By John Lehndorff, Scripps Howard News Service — Oct 14th, 1998
(Here is the update in 2019: boulderweekly.com/cuisine/the-most-american-foods)
You’ve seen those lists of the 100 best books, the top 100 movies. Now a food writer makes a list of the best American foods.
All I had to do was mention that I was compiling a list of the 100 greatest American foods, and people would start giggling and guffawing.
“It’ll be a real gourmet list, will it?” asked one colleague rhetorically.
“It’s a joke, isn’t it?” a friend said.
After all, they insisted, France has a cuisine. So do Italy, China and India. America just has food, most of which was borrowed from someplace else. We suffer from an inbred sense of culinary inferiority to other nations with longer histories … well, except for England.
I was inspired to assemble the list by the incredibly lively debate that ensued after the release of the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 American films, the Modern Library’s 100 best English language novels of the century, and Entertainment Weekly’s list of all-time greatest lists. I knew that while few of us have seen most of the movies or read the novels, almost all of us have eaten the foods on the list.
Compiling a list of the 100 greatest American foods offered more questions than answers, including the big one: Which foods are truly American, as American as apple pie … a dish imported from England?
I have included USA-defined foods. Some, like pizza, may be direct imports from other countries, but they are American foods now. Whatever pizza was or is now has little to do with Italy and everything to do with what Americans have made of it.
My sources for this list were myself, my family, friends and my voluminous food reference library, especially “The Dictionary of American Food and Drink” (Ticknor & Fields) by John Mariani.
For better or worse, here are the foods, beverages, ingredients, dishes and meals that Americans have created, influenced and actually eat, ranked by how great – how quintessentially American – they are. These are the foods we have exported with great success to the rest of the world. We sell French fries to the French, tacos to the Mexicans, pizza to the Italians, and fried chicken and ice cream to everybody.
The rankings could have easily been twice as long. Many foods didn’t make the final cut, including grits, margarine, frozen orange juice, fried green tomatoes, chocolate pudding, cheesecake, Bing cherries, Crisco, succotash, cream-style corn, Parker house rolls, Pop Tarts, deep-fried onion blossoms, scrapple, fish sticks, lox, chicken and dumplings, apple butter, mint julep, red zinfandel wine, salt water taffy, Cheet-os, Egg McMuffins and spaghetti pie.
(There’s nothing like a critical ranking to spark arguments over the kitchen table and around the water cooler and this list is still being refined. Your comments are welcome at: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; fax: (303) 473-1131; or write: Food, c/o Daily Camera, Box 591, Boulder CO 80306.)
Top 100 American Foods
(ranked according to importance)
1. Hamburger and cheeseburger with variations including McDonald’s Big Mac, White Castle, etc.
2. Pie, specifically apple, blueberry, pumpkin, cherry, lemon meringue, pecan. Also: Chicken pot pie
3. French fries
4. Cold cereal (with milk) including cornflakes, Cap’n Crunch, Life, Cocoa Krispies
5. Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich
6. Southern fried chicken, including fried chicken nuggets and fingers
7. Barbecue, pork, beef and chicken done Kansas City-, Carolina- and other styles
8. Cranberry, especially cranberry cocktail and cranberry sauce, jellied and whole
9. Ice cream, specifically ice- cream cones, sundaes, hot fudge, soft serve, a la mode
10. Soft drinks, specifically Coke, Pepsi, root beer, Mountain Dew, birch beer
11. Chili (or chile) including red Texas chili (chili con carne), New Mexico green chile, and Cincinnati chili
12. Hot dog – also weiner and frankfurter – on hot dog bun with condiments. Also: corn dogs
13. American cheese, including “singles,” Velveeta, Cheez Whiz and the grilled cheese sandwich
14. Tex-Mex dishes including tacos, nachos, fajitas and enchiladas
15. Sub sandwich, including hero, grinder, po’boy, hoagie, Dagwood, Cuban
16. Corn bread, spoon bread, johnnycake, cornbread stuffing
18. Popcorn, including theater popcorn, Cracker Jacks
19. Roasted, buttered corn on the cob
20. Pancakes with butter and maple or pancake syrup
21. Macaroni and cheese, including Kraft dinner
22. Chocolate chip (or Toll House) cookies
23. Chocolate brownies
24. Potato chips
25. Meatloaf topped with bacon and ketchup
26. Marshmallow, including s’mores, Fluffernutters, Lucky Charms, Rice Krispies Treats
27. TV dinners and microwaveable frozen meals
28. Doughnuts, including jelly crullers, Boston Creme and fritters
29. Muffins, especially blueberry and bran; also: muffin tops and coffee cake
30. Sweet potatoes, including baked yams, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, sweet potato pie
31. Concord grape juice and jelly, also Goobers (brand peanut butter swirled with grape jelly)
32. White, sliced, sandwich loaf bread including white toast
33. American condiments including tomato ketchup, yellow mustard, pickle relish
34. Boston baked beans, and pork and beans
35. Commercial cookies, including Fig Newtons, Oreos, vanilla wafers
36. Buffalo wings with bleu cheese dressing and celery sticks
37. American salad (iceberg lettuce, shredded carrot and purple cabbage, tomatoes)
38. Mashed or whipped potatoes
39. Candy, specifically M&Ms, Baby Ruth, Snickers, Tootsie Rolls, Hershey’s chocolate bar, Sky Bar
40. Condensed soup, especially Campbell’s Tomato and Cream of Mushroom
41. Tuna, especially tuna fish salad sandwiches
42. Composed salads including Waldorf, 7-Layer, macaroni, potato and cole slaw
43. Chewing gum, including bubble gum
44. English muffins
45. Buffalo burger, brats and steaks
46. Hot table sauces including Tabasco, Frank’s
47. Dips, including onion, ranch, bacon, artichoke, spinach, bean and con queso
48. Italian-American dishes including eggplant Parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs
49. Cinnamon buns, pecan rolls and sticky rolls
50. Hash browns and home fries
51. Texas or Georgia holiday fruitcake
52. Jell-O and gelatin salads and desserts
53. Fruit cobblers, slumps, pandowdies, grunts and crisps
54. Graham crackers and graham cracker pie crust
55. Homemade cakes including birthday, angel food, devil’s food, carrot, Mississippi Mud, dump cake
56. Snack cakes including Twinkies, Ring Dings, Moon Pies
57. Kool-Aid and other drink mixes
58. Maryland crab cakes
59. Crackers, including Cheez-Its, Ritz
60. Avocados, especially in guacamole
61. Pork chops, including pork roast
62. Pineapple, including fresh, canned and in upside-down cake
63. Casseroles, including tuna noodle, and green bean casserole with fried onion topping
64. Peanuts, including roasted, peanut brittle, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
65. Sweetened, iced black tea
66. Diet foods including sodas, sweeteners, dinners, etc.
67. Club sandwich, also the BLT
68. Toppings including Cool Whip, Dream Whip
69. Roast turkey with bread stuffing and gravy
70. Popsicles and other frozen confections including Eskimo Pies, Dove bars, etc.
71. Peppers, including pickled jalapenos, chipotles, Anaheims
72. Strawberry shortcake
73. Lobster, including steamed, Newburg, salad, roll
74. Navajo fry bread
75. Clam chowder – New England and Manhattan
76. SPAM and other canned meat
77. Light beer (also ice beer, steam beer)
78. Chocolate milk, and hot cocoa, chocolate syrup, Quik
79. Instant coffee
80. American hot cereals including Cream of Wheat, Maypo, Malt-O-Meal, instant oatmeal
81. Prepared salad dressings including Ranch, Thousand Island, Green Goddess
82. Louisiana dishes including chicken gumbo, crawfish jambalaya, blackened redfish
83. Banana, fresh and in cream pie, bread and banana splits
84. A big steak with baked potato, butter and sour cream
85. Fried clam roll with tartar sauce
87. Chicken-fried steak, buttermilk biscuits and red-eye gravy
88. Icy drinks including Slurpees, Mr. Misty and slushy coffee drinks
89. Tomato salsa
90. Homemade cookies including oatmeal raisin and peanut butter
91. Regional sandwiches including Philly steak sandwich, Chicago Italian beef
92. Egg brunch dishes including eggs benedict, huevos rancheros, Western omelette
93. “Toy” foods including Fizzies, Pop Rocks, super-sour candies
94. Milkshakes, including frappes, malts, egg creams, ice-cream sodas
95. Maple, including maple syrup, maple sugar candy, maple-walnut ice cream
96. Fudge, including chocolate, penuche, peanut butter
97. Chinese-American dishes including chow mein, chop suey, fortune cookies, egg rolls
98. Granola and energy bars
99. Pickles, including sweet dill slices, pickled okra and watermelon rind
100. Natural foods including granola, sprouts, veggie burgers, organic breakfast cereal.
Here is the update in 2019: boulderweekly.com/cuisine/the-most-american-foods/
The most american foods
A Top 100 list begs the question: ‘Whose taco is it?’
Thanks, internet. Because of you, things I wrote before the turn of the century continue to haunt me like a photo of a youthful indiscretion. Take my 1998 Nibbles column which resurfaced recently during an odd Google search. I named my list of the 100 greatest American foods.
My Top 10 included: 1) hamburger 2) pie 3) French fries 4) cold cereal 5) Peanut butter and jelly sandwich 6) Southern fried chicken 7) barbecue 8) cranberries 9) ice cream and 10) soft drinks.
I wrote: “For better or worse, here are the foods, beverages, ingredients, dishes and meals that Americans have created, influenced and actually eat, ranked by how great — how quintessentially American — they are.”
Looking back at my younger stuff I can wish I had been more serious and less sarcastic about American cuisine.
Looking back I would move some classics up in my rankings, like chili (and chile) (No. 11), doughnuts (28), chocolate chip (or Toll House) cookies (22), popcorn (18), roast turkey with bread stuffing (69), potato chips (24) and maple syrup (95). They’ve stood the test of time.
There are many “what-the-hell-was-I-thinking” nominees I’d immediately delete, starting with condensed soup (40), toppings such as Cool Whip and Dream Whip (68), instant coffee (79), light beer (77) and “toy” foods including Fizzies, Pop Rocks and super-sour candies (68).
There’s also a whiff of pre-9/11 American cultural arrogance in that Nibbles column, in lines such as: “Whatever pizza was or is now has little to do with Italy and everything to do with what Americans have made of it.”
Twenty years later, my perspective and my list of quintessential American foods would be different. First, it would be renovated to include the smorgasbord of ethnic treats we have clutched to our taste buds, ranging from Mexican and Central American dishes to Middle Eastern staples (so much hummus), and diverse Asian faves including pad Thai and potstickers, chicken tikka masala and pho.
My token Navajo fry bread (74) item would expand to include many other Native American foods. Natural foods (100) would be broken up into a dozen entrees that have changed American eating habits (not including kale).
In 1998 I wrote:
“Compiling a list of the 100 greatest American foods offered more questions than answers, including the big one: Which foods are truly American, as American as apple pie … a dish imported from England?”
That fundamental query — “What food is really American?” — still resonates powerfully in 2019, when some would build a wall to protect meatloaf and mashed potatoes from a wave of pupusas and mofongo. Purists choose to ignore that the entire history of cuisine globally is based on migration, exploration, trade, invasion and assimilation.
Maybe the question should be: “Who gets to define what is American?”
If I was writing the list today it would focus on great regional American fare from New York bagels to Georgia soul food and street food from coast to coast. I’d include bacon and other artisan foods and beverages (including beer) that have upgraded American grub. Twenty years ago I jokingly included “American cheese (13), including singles, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz and the grilled cheese sandwich.” Now the United States produces a wealth of fantastic cheeses, including some stellar examples from Colorado.
With any such list, controversy ensues, such as the exclusion of chocolate pudding, cheesecake, Pop-Tarts, scrapple, Cheetos, Egg McMuffins and the reuben sandwich.
You can read the entire list at:
As I did 20 years ago in Nibbles, I welcome your comments: Nibbles@boulderweekly.com
I’d love to see the list in 2038.