What exactly is American food? It can sometimes be a challenge to define because of the country’s expansive landscape and diversity, all of which contribute to the national cuisine. Hamburgers, milkshakes, and apple pies easily qualify as typical “American” food—food that can be easily acquired and is enjoyed at thousands of international McDonald’s locations. But America has unique delicacies and treats that can rarely be found anywhere else and haven’t won over global tastebuds.
While a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is, if not beloved, at least known in practically every corner of this country, the very concept of a PB&J disgusts many in other countries. To further explore this phenomenon, Stacker compiled a list of 20 uniquely American foods that might raise the eyebrows of anybody outside of the U.S. using reports from Tasting Table, Eater, Food & Wine, and various other sources.
This list’s food ranges from national culinary icons to regional treats. Taken together, they also paint a picture of American life, from the value of convenience to the influence of immigrant cultures. All foods were either invented, first recorded, or popularized by the United States to a point where it’s become closely associated with the country. Take a look at 20 American foods that might seem strange in other parts of the world.
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Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
The PB&J is a quintessentially American sandwich, but it’s simply not as ubiquitous in other countries. Part of the reason is that peanut butter has been historically difficult to find in countries like Argentina and the Philippines, where there just isn’t a big appetite for the product.
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Although this dish has roots and similarities to German and Austrian wiener schnitzel or Argentinian milanesa, people commonly identify chicken-fried steak with the American South. The dish, which doesn’t include chicken at all, consists of a breaded and fried beefsteak, typically served with mashed potatoes and gravy.
Sweet potato casserole
It’s either beloved or despised, but a sweet potato casserole will almost always be found at an American Thanksgiving dinner table. The recipe involves roasting sweetened sweet potatoes topped with a gooey layer of marshmallows and was first introduced in 1917 thanks to the Angelus Marshmallows company’s effort to increase sales.
Ambrosia salad is popular in the South, particularly around the holidays. The dish typically includes a variety of canned fruits, marshmallows, coconut, and creamy ingredients like mayonnaise, whipped cream, sour cream, or yogurt. The earliest reference to this sweet salad is in the 1867 “Dixie Cookery” cookbook by Maria Massey Barringer.
Cheez Whiz, a spreadable, processed cheese that comes in a jar or spray can, turns heads in countries like France, where high-quality cheese is a national treasure. While the first commercially processed cheese was made in Switzerland in 1911, the treat has been uniquely American since Kraft patented a formula for processed cheese in America in 1916. It has since been the choice cheese for many dishes, including Philly’s iconic cheesesteak.
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Tater Tots—little, poppable fried clumps of potatoes—were first introduced in 1954 by the founders of the American frozen food company Ore-Ida, F. Nephi and Golden Grigg. The crispy snack gained popularity due to its convenience and tastiness and has since been a staple of the American school cafeteria.
Corn dogs, hot dogs on a stick coated entirely with fried sweet cornbread, are a sweet and savory on-the-go snack typically found at American recreational locales like theme parks, fairs, and beachside boardwalks. Like a few other items on this list, the origins of the corn dog are widely disputed. Some claim it first appeared at a Texas state fair in 1942, and others claim a version of a corn dog called a Pronto Pup appeared on Labor Day 1939 in Portland, Oregon. Either way, this is a one-of-a-kind iteration of a hot dog that might look strange to anyone outside the U.S.
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Chicken and waffles
While neither chicken nor waffles are specifically American delicacies, the combination of the two is very American. The dish pairs savory, crispy fried chicken with sweet and fluffy waffles, often with butter and syrup to boot, and is typically found in the American South. Some have speculated chicken and waffles as a meal has roots in both Dutch and German, as well as African American cuisine.
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The Cobb salad, a giant salad containing practically the whole food pyramid, consists of chopped iceberg lettuce or romaine, bacon, chicken breast, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, cheese (generally blue), chives, and is tossed with a red wine vinaigrette. The salad was born in 1937 at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood by owner Robert Howard Cobb. Though the ingredients are not particularly odd, the salad is high in calories and salt, which may be considered unhealthy to diners from other countries.
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Grits, a type of porridge made from boiled cornmeal, is not something you’d typically see on breakfast tables in any other country. Though similar to polenta, which can be found globally, the food has roots in Native American cuisine (though it isn’t tied to any one culture). Grits have been largely adopted as a staple in the American South.
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People across the U.S. may have their own way of making a Sloppy Joe, but the dishes all end up as some iteration of a sweet, tomato-y, loose-meat sandwich that requires multiple napkins. A staple of school cafeterias, the Sloppy Joe has multiple origin stories, including one where Ernest Hemingway popularized the sandwich in America by way of Cuba.
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It may shock people outside the U.S., or perhaps even outside of New York, that an egg cream contains neither egg nor cream. The treat contains milk, chocolate syrup, and seltzer. It originated in New York City’s Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Once a widely popular American dish, jello salad can perhaps raise American eyebrows just as easily as non-American eyebrows. The now-retro dish, which embeds anything from fruit to tuna in jiggly, sweet gelatin, was once ubiquitous and became particularly popular during the Depression. This was a time when households were encouraged to get the most out of their food by getting creative with gelatin, all through post-World War II.
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Biscuits and gravy
These flaky, buttery biscuits smothered in thick, savory gravy would be an odd dish in any Parisian bistro or Singaporean hawker center. The merging of biscuits with gravy is said to have first occurred in the late 1800s in southern Appalachia. This Southern dish can still be found in diners and eateries nationwide.
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As if the name doesn’t say it all, American cheese is a very American delicacy that comes in convenient little plastic-wrapped squares and is not particularly well respected in the rest of the world. It’s a processed cheese made from cheddar and, like Cheez Whiz, was developed when Kraft patented their way of processing cheese. Also known as yellow cheese, it’s a beloved choice for American staples like grilled cheese and cheeseburgers.
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It’s comparable to a hamburger or meatball, but meatloaf is really its own thing. There are many iterations of a classic American meatloaf recipe, dating back to the late 1800s, but it will often be served alongside some ketchup and mashed potatoes.
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Root beer float
A scoop of ice cream in root beer is a popular dessert found in typical American diners across the country. Allegedly invented by Colorado gold mine owner, Frank J. Wisner, in 1893, the drink is often paired with other classic American foods like french fries and hamburgers. Many non-Americans find the flavor of root beer itself to be unappetizing.
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Girl Scout cookies
Cookies are universal, but ones sold by little girls in green uniforms in front of grocery stores, at soccer games, and door to door—and only during a specific period of time, are particularly unique to the states. For over 100 years, Girl Scout cookies have sparked a frenzy of excitement in Americans, who know they have a limited amount of time to buy and enjoy treats like Thin Mints, Samoas, and Trefoils.
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A truly American innovation, Spam, a processed canned pork, was manufactured by Hormel Foods. By 1937, it was on grocery shelves and gained popularity during World War II as an inexpensive way to feed families and soldiers who brought it with them around the world. Today, the food can spark a divisive conversation, but certainly has a large fanbase. Spam is particularly popular in Hawaii, where it becomes Spam musubi when paired with white rice and wrapped in seaweed.
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A foundational part of New Orleans cuisine, a po’boy sandwich is typically made with either roast beef or fried seafood in the middle, lettuce and onion, and other fixings, and, most importantly, New Orleans-style French bread with a perfect crust-to-fluff ratio. The sandwich was supposedly invented by brothers Benny and Clovis Martin as a means to feed streetcar workers during a strike in 1929, but many competing stories abound. What can’t be disputed is the hearty taste of these sandwiches and the Martin brothers’ role in their popularity.
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