The United States has an extremely active food culture with many levels. Food is sustenance in America, food is socialization and enjoyment, food is nutrition, and food often becomes the occasion for political argument, press coverage and even legal action.
Americans want to be well-fed. They take for granted that the foods they eat will be satisfying as to quantity, quality or often the two combined. Americans are demanding. If they opt for “fast-food” they want it immediately, cheaply, with variety, with an eye toward food safety and, more and more, with an accounting for nutritional needs. At the other extreme, Americans seem constantly to be on the lookout for new “fine-dining” experiences, artisanal breads and cheeses, specialty fruits, vegetables and meats, exotic gourmet products, tasty and innovative convenience foods for their freezers. The standard American food market today, even in the smallest communities, carries gourmet and international food items that twenty years ago could be found only in big city “gourmet” food shops.
Cooking in America has iconic significance. Americans revere celebrity television chefs, engage in and watch cooking competitions, flock to food exhibitions and fairs. Television programs in America feature “dream” kitchens. Many Americans collect recipes and cookbooks, insisting on having the latest equipment, gadgets, celebrity-endorsed pots and pans, cutting boards or knives. Cooking schools, both amateur and professional, abound. A great number of Americans soak up any information they can get about cooking from magazines, culinary books, television, the Internet; though many are too busy (or too lazy) to actually cook, the result is a populace that is becoming extremely well-educated and discriminating about food matters.
Food-related illness and eating disorders, especially obesity, are of great concern in the United States. A large weight loss industry thrives; childhood obesity and school nutrition issues are constantly in the news, as are issues of food contamination and safety, even the possibility of terrorist contamination of the food supply. The subjects of genetically modified organisms (GMO), food additives and hormone treatment of livestock are frequently in the news. Federal government nutritional standards and labeling requirements seem in a constant state of flux. A large nutritional supplement industry thrives.
Certain food items are considered typically American, since they can be found anywhere in the United States: hamburgers and fried chicken for example. Nevertheless, every region of the United States has its own specialties and food culture. In addition, ethnic cuisines from every corner of the globe thrive in the United States, affect American tastes, and are themselves affected by American eating customs and the American food industry. Pizza is a perfect example; it came from Italy to conquer America, but then metamorphosed into an American food, with variations no Italian would recognize today. Mexican and Chinese cuisines have seen the same phenomenon; American supermarkets even sell American sushi varieties. At the same time, in any major American city, you can find sophisticated restaurants and groceries selling the real thing.
If any trend could be considered certain as it relates to American food, it is the trend toward expansion of flavors and food elements, new ingredients, new dining experiences, and greater food knowledge among the population, all overlaid with a constant concern about health, nutrition and America’s greatest health problem, obesity.