United States food culture

Learning about cultures within your own country can help you connect with people from other parts of the nation.

This past year, I traveled to the 4-H National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Young people from all over the United States participated in the program – from Hawaii to Puerto Rico and Maine to Texas. During the trip, I enjoyed talking to 4-H members about the food from their local areas. The conversation often began slowly, as people take for granted the food around them, and often do not realize they have a lot of dishes unique to their geography.

When you explore cuisine from coast-to-coast, it brings up lots of questions that beg for exploration to discover the answers. Why is sweet tea primarily a southern thing? Why is barbecue usually beef in Texas, but pork in the Carolinas? Why is Spam popular in Hawaii? Why is chili served on spaghetti noodles in Cincinnati? Why does Minnesota call it a hot dish, when the rest of the country calls it a casserole? And isn’t all warm food a “hot dish?”

Even outside of unique regional dishes, some of the most basic foods and American staples have variations, depending on the part of the country. Consider these three favorites:

Hot dogs

  • Flint-style. Properly made with a Koegels’ brand Vienna with a natural casing, Flint-style Coney dogs have a dry topping made from ground beef (sometimes ground beef hearts) with mild seasoning. Some recipes also call for ground up hotdogs in the topping. Chopped onions and mustard go on the top.
  • Detroit-style. Many debates have occurred over whether Lafayette or National make a better Coney dog. A Detroit-style Coney is a wetter, sloppier ground beef topping than the Flint-style and is often served on a Dearborn Sausage Company hot dog. Detroit-style Coney’s are also often topped with cheese and onions.
  • Chicago-style. Chicago starts with an all-beef hot dog and has many toppings; mustard, chopped onions, neon-green sweet pickle relish, dill pickle, tomato wedges, pickled spicy small peppers and a dash of celery salt. The Chicago style is placed on a poppy seed bun.
  • Atlanta-style. A hot dog topped with chili and coleslaw.
  • Rippers. Popular in New Jersey, this hot dog is deep fried in oil until it splits – hence the name ripper.
  • Seattle-style. The Seattle-style hot dog is split lengthwise and grilled. Cream cheese is put on the bun and the dog is topped with grilled onions and pickled jalapeno slices.
  • Sonoran-style. A hot dog wrapped in bacon, grilled and placed in a split roll. The dog is then covered with cooked pinto beans, chopped fresh tomatoes, mayonnaise and jalapenos.
  • Kansas City-style. A hot dog in a sesame seed bun, the Kansas City-style is topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. It is similar to a Reuben sandwich.

Pizza

  • Detroit-style. A square or rectangular pizza with a thick, chewy crust and a crispy bottom. Made popular by Buddy’s Pizza.
  • New York-style. A round pizza with a chewy, floppy crust, the New York-style is often sold in wide slices to busy city residents. To keep the toppings from sliding onto your clothes, it is often folded in half to eat. Some argue it is New York City’s tap water that gives the pizza it’s unique taste and texture.
  • Chicago-style deep dish. This pizza is very thick, almost more of a casserole than a typical pizza. It is baked in a pan similar to a cake pan and tomato sauce is put on top of the cheese and other toppings.
  • Quad City-style. This pizza is from the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois. The pizza is not cut into triangular slices, but rather rectangular strips. Quad City sauce is spicier than most pizza sauces and the crust has malt in the dough, which makes the crust darker with a nuttier flavor.
  • St. Louis-style. This pizza has a thin, crispy, almost cracker-like crust made without any yeast. Instead of the typical mozzarella, it uses a special cheese called Provel. Provel is a processed cheese which is a combination of provolone, Swiss and white cheddar.
  • New Haven, Connecticut-style. Also known as a white clam pie, these pizzas do not have tomato sauce and have Romano cheese instead of mozzarella. They are topped with small clams and garlic.

Hamburgers

  • Jucy Lucy. Yes, the spelling is correct! Originating in Minnesota, this is a burger filled with cheese that melts and oozes out when you bite into it.
  • Loco Moco. This dish is popular in Hawaii and includes a hamburger patty (without a bun) served on top of rice and covered with gravy and a sunny-side-up egg. The gravy and runny egg ooze down into the rice, creating a new flavor combination.
  • Frita. Made in Little Havana in Miami, this burger has chorizo sausage mixed with the beef and is covered with picante sauce.
  • Slugburger. This southern burger variation, particularly popular in northern Mississippi, is a holdover from the Great Depression. Meat in the burger is extended by adding a filler such as bread crumbs or soybean meal. The patty is then deep-fried and put on a bun.
  • Connecticut Steamed Cheeseburger. The burger is cooked in a steamer to keep it moist, which also allows for a blanket of cheese to be melted on top.

Learning about cultures within your own country can help you connect with people from other parts of the nation. Everyone eats food and it can be a point to learn from each other and open up conversations about other aspects of our lives. Want to learn more about food culture in the United State? Here are some books to enjoy:

  • America: A Culinary Road Trip Through The 50 States by Gabrielle Langholtz
  • Big American Cookbook by Mario Batali
  • Cook’s Country Eats Local
  • The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American by Jeff Smith
  • The United States of Pizza by Craig Priebe

This article was inspired by and adapted from the 4-H Folkpatterns curriculum which was created in 1979, and last updated in 1991. You may also find the Folkpatterns curriculum Leaders’ Guide and 4-H Foodways useful resources.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural educationprograms, read our 2017 impact report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders”. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017 can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.


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