Life in the USA
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Snack foods play an important part in American food culture. Snack foods are typically
produced to be durable, accessible, inexpensive, and easy to eat out of a bag or package
without further preparation. In addition to sweet snacks like candy and chocolate, and frozen
treats like ice cream,
Americans enjoy snack products in several major categories:
Chips and Crunchy Salted Snacks:
Nuts, Seeds and Dried Fruit:
- The potato chip is the preeminent American snack food. Americans eat over $6 billion
worth a year; the potato chip industry employs over 65,000 people. Native American George
Crum worked as a chef at the well-known Saratoga Springs resort in New York State. In
1853 a guest complained that his French fries were too thick. More as a joke than anything
else, Crum produced a plate of ultra-thin crisps; the taste and texture caught on with the
public. By the turn of the twentieth century, commercial potato chip production began,
enhanced by innovations in peeling, slicing and processing equipment.
- Today’s potato chips are available in many configurations, plain and flavored (often
with onion, sour cream, or tangy barbecue flavors), mass-produced or craft cooked in small
batches. Pringles, first brought to market in the 1960s and known technically as “potato
crisps,” are uniformly shaped chips made from dough rather than from sliced potatoes. While
not the most flavorful of chips, the Pringle performs particularly well as a conveyance for
even the sturdiest dip.
- The traditional knot-shaped pretzel, legend has it, was invented by an Italian monk in an
attempt to mimic the shape of praying hands; the only certainty about the pretzel’s origin is
that it is very old, has European, possibly German, antecedents, and first became popular in
Pennsylvania (where consumption remains highest). Snack pretzels are sold as nuggets, thin
short sticks, thick long sticks, in knots about three inches across, in mini-knots and other
miniature shapes. Unlike most crunchy snacks, pretzels are baked rather than fried. Soft
pretzels, always in the traditional knot shape, are well known as street foods in New York
City and Philadelphia.
- Tortilla chips are an important American snack, invented in the United States as an
accompaniment to Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Southwestern
cuisine. Plain or in colors, the chips are diamond shaped wedges cut from corn or flour
tortillas then fried or sometimes baked; major brands include Tostidos and Doritos. Corn
chips are used similarly but are produced from a corn-based dough; a popular brand is Fritos.
Either variety of chip is likely to have a Mexican-sounding brand name, though invariably
one that is easy for an English-speaking American to pronounce. These chips are available
plain, in which case they are used to scoop up the piquant tomato and hot pepper dip called
salsa or the thick avocado-based dip called guacamole, or flavored to be eaten as a
- Developed by Native Americans thousands of years ago, popcorn is a special kind of corn
kernel that puffs up when exposed to heat. It is available pre-popped in plain and
candy-coated form and sold freshly popped from carts and kiosks, in which case it is usually
enjoyed with salt and melted butter, from bags or large tubs. Americans prepare popcorn at
home using popcorn making appliances, pre-packaged stovetop kits in disposable aluminum
pans, or in special packets designed for microwave ovens. The act of attending a motion
picture at a theater (or even watching one at home on television) is strongly associated in
American culture with the consumption of popcorn.
- F.W. Reuckheim introduced Cracker Jacks at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in
Chicago in 1893. Reuckheim developed a method—still a trade secret—of keeping the
product’s molasses-coated popcorn and peanuts from sticking together. Toy prizes were
added to every box in 1912; searching for the toy is one of the great traditions of American
childhood. The snack was immortalized in the iconic American baseball anthem Take Me
Out To The Ballgame.
- Crunchy cheese puffs are created from cheese-flavored cornmeal that is either baked or
fried into a number of bite-sized shapes and flavor variants. The most popular American
brand is Cheetos.
- A number of health chips are marketed as stand-alone snacks or for use with dips: sweet
potato chips, beet chips, various “veggie chips,” and pita chips.
- Italian immigrant Amedeo Obici invented a process to blanch and de-hull roasted peanuts
and founded the Planters Nut Company in 1906; the company’s distinctive Mr. Peanut trade
character has been on the scene since 1916. Though botanically it is actually a legume, the
peanut is certainly a nut in American culinary terms. Salted peanuts are available in small
packages for snacking; roasted peanuts in their shells are popular at outdoor and sporting
- Peanuts, a variety of other nuts (almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts,
pecans, pistachios), and nut mixtures are sold in transparent bags, glass jars, or vacuum
packed cans in food markets (or by weight out of bins in natural foods stores). Fresh roasted
nuts are sold, salted or unsalted, by weight from kiosks, stands and food carts. Sugar and
honey roasted peanuts are a popular option. The macadamia nut, a native of Hawaii, is a
popular luxury food, rarely mixed with other nuts. Nuts are often available coated in
chocolate or other flavorings.
- Nutritious, chewy sunflower seeds, salted or unsalted, are a healthy snack option, as are
the popular pumpkin seeds. Of all dried fruits, the American raisin, a dried grape, is
undoubtedly king. Dried apricots are also well known, but health food marketers sell nearly
every kind of fruit in dried or preserved form, sweetened or unsweetened. A mixture of nuts,
dried fruits and seeds is known as health mix or trail mix, based on its utility as an
easy-to-carry and nutritious food for hikers.
Cookies and Small Cakes:
- Originally developed as a staple food for long sea voyages, the cracker has been an
American favorite for more than two centuries. Popular brands like Triscuit and Ritz are eaten
with cheese or other toppings, but many smaller varieties, flavored with cheese or spices, may
be enjoyed out of hand as bite-sized snacks. Anticipating the most popular flavor
combinations, many crackers are sold in sandwich form: a top and a bottom cracker with a
filling of cheese, peanut butter, jelly or other delectable.
- The Pepperidge Farm division of Campbell’s Soup sells the Goldfish brand of crackers.
Usually flavored with one or another type of cheese, these bite-sized fish-shaped snack
crackers are popular with American children, but may well also appear as a thirst promoter on
any American bar.
Other snacks include:
- Of the hundreds of varieties of American cookies (the word is of Dutch derivation) three
types are the most iconic: the chocolate chip cookie, the oatmeal cookie, and Nabisco’s Oreo
cookie (a chocolate cookie sandwich with a cream filling). Cookies are sold in bags and
boxes at food markets, pre-wrapped in individual portions for snacks, or fresh by the item or
by the pound from stands and kiosks. While the variety of cookies manufactured by the large
American food processing companies is extensive, freshly made local craft cookies are
available in many food markets and specialty shops. The American Girl Scouts are known for
the “Girl Scout Cookies” they sell in their fund-raising efforts.
- Animal crackers are truly more of a cookie than a cracker (since they are sweet rather
than savory), but the term is so widely used that there is no changing it now. These small,
bite-sized animal shaped cookies vary in theme depending on manufacturer, but elephants,
bears, camels and lions are usually represented.
- Doughnuts (or donuts) are made from sweet dough that is shaped and deep-fried. A
doughnut may form a ring with a center hole, a solid cake filled with cream or fruit jelly, or
be prepared in the form of a twisted rope. Some forms of doughnuts are cake-like and chewy,
others airy and light. The doughnut is often served coated with a glaze of white sugar or
chocolate, with the possible addition of toppings like nuts or sprinkles. Most doughnut shops
also serve coffee.
- Cinnamon buns are puffy yeast rolls, baked with a topping of sugar and cinnamon. They
are available either packaged or freshly made from stands and kiosks.
- Small snack-sized coffee cakes, cup cakes, pound cakes, chocolate covered Swiss rolls,
brownies, corn muffins, bran muffins, and the Twinkie (an oblong golden sponge cake filled
with cream) are all available in pre-wrapped snack portions. Frozen fruit filled toaster cakes
are also a popular home snack.
Certain snack foods like candies, nuts, cookies, crackers, small cakes, and small bags of
pretzels and chips are commonly sold out of vending machines. Convenience stores are also
major sellers of snack foods, but every sizeable food market in the United States has an
extensive snack food aisle, as well as separate aisles for both crackers and cookies.
- Jerky: a preserved meat (usually beef) product with a Native American heritage, typically
dried, salted and aggressively spiced.
- Fried pork rinds, usually with chili or barbecue seasonings and heavily salted, are
particularly popular in the American south.
- Cheese is sold in snack size in extruded plastic-wrapped rods or in foil wrappers. Food
markets sell pre-packed packets of sliced cheese and crackers ready for snacking.
- Puddings, gelatin desserts and flavored yogurts are available in dairy departments in
single serving snack packages.
- Nutritional Bars: labeled as health bars, granola bars, energy bars, protein bars, diet bars,
supplement bars, fruit bars. These products are wrapped like and resemble chewy candy
- Fresh Fruit: sold by the piece, particularly apples, bananas and oranges.
There is a general perception in the United States that snack foods lack nutritional value and
contribute to the national epidemic of obesity. Sales of health-based snack foods have risen
because of these concerns. Efforts have been made to limit the availability of vending
machine snacks to schoolchildren.