The typical, packaged, chain restaurant, food that is taken as the prime example of our heritage outside (and more recently inside) of the US, is not the food of the United States that I grew up with. Most of it, through factory methodology, is a mere shadow of a small segment of the cuisine.
I’m second generation born in the US. The cuisine I grew up with is a hearty blend of immigrant culture. All traditional foods, cooked in very homey ways, by careful and caring home makers. While Thursday was always spaghetti with meat sauce in my home, and Friday was fish, we were as likely to eat Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Polish, German, French or British inspired dishes on any other given night. And, we only ever ate burgers, once or twice each summer, from an outdoor, charcoal, barbecue.
Being from Chicago, meat was a staple of our meals, but it was more often than not secondary cut, b grade product, or a force meat. Kielbasa, or Italian sausage, meatloaf, beef stew, pot roast, chili con carne, chop suey, or a variety of casseroles, were common. Actual steak was a rarity that was cherished. Indeed steak was such a special delight that we only each had a small portion, and supplemented our dinner by sopping the briny beef drippings with handfuls of bread. Aside from beef we ate a lot of pork, roasts, chops, ribs. Chicken also figured prominently on our menu. Fish was weekly but seafood was much more unlikely than steak.
For starch we ate a good amount of pasta and potato, sometimes rice, and always bread. Meals were always square, with a hearty portion of vegetables cooked or as salad, to accompany any sitting. Dessert was fairly uncommon for us and when we had it it was almost always a fruit based dessert. Usually in the form of a fruit pie or a gelatin dish. Chocolate cakes were the exclusive provenance of birthdays.
The meals were always served family style. I don’t believe I had my first individual portion of food, until my grandparents took me to a restaurant in my early teens. I know I never ate a McDonald’s until my elder sister worked there when she was a teen. Back then she once brought home left overs at the end of the day. The next day for lunch we ate left over, reheated McDonald burgers. The next time I tried them I was a teen, and we were moving house, so my dad stopped at McDonalds on the way from old to new house. It was the first time I had a Big Mac, and probably the last time for many years.
Dinner was always a family affair. My mother insisted we spend a dinner hour around the table together eating and socializing. On holidays the routine was the same though the size of the table and seats were augmented by visiting relatives. I have always loved those raucous times, and have worked hard to try and create that blue-collar family feeling in my restaurants.
I very much enjoy doing these sorts of food programs with the USMEF. We get a chance to educate cooks and customers to what traditional US cuisine is. Wholesome, simple, melting pot immigrant food, with a deep history as wonderful, convivial, sustenance.
As I developed as a chef the countries culinary zeitgeist was embracing regional cuisines, so we became exposed to Cajun, Creole, Southern, New England, Californian, Tex-Mex, Pacific Northwest and Hawaiian foods. On top of that elder variety, the ongoing immigration of the world to our shores has brought so many new flavors and cooking methods to us. The variety of dishes is so large, that it would be comparable to trying to combine all of Western Europe into a single country. It is really that diverse.