Made in the USA
In the ethnic melting pot that is America, traditional regional
cuisines can be perfectly compatible with our search for health.
By Corinne Garcia
What is all-American cuisine? Is it burgers and fries, mac and cheese, apple pie, the kind of turkey spread you’d find at the Thanksgiving table?
America, the quintessential “melting pot,” is characterized by the ethnic groups that have migrated here in different regions. And the traditions that came along with them, especially their cooking techniques and meals rooted in their heritage, have created an imprint on the foods we eat today and consider our own.
“American cuisine has really become an amazing compilation of ethnic dishes and foods that have been adopted and even modified to suit the American palate,” says Linda Van Horn, PhD, RD, a research nutritionist at Northwestern University and an American Heart Association/American Stroke Association volunteer.
These modifications had a lot to do with what was accessible in the new homeland.
“Regional food is all about eating what grows near you,” explains Kelly Alexander, author of Hometown Appetites (Gotham). “It’s about what you traditionally cooked where you came from and adapting that to what’s growing in the region you settled in.”
Lou Sackett, co-author of American Regional Cuisines: Food Culture and Cooking (Prentice Hall), says regional cuisine is also defined by the area’s primary starch and protein, such as grits and pork in the South and potatoes and seafood in New England.
“While there are signature dishes that are associated with certain parts of the country such as Texas barbeque or New England lobster, even pizza, none of the foods are necessarily unhealthy,” Van Horn explains. “Rather, it’s a matter of the ingredients used and how they are prepared.”
In many cases healthful ingredients have been turned on their head due to unhealthy cooking methods or by using too much of a good thing, mainly foods high in saturated fat. And then there are those super-sized portions that Americans seem to love.
These techniques and portions may have suited our forefathers, who burned many more calories than we do today. “People back in the day, before elevators and cars, could eat a lot more fat,” says Sackett. “Today people burn a small fraction of the calories they did then.” Another setback in today’s American cuisine is the refinement of grains, which strips whole grains of many nutrients.
But there are some ways to still enjoy traditional all-American fare, perhaps just not as often. “Dishes that have more fruits, vegetables and whole grains can typically be promoted as the better choices,” says Van Horn, while also harkening back to diets of old. The rub is that foods that are fried in deep fat and served with butter or cream or heavy gravies are also staples of yesteryear.
Others recommend smaller portion sizes. “I think the only way to eat these old-fashioned foods healthfully is to not eat them too much or too often,” Sackett says.
Here’s a look at regional American cuisine and how to lighten up some of the signature dishes.
“When people talk about American food, I always think of New England first,” Alexander says. “That’s where we associate Thanksgiving, the most American meal around.”
New England cuisine is a perfect marriage of traditional English country cooking and New World ingredients, namely corn, beans, cranberries, blueberries, squash and maple syrup, among others, explains Brooke Dojny, author of New England Home Cooking: 350 Recipes from Town and Country, Land and Sea, Hearth and Home (The Harvard Common Press). “For protein, they used a lot of game, such as wild turkey and venison, and they eventually harvested from the seas, using cod, finfish and lobster.” Boiled meats and stews in the English fashion, chowders and baked beans were created from New World ingredients using Old World techniques, cooking in large cast iron stoves over the fire, accompanied by corn bread and berry pies.
And in the summer months, to this day, the cuisine relies heavily on fruits and vegetables, using canned goods throughout the long winters. Many of the same traditional dishes exist, with clam shacks and chowder stands being the norm.
Clam Chowder: Replace the heavy cream with fish broth or clam juice, adding a touch of milk.
Baked Beans: “You can go lighter on the maple syrup or use molasses, but both are good for you,” Dojny says. “And instead of cooking them with pork fat, you can omit it or cut it back.”
Lobster and Fish: Dojny suggests dipping lobster in fresh lemon juice instead of melted butter, and sticking to grilled or baked fish instead of the deep-fried versions.
Sackett explains that the cuisine of the South is very broad and varied, from the iconic plantation south to Louisiana’s Cajun cuisine. But overall it’s a rice-and-grits area, with pork as the main protein. Warmer climates give Southerners the luxury of abundant fresh fruits and vegetables.
Sara Foster, author of Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen (Random House), explains that traditional Southern meals were based around these harvests. “There would be fried chicken or barbeque, but it’s really all about the sides,” she says. “There could be four or five different ones at any meal, like creamed corn, green beans, mashed ‘pots’ (potatoes), collard greens and always homemade rolls or biscuits.”
Southern cuisine draws from many cultures. Foster says, “Frying was brought from Africa, New Orleans got great spices from the nearby ports, corn is from the Native Americans and then there’s the English influence.”
Today, although the traditional ingredients are still there, Foster says that Southern cuisine has evolved. “It’s the cooking methods that have changed,” she explains. “We still eat collard greens once a week, but we steam them instead of boiling them for hours in bacon fat.”
Fried Chicken: Try breading and baking chicken instead of deep frying.
Barbeque: Because fat drips off while on the grill, it’s a healthy technique. But cut back on the fatty meats in favor of leaner chicken or fish. And be aware that the emissions from fat dripping into a fire carry potential carcinogens.
Pork-Flavored Foods: Instead of boiling green beans or collards in bacon fat, try using smoked turkey for flavor, and chill the dish to skim the fat off the top. “You’re removing the fat but keeping the flavor,” Sackett says.
Home of the hot dish and capital of the comfort foods, Midwest cuisine is greatly influenced by its German and Eastern European heritage. “It’s pretty plain food, simply cooked, and lots of it,” Sackett says. “It’s roast beef, chicken, bratwurst, meatloaf, mac and cheese, lots of potatoes and whatever grows fresh in the summer.”
Said to have started with farmers’ wives who wanted to feed big families on a budget, the Midwest casserole is also a way to use leftovers. “Meat and potatoes are there year round, and they really rely on preserving, canning and pickling for the long winters,” says Alexander. “Hot dish is perfect if you rely on those foods from a can, especially when it’s cold because it sticks to the ribs.”
Sackett explains that their main ingredients are healthful, as long as their plates are filled mostly with vegetables, but the gravies on meats, and butter and heavy creams in casseroles, can be a nutritional downfall.
Hot Dish: Use low-sodium canned goods and low-fat milk with low-sodium broth instead of heavy creams.
Meats: Use ground turkey instead of beef for meatloaf, and beans in casseroles instead of meat.
Pickling: Go with the pickled vegetables and sauerkraut that have been cultured with probiotics, which can benefit gut health, instead of just vinegar.
Not to be confused with Tex-Mex, with dishes that are typically smothered in cheese, Sackett says Southwestern cuisine is among the most healthful around. “It’s an amalgamation of Mexican and Native American cuisine, which was some of the leanest food in the world,” she says. “The Southwest desert dwellers ate very little meat, virtually no fat, and their only carb was unrefined corn.”
The desert climate can be challenging for growers, and traditional meals rely on beans cooked in different fashions, cactus, chili peppers and some meat, including pork and chicken. Signature dishes are steamed tamales, green chili chicken enchiladas (traditionally with no cheese), posole stews and cactus salads. And lots of heat.
“This cuisine is driven by chili peppers and the levels of heat in them,” says Alexander.
Although it may not be authentic, today’s Southwestern cuisine has incorporated cheese, heavier casseroles and smothered dishes such as enchiladas and nachos with sour cream, which is high in saturated fat.
Sauces: Make thick green chili sauces for enchiladas using just blended chilies and vegetable or chicken stock instead of condensed soups and pork lard.
Southwestern Casseroles: Lighten up on the cheese and meat, and go heavy on the vegetables and beans for enchiladas, burritos and tamales.
California, home to the first sushi restaurant in the United States, has always had a reputation for being cutting-edge, and its cuisine is as experimental and open-minded as its residents. “This is a cuisine that’s based on the sun and the fresh foods,” Alexander says. “They were the first to make avocado and grapefruit salads, and they invented fish tacos, because that’s what’s there.”
With influences from Asian, Mexican and Mediterranean foodways—and with no shortage of experimental chefs—California and Wine Country cuisine makes the most of the fruits of the sea and the lush harvests. Avocado, olive and citrus trees abound, and their signature dishes often use lean meats and fresh fish, making it what Sackett considers the second healthiest region, just behind authentic Southwestern cuisine.
“Wine country cuisine is an offshoot of California cuisine that was really developed more in the 1980s,” Sackett says. “It’s a chef-driven cuisine—very light, with fresh fish, olive oil, lots of fresh vegetables and salads with microgreens.”
Fish Tacos: Go with grilled fish instead of deep-fried, and try a yogurt-based sauce instead of mayonnaise or sour cream.
Salads: Be careful of overdressing, which can add unnecessary saturated fats. Instead, use a squeeze of fresh lemon, lime or orange.
No matter what region of the United States you sample food from, an appreciation for traditional cuisine doesn’t have to come at the expense of the modern concern for well-being.