There's no one dish to express America, but many — a PBJ, a cheeseburger, a chocolate chip cookie — speak volumes about what defines American eating: variation. It's the unique twists on any of theses things — whether they're served on a plate or even in a waffle cone — that make them uniquely American.
Even the most patriotic and formal of national feasts, Thanksgiving dinner, includes so many variations (Kosher, Asian, Tex-Mex) that no single ingredient is emblematic. Not even the turkey is certain: The first Thanksgiving bird was most likely a crane or a swan.
It's something we do quite often, in fact. The National Restaurant Association forecasts that the overall economic impact of the restaurant industry in this country, this year, will top $1.5 trillion.
Still, everyone can name foods, eateries and dining experiences that are uniquely, quintessentially, unmistakably American — you know it when you see it. Certain bites of culture are ingrained in the heritage, even as that heritage is constantly evolving. It's possible to, in the words of singers Simon and Garfunkel, "look for America" in each and every food moment.
To settle on our list of uniquely American meals, we looked at four distinct regions of the country — the Midwest, the East Coast, the Southwest and the South — then pinpointed the defining dish or specialties of each region. We then looked to a variety of sources and reports for tips, travels, and discoveries, then narrowed down the list to the truly representative restaurants.
Starting with the basics
Forget, for a moment, everything about American food's evolution; sometimes taking a step back to a simpler time provides as good a sense of what American meals are all about. At Flying W Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colo., surrounded by red peaks and panoramic scenery, working ranchers demonstrate to diners skills like horseshoeing before serving a cowboy-style dinner on tin plates. When they croon their Country Western and cowboy songs, guests, like the West, are won (the food, with items such as USDA choice strip steak, BBQ chicken, baked potato, beans, and buttermilk biscuits, certainly helps, too).
Such an experience is about as far a break as one can get from what's typically thought of as the American meal: something that's fast, cheap and fits in one hand. There's no better example than the hot dog.
But at Hot Doug's in Chicago, owner Doug Sohn has mastered that classic ballpark-style frank, but also taken it to the next level. From stepping up the basic (a beef link with Coca-Cola BBQ, or a dash of such condiments as sel gris), Hot Doug's ventures forth to the outrageous, such as a wild boar sausage with smoked gouda, as well as a foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage. But there are no white tablecloths here — this is as genuine a hot-dog experience as a street-corner cart.
Fresh and simple
As much as Americans appreciate a quick bite on the run, we also have a seemingly insatiable appetite for fresh seafood — and going the extra mile for it can help make it taste that much better.
If you view lobster as a special treat, digging into this delicacy is certainly special when experienced with Maine LobsterBake Co. The company runs excursions along the lobsters' home (the rugged edge of New England, by schooner, ferry or kayak), from Portland to nearby Peak's Island. Once there, guests can explore the nature and history of the place (including antique stores, a fort and a museum), then sit down to a traditional lobster bake with all the trimmings, right on the rocky shore.
Should Maine be a little too far out of the way, at the other end of U.S. Highway 1 on Florida's Key West is Shrimp Shack, an establishment that serves Key West pink shrimp pulled directly off the shrimp boats. Take a seat at a picnic table, and watch as the boats dock and open their hutches to spill forth "pink gold."
The freshest, top layer of shrimp goes straight to the kitchen to be fried, grilled, or stewed into gumbo. At the shrimp boil on Sunday afternoons, a live band plays on one of the boats, and the dock literally rocks.
An authentic American dining experience can take just about any form (quirky, rustic, luxurious), not to mention take place just about anywhere (at a takeout window off a freeway, deep in the wilderness or in an opulent dining room). The lack of definition is, in a sense, what makes it uniquely American.
Staying on the lookout for the next innovative treat — and indulging in it without hesitation — is perhaps more so.