What’s the most American food? Is it a burger? Apple pie? Slow-smoked barbecue? Certainly all of them represent classic Americana, but I would argue that in 2015 the taco might just be the most American food. It’s simple, humble even, yet supremely adaptable. It’s equally at home on a food truck or in a fine restaurant. It originated from another culture in another land, but through a process of appropriation and assimilation, it has become as American as apple pie, football and exceptionalism.
In fact, when John Fetterman, mayor of the tiny Pittsburgh suburb Braddock, PA, declared his candidacy for the US Senate in September, he promised free tacos at his announcement event. Not Pittsburgh’s famous Primanti Brothers sandwiches topped with fries and cole slaw. Not the cabbage rolls, sausages or pierogi so typically associated with Eastern European-descended Midwesterners. Not apple pie. Tacos. “Everyone wants to eat tacos,” he declared. “Tacos are the great uniter.”
Fetterman hits upon both a good idea (tacos for votes) and a timeless truth about America: our food is just everybody else’s food absorbed and reinterpreted. It started with the Native Americans introducing the “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash) to the early British settlers to save them from starvation. (A good deed that did not go unpunished.) When America came of age in the 20th century, it was the French who taught us to cook, and their influence set the standard of fine dining for generations of Americans. We pretty much commandeered pizza from the Italians, doing for it what the Brits did for rock and roll in the ‘60s: take another country’s invention, refine it in ways the originators never imagined, and become the new standard bearers of excellence. Indeed, the pizza slice has become the basic culinary currency of any respectable metro area in this country. Even barbecue was adapted from the barbacoa of the native Taino people of the Caribbean.
If American cuisine is simply the absorption and interpretation of foodways from all over the world, then all ethnic foods that become popular in this country are pretty much American food waiting to happen. Some may allege cultural appropriation, and food snobs will probably scoff at a lack of “authenticity,” but a delicious idea refuses to be contained by a single nation or culture. Don’t believe me? Try figuring out who gets the credit for rice pilaf. People love good food, and they love sharing it. American cookery is an iterative exercise in that principle, in which exoticness and authenticity gradually give way to experimentation and fusion. Southern barbecue, New England seafood, even Korean beef – they’re all just potential taco fillings.
With this in mind, we set to explore the state of American food in our multicultural city as it is today, regardless of origin or “authenticity.”
Like the venerable slice, the taco is fast, portable and endlessly reinventable
Meet the fish dish that transcends food borders and rewards your culinary curiosity
No matter what you call it – empanada, gyoza or pierogi – your taste buds will thank you
Contrary to popluar belief, there's more to breakfast than just bacon (blasphemy!) and eggs
Follow a string of spaghetti, dan dan and pad thai noodles around the city
Unsure where to start with an unfamiliar cuisine? Try a little bit of everything