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We often feature posts about international cuisine. From explorations of Argentina food culture to what to eat on a family trip to Cambodia. Of course, this year the focus is on American vacation ideas. Since so many of us will be vacationing domestically this year, it’s the perfect moment to highlight American cuisine by region.
Some people assume American food represents one nationalized, homogenized cuisine. But significant regional differences exist. These differences are grounded in a rich history of indigenous and Old World cuisine traditions and regional ingredients and techniques.
Here are some fantastic American eats to give a try on your next family vacation stateside.
Whether you refer to it as the South, Southeast, or Deep South, the Southern United States features some of the yummiest comfort food you’ll ever try. From Tennessee to Florida, the cuisine of this area is diverse and rich, and it features many mouthwatering dishes you and your kids will love. You’ll also find a wonderful synthesis of influences from Europe, Africa, and Native America.
Some of our personal favorites? Fried chicken, barbecue anything, fried shrimp or fish, and hush puppies. Paired with an iconic glass of “Sweet Tea,” you’ll feel both refreshed and stuffed at the end of a meal. Another fabulous dish unique to this region is grits. This corn-based porridge was introduced to the first settlers by Native Americans. Today, it’s often served with cheese and fried fish. And don’t forget about the Fried Green Tomatoes!
What about dessert? Traditionalists might answer pecan pie, and you won’t regret this choice. But nothing compares to Fresh Southern Peach Cobbler. This simple dish is a comfort food staple even the pickiest eater can get behind. Comprised of sun-ripened, sliced peaches baked into a buttery crust, it’s a delicious ode to summer, especially a la mode. And don’t forget to try Florida Key Lime Pie, a creamy treat that artfully blends sweet and citrus.
The Western United States has a fascinating and unique cuisine influenced by indigenous peoples and later immigrants who came from all over the world to secure land or try their luck at gold and silver mining. Arriving as pioneers, they contributed their unique take on “road food” as they traveled from town to town seeking opportunity. As a result, you’ll find everything from Native American to Asian, Mexican, Basque, and Cornish influences in this region’s cuisine. You’ll also find many subcategories within Western cuisine.
Chefs of the Pacific Northwest have placed a great emphasis on sustainable, locavore cuisine in recent years. This emphasis means plenty of dishes that take advantage of local foodstuffs like blackberries, mushrooms, and salmon. From blackberry cobbler to baked salmon, make local flavors a priority when ordering at restaurants.
In the Mountain States, like Montana, Idaho, and Nevada, cowboy and ranch culture influences remain strong. There are a million variations on chili, a dish venerated during annual chili cookoffs. Montana Wildfire Chili is a local favorite. You’ll also find plenty of pancakes (a.k.a. flapjacks), barbecued meats, and cornbread, all pioneer staples. Outdoor cooking rules this region, typified by chuckwagon dinners. Basque family-style eating is also a local favorite, especially in Nevada.
Many of these foods overlap with those of the American Southwest. There are also delectable influences from Mexican cuisine, from enchiladas to tacos, fajitas, and more. Make sure you savor the hearty influences of indigenous food, too, like Indian Fry Bread and Navajo Tacos.
In California, fusion food proves plentiful with influences from Mexican, Asian, and Mediterranean traditions. That means plenty of sushi, burritos, wraps, tacos, and salads. Avocado is a favorite ingredient in many dishes, and there’s a heavy focus on clean eating with vegetarian and vegan options.
The Midwestern United States contains states like North and South Dakota, Missouri, and Illinois. Known for its grassland plains stretching into the horizon, locals are friendly and hospitable. Many immigrant groups settled in this area. They included Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Hungarians, and the British. As a result, you’ll find a diverse collection of dishes to sample.
These include meat pies, puddings, and roasts from Great Britain. Goulash is a popular treat from Hungary. Finally, Scandinavians contributed dishes like lefse, a potato flatbread. Typical main dishes include all-American eats like hamburgers and fries. You’ll also find plenty of menus featuring grilled steak, meatloaf, and roast beef. Chicken pot pie, corn on the cob, and apple pie round out local staples.
Corn remains a vital crop of the Midwest. So, you’ll also find regional dishes like Corn Relish made from yellow corn, red peppers, onions, celery, sugar, and vinegar. Usually served with roasted or grilled meat, it’s a refreshing treat on a hot day in the Great Plains.
New England has a long history of immigration, stretching back to the first arrivals at Plymouth. When Native Americans and British settlers came together, dishes such as baked bean casseroles, succotash, and chowders were born. These are typified today by menu items such as Boston Baked Beans and New England Clam Chowder.
Later, in the 19th century, other immigrant groups brought new flavors to the region from Ireland and Italy. For example, New England Boiled Dinner reflects the influences of Irish newcomers on local cuisine. New York Style Pizza is a famous homage to the Italian city of Naples where the recipe originated.
Because of its role as a major port for new arrivals to the United States, New York City represents a “melting pot” of cuisine from all over the world. Here, you’ll find delectable Jewish specialties like pastrami and Reuben sandwiches. There are a wide variety of menus that have evolved from Italian and Chinese culinary traditions. You’ll also find food inspired by Russia, Puerto Rico, Greece, India, and the Middle East. But this list marks just the beginning when it comes to exploring the treasured world cuisines honored in New York’s boroughs.
America contains great regional variation when it comes to cuisine. You can use your domestic travels to savor these wonderful American eats influenced by indigenous peoples, immigration, and emigration. Which culinary adventures await you and your kids on your next American vacation? If you’re not sure where to start, check out our post on the best US travel destinations of 2020 for inspiration.