Skip to Content

German Food in the United States

The German influence on American food is largely hidden, mostly because it has gone on for so long. By most accounts, approximately one fourth of the American population is of German descent. At one time, German restaurants set a high culinary standard in most major cities; today they are hard to find even in traditionally German cities like Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Nevertheless, both the hamburger and the frankfurter, sausages and cured meats of many varieties, egg noodles and countless other American dishes have German origins. German foodways affect even the proud barbecue cooking of central Texas, an area with major pockets of German influence.

Among popular American foods, sauerbraten, a sweet and sour pot roast, retains its German name as do sauerkraut and the sausages knackwurst (often called knockwurst), leberwurst (slightly changed to liverwurst) and the popular bratwurst. Americans are comfortable using these terms whether or not they are of German background.

German language names have not always been retained over the generations: breaded veal or pork cutlets are no longer called Wiener Schnitzel; the Roulade is now better known as a “roll ‘em up;” the Knödel is a dumpling; Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte is better known as Black Forest chocolate cake; Berliner Pfannkuchen are now just a type of doughnut; Kartoffel Salat became German potato salad (the kind served warm, made with vinegar). The German language was alive and well in the United States until an anti-German reaction set in during the First World War; menu names changed (sauerkraut was referred to as “Liberty Cabbage” for a time), but the food kept its appeal.

In 1931, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer put out her first edition of The Joy Of Cooking—still the most influential cookbook in the country—making an effort to use standardized English names for a wide variety of popular German dishes. Rombauer’s choice of dishes also reflected a strong bias toward the southern end of the German-speaking regions: Austria and Bavaria. The American connection of German food with Bavaria may also have to do with the fact that U.S. soldiers occupied the area immediately after the Second World War.

German restaurants in the United States tend toward heavy Bavarian cuisine and decorations like cuckoo clocks; Munich’s famous Oktoberfest celebration is mirrored hundreds of times over by mini-Oktoberfest promotions in American restaurants and bars, even those that normally serve other types of food.

Associated in the popular view with the Amish and Mennonite communities, but actually reflecting a much wider heritage, Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine (the people are actually of German descent) keeps alive diverse food traditions, and many food names, that reflect the cooking of the Rhineland Palatinate and nearby regions of several centuries ago.

Lager beer, the predominant form of beer consumed today in the United States (and in fact the world) was brought to the country by German immigrants, first consumed in quantity by German-Americans, and popularized among the general public by “beer barons” like Schlitz, Pabst, Stroh, and Busch (although to be entirely accurate, the pilsner form of lager was first developed in what is now the Czech Republic). The Beck’s brand, from the north German port city of Bremen, is the most popular imported German beer, accounting for a full 60% of the German beer sold in the United States. Its sister brand, St. Pauli Girl, has also many American fans.