Do Americans prefer hand-held foods?

by on January 3, 2014 at 7:00 am in Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Abigail Carroll opines:

Are there any dishes or foods that you would classify as typically, or even exclusively, “American?”

A number of iconic foods—hot dogs and hamburgers, snack food—are hand-held. They’re novelties associated with entertainment. These are the kinds of food you eat at the ballpark, buy at a fair and eventually eat in your home. I think that there is a pattern there of iconic foods being quick and hand-held that speaks to the pace of American life, and also speaks to freedom. You’re free from the injunctions of Victorian manners and having to eat with a fork and knife and hold them properly, sit at the table and sit up straight and have your napkin properly placed. These foods shirk all that. There’s a sense of independence and a celebration of childhood in some of those foods, and we value that informality, the freedom and the fun that is associated with them.

The interview is in general interesting on the history of American food.  I have just ordered her new book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.

Steve Sailer January 3, 2014 at 7:02 am

Lots of extremely American foods were invented for and popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, especially for visitors to eat while strolling. German-Americans tended to be a little better cooks than Anglo-Americans, while still understanding what Anglo-Americans liked.

prior_approval January 3, 2014 at 7:37 am

So, Bratwurst (in southern Germany, traditionally, the bratwurst is eaten with fingers, and not in the Brötchen) and Döners are American?

Just like poutine or tacos, to name a couple of finger foods from the north and south of the U.S.?

Or French fries, the Belgium delicacy from the late 1600s (or from France, probably later, of from Spain, possibly earlier).

The idea that finger food is particularly American would seem to be a bit strange to be left uncommented without criticism from a noted reviewer of various food styles – it isn’t as if the 80s and later craze for Ethiopian food in the DC region was based on using a fork and knife eating food with a centuries long history. Especially as that tradition was never, in any sense, subjected to this – ‘You’re free from the injunctions of Victorian manners and having to eat with a fork and knife and hold them properly, sit at the table and sit up straight and have your napkin properly placed.’

Nylund January 3, 2014 at 8:24 am

Who eats poutine with their hands? Sure, maybe the first couple fries, but it pretty quickly becomes a soggy mess of fries, gravy, and cheese requiring a fork.

But I think you’re missing the bigger point. Yes, many cultures (if not all) have hand-held street food, but it does seem especially American to eat such handheld foods at the dining room table.

Urso January 3, 2014 at 9:56 am

I think you’re missing the bigger point, which is that America should never get any credit for anything, and Germany does everything better.

JWatts January 3, 2014 at 9:59 am

Don’t feed the troll finger foods. ;)

Sigivald January 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm

I think the thesis, if one reads the excerpt more carefully, is only that many of the iconically American foods are hand-held, rather than any comparison to the rest of the world; the comparison is to alleged Victorian manners.

I don’t see a claim that hand-held food is especially or uniquely American.

(Such a claim would be ludicrous, given that as I understand it, pretty much everything in India is eaten with the hands using bread – and of course every culture’s street food is predominately hand-held.)

dearieme January 3, 2014 at 2:56 pm

When I was a lad it was considered rude to eat in the street, even fish’n'chips or an apple. Ice Cream was exempted form this disapprobation for (I assume) obvious reasons.

Roy January 3, 2014 at 7:37 am

I think it also has a lot to do with American belief that things that are informal are more “real” and authentic. The big NY pizza slice that is folded over and shoved in the mouth is part and parcel with business casual and “Hi I’m Ted and I am your new boss.” Eating with a knife and fork is so stuffy and pretentious when you can use your fingers. Of course there are limits, but that is why my local “gastropub” offers me a pair of chopsticks for those things.

Luis Pedro Coelho January 3, 2014 at 7:49 am

What is actually quintessential American nowadays is Americanized Mexican food: you can get it all over the US, but it’s very hard to get elsewhere (you can’t get the same in Mexico, unless it’s now being imported there; traditional Mexican food is much heavier on the fat).

A burger may still symbolize American, but is there any city in the world with more than 10,000 people where you cannot get a burger?

Roy January 3, 2014 at 7:54 am

Is there any city, town, or unincorporated settlement in America with a restaurant where you can’t get a burger? Is there any other food you can make this statement about? Is there anyone on earth eating a burger who doesn’t associate with America?

Luis Pedro Coelho January 4, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Sure, burgers are associated with America, but they are really available everywhere in the world. They are not something that you can only get in the States. You don’t even have to go to an American themed restaurant to get a burger outside the states, it’s just part of world culture.

American style fajitas or tacos, OTOH, are very hard to find outside of the US. They are so American, they are not even very well known outside the US.

charlie January 3, 2014 at 8:10 am

Go to India.

Anon January 3, 2014 at 12:07 pm

India also has Burgers now ; though mostly lamb and Veggie.

PD Shaw January 3, 2014 at 8:51 am

Taco Bell opened in Mexico a few years ago under the label “American Food.”

chuck martel January 3, 2014 at 10:41 am

Isn’t Taco Bell food from some other planet?

Ted Craig January 3, 2014 at 9:22 am

I wonder how true this was prior to the 1950s? I read Carroll’s book. It’s good, but not great.

Dave Barnes January 3, 2014 at 9:49 am

Corn dogs. If you accept the notion that they are “food”.

Corn on the cob.

anon January 3, 2014 at 11:08 am

She is over-thinking it (or more likely over-philosophizing it). (Watch her Ted talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIorVQF7lKk – oh how I hate those.)

Handheld foods are popular because they are fast, easy, inexpensive, and tasty because they often contain salt, fat and and sugar.

Tracy W January 3, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Maybe because American formal knife-fork habits are particularly inefficient?

boba January 3, 2014 at 5:39 pm

“A Persian shah was celebrated for saying that eating with a knife and fork was like making love through an interpreter.” Little Curry Book; Pat Chapman. Very much true in my experience in Southwest Asia, no forks, use your right hand, even with rice and other loos foods.

Veracitor January 4, 2014 at 2:06 am

Hot dogs are a Danish national food ( pølser).

Hamburgers are really American, as are ice cream cones, Coca-Cola, and hush-puppies. Though the Belgians claim invention of the “french-fry,” the greatest potato of all time, from which more french-fries are made than from any other by far (in addition to innumerable other culinary delights) is the American Burbank Russet potato. Table maize “sweet yellow corn” is American. Thousand-Island salad dressing is (regrettably) American. Baked Alaska is proudly American. Graham crackers are American, as are most non-granola breakfast cereals (including Euell Gibbons’ favorite breadcrumbs, “Grape-Nuts”). Cool-Whip is American, may G-d forgive us. Chocolate-chip cookies are one of America’s great gifts to the world. Pancakes (hotcakes), especially served with fruit preserves or syrup, are usually credited to America though flat breads have existed in many countries. America birthed the abomination commonly known as Wonder Bread.* Frozen vegetables (and other frozen foods) which are much better than canned and very much better than dried or salted are truly an American invention!

*Actually, Wonder Bread does have a good culinary use. With another fine American food invention, Kraft-process cheese, and Wonder Bread, you may prepare tissue-paper-thin grilled-cheese sandwiches! They are surprisingly tasty and kids particularly love the squash-grilling process.

Ted Craig January 4, 2014 at 9:08 am

Throw in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and you have a real treat.

The Anti-Gnostic January 4, 2014 at 11:54 am

On the plus side, give Wonder Bread credit for eliminating rickets and beriberi in the US. There’s also iodized salt, which reduced cretinism.

Veracitor January 4, 2014 at 2:37 am

Oh! Almost forgot a very fine American contribution to the world’s great foods: Southwestern-style chili!

(Don’t kvetch that many versions are lousy. That is true, but only goes to prove how fine the proper dish is. All the crummy renditions are borrowing the cachet of the real thing. Think of spaghetti with marinara sauce… one of Italy’s glories regardless of how many bowls of gummy noodles with oversweetened sauce are served in school cafeterias and chain restaurants.)

James January 4, 2014 at 7:23 pm

Thanksgiving dinner is uniquely American cuisine, and has nothing to do with mobility. Nor do grits or fried chicken. How about honey baked ham or cornbread?

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