ingredients. They are very tasty and well worth ordering if you are in the South.
Pimiento cheese is a popular cheese spread for sandwiches or crackers in the south.
Barbecue is a much-beloved regional food. It is available in several styles:
- Carolina barbecue is typically made with pork.
- North Carolina barbecue is typically made with a whole hog (Eastern North Carolina) or pork shoulder (Western North Carolina). Lexington is famous as a center of Western North Carolina barbecue and has a 1-day barbecue festival every October. North Carolina barbecue uses a sauce of vinegar and spices.
- South Carolina barbecue uses a mustard- and vinegar-based yellow sauce.
- Kansas City barbecue uses several kinds of meats you can choose from, including beef, pork, lamb and sausage. The meat is dry rubbed, with sauce added to taste at the table.
- Memphis barbecue is typically pulled pork served on a bun with sweet, thick barbecue sauce, accompanied by cole slaw.
- Texas has several types of barbecue.
Cajun cuisine is popular in Louisiana and is known for its use of seasoning and typically quite spicy. Includes staples such as po' boys (big sandwiches), gumbo and jambalaya.
Cincinatti is well known for its unique take on chili, which often involves spreading chili and cheese on spaghetti or hot dogs. Cincinatti is also known for its Goetta sausage.
Cheesesteaks are popular in Philadelphia.
Clam Chowder is a popular dish in New England.
Buffalo Wings are chicken wings smothered in spicy sauce. They started in Western New York, but now enjoy nationwide popularity.
Wisconsin is known for its cheese, and fried cheese curds and other dairy products are very popular there.
Buckeyes are a treat made in Ohio where a peanut butter core is surrounded by chocolate.
Key lime pie is enjoyed widely, but originates from Florida.
Fried chicken, although widely available everywhere, is generally regarded as a specialty of the South.
The quintessential quirk of American cuisine – so much so that some fast food restaurants of American extraction even do it outside the US – is the "free refill". Fountain sodas and most soft drinks are often offered with free refills in some parts of the country. However, bottled and alcoholic drinks usually are not offered with free refills and some restaurants in the Northeast do not offer any free refills (the most common exception being for coffee), the phenomenon being a more regional one. If refills are free, this will normally be noted next to the price on the menu.
A glass of water is almost always free, regardless of the type of restaurant. At restaurants with table service, it is quite common for the server to bring a pitcher of tap water (usually with copious amounts of ice, and sometimes with a slice of lemon) for free even before you order, and for it to be replaced with a new one when it even appears it might near emptiness. At other restaurants, including fast food places, just ask for "a cup of water" when you place your order. But beware if you are asked for "still or sparkling water" when you are seated, because you will be charged for either one and need to specifically ask for "tap water" in that situation unless you want to pay for your water.
If there's a drought in a particular part of the United States, they will sometimes make a temporary local law against providing the free glasses of water – unless you ask for water. They hope that by only providing glasses of water when you ask for it, that they'll save water by reducing the number of cups that need to be washed.
You'll still get charged for bottled water and fizzy water, if either of these are available at that restaurant.
If you're thirsty between meals, there are often many water fountains in major cities. Look for these near the restrooms in any large store or transit center, as well as in parks, government buildings, and other public places.
Restaurants that sell fountain drinks are either "Pepsi" or "Coca-Cola" places. They buy all of their soft drinks from one company or the other. As a result, you'll find Pepsi at Pizza Hut, but never Coca-Cola, and the reverse is true for McDonald's. Each company offers a similar set of options, including indistinguishable lemon–line sodas (7-up and Sprite).
Although the soft drink market is dominated by various versions of Coca-Cola, with Pepsi as the distant, sweeter-tasting runner-up brand, there are some less common cola drinks, such as Dr Pepper, and a few old-fashioned options, notably root beer (which is non-alcoholic), that can be found in most of the country. There are also regional options worth trying, from Moxie in Maine, to Cheerwine in North Carolina, to the Big Red drinks in the Southwest. Especially in the South, "coke" is often used as a generic name for any kind of cola drink, so if someone asks you if you want a coke, it's okay to answer "I'd love to try an RC Cola, if you've got it."
Most Americans don't drink alcoholic beverages every day. A third of them drink no alcohol at all, and only one out of six adults in the US averages even one alcoholic drink each day. However, the ones who drink a lot really do drink a lot, and there is a thriving industry that caters to them.
The drinking age in America is 21, and if you look young you may be "carded" or asked for ID to prove your age (it's also pretty common for bars, especially on peak nights, to card everyone). Don't be surprised if a foreign ID is treated with suspicion or outright rejected, as youth often use fake IDs from out of state to try and hide flaws in a forgery. If your real ID is confiscated by a bouncer, contact the local police.
If you are traveling for work, unless you work in a related industry, don't expect to encounter alcoholic beverages during the workday. Drinking beer or wine is uncommon before the evening, even if your team goes out to a nice restaurant for lunch.
In college towns, alcohol tends to be very popular, especially on "Thirsty" Thursday and Friday nights.
American beer culture was strongly influenced by 19th century European, particularly German, immigrants but took a hard hit during prohibition. Prohibition also gave rise to cocktails as higher proof alcohol was easier to smuggle and the mixers helped mask any unpleasant taste of sub-par illicit spirits.
American alcohol comes in a number of varieties.
- Beer – A few low-quality domestic brands dominate the beer scene, although craft beer companies have surged in popularity since the mid 2000's. Beer in general and mass market beer in particular is seen as a blue collar drink, but "craft beers" are often seen as the domain of hipsters urbanites and snobs
- Wine – California wine, especially from the Napa Valley and its neighbor, the Sonoma Valley, is widely enjoyed. Some other regions, such as New Jersey, are known for their fruit wines (wines made from fruit other than grapes). By contrast with Europe, class tends to be a better predictor of wine consumption than geographical region. Wine is frequently drunk in regions not known for growing it and frequently abstained from in traditional wine regions.
- Whiskey – Whiskey is fairly popular, especially in Kentucky which is known for its bourbon. Tennessee whiskey is also fairly well known.
- Hard cider – Once used by pioneers to ward off disease, cider fell by the wayside during Prohibition. Since the 2010's, cider has been regaining popularity in the Midwest and Great Lakes region. In the U.S., only "hard cider" is alcoholic. Other drinks labeled as "cider" are what Europeans would refer to as "cloudy apple juice".
- Rum – The area along the Gulf of Mexico is known for its rum.
- Moonshine – A relic of the prohibition era, moonshine became legal in 2010. Moonshine is a spirit that is easy to produce, and popular in rural areas. Moonshine is often served in a mason jar.
Fast food has spread around the world, largely through McDonald's, and while it has a poor reputation, that does not mean that it is not worth getting fast food while you are in the United States. Fast food is, basically, American cuisine modified so it can be cooked and served very quickly.
- See also: Pizza in the United States and Canada
Pizza, like pasta, is Italian, but it has become a standard part of American cuisine, particularly as a fast food option partly because it is easy to deliver. There are some restaurant chains throughout the United States that serve primarily pizza, and many restaurants that are not part of chains (especially Italian ones) will have some sort of pizza option on their menu.
American Chinese food
Chinese food in America tends to be quite distinct from food actually served in China. Chinese restaurants are known for often being open during holidays, and for allowing takeout and delivery. General Tso's Chicken, Fried Cream Cheese Wontons, Lo Mein Noodles, Chop Suey, Dumplings (Often referred to as potstickers), egg rolls, and other dishes are well known. Many Chinese restaurants in America offer fortune cookies with each meal.
Native American restaurants are very rare in America, but their food is delicious and nutritious. Local Pow Wows may offer a chance at trying native food, even if there are no local restaurants. Many dishes use ingredients from the Three Sisters, squash, corn, and beans. Frybread and succotash are two fairly well known dishes. Around reservations, there may be a better chance of finding Native American food, but still Native American food is not always easy to find.
On the Navajo Reservation, alcoholic drinks are not permitted.
Diners in the Northeast are very often run by Greek-Americans, so if there are Greek items on the menu, they are often good choices.
Snack food is common, especially among people who feel too busy to stop for a regular meal. The candy bar was adopted enthusiastically by Americans, with the idea that it could be eaten in the hand, while walking down the street, instead of your next meal. Trendy large offices often supply snack foods to workers, so if you're traveling for work, you may encounter not just a coffee pot at the end of a hallway, but a kitchen stocked with snacks such as nuts, popcorn, apples, and bottled non-alcoholic drinks. You might also encounter a box of doughnuts or bagels at your first meeting of the day, and then find people bringing a quick snack to any of the later ones.
Modern snacks tend to run less towards honest candy and more towards either fashionably healthy foods or towards outright junk food. Potato chips are available in every size bag from "individual" through "feeds a troop of teenagers". The sheer variety of crackers will astound people from countries where this isn't a common food. Multiple types of granola bars, usually made with oats or other grains, and usually available in at least chocolate chip, fudge, and peanut butter flavors, are meant to give you something like the convenience of a candy bar, but with more fiber and salt. Skip the "fruit snacks", which are marketed towards kids; they are made with a little bit of fruit juice, but they sometimes have more sugar and less protein than gummi bears. Nuts, fruit, cheese, and vegetables are also common snacks.