Foodie Underground: What’s Our Food Identity?

ColumnAre we finally getting to a place where we’re starting to have a real American food identity?

While reading an interview with a Swedish food stylist and cookbook author, Monica Eisenman, this week, I was interested to read her comment in reference to American food.

“I’m also inspired by the USA. People think that there’s no food culture there, but there is.”

I am certainly personally at fault for perpetuating this idea. Most times that I launch into a conversation about why we have so much bad food in our American system, I often talk about the lack of deep seeded food roots. Yes, we have plenty of heavy food influences that have made their way down the line from generation upon generation of people that have moved here from around the world, but when it comes down to it, we don’t really have any defining food traditions.

That’s not entirely true. We have hamburgers and hotdogs, but when we’re asked to give a definition of American cuisine we’re still hard pressed to list of a handful of core culinary dishes and values.

But Eisenman’s word are room for inspiration; if someone on the outside thinks we’re doing something right, we need to keep doing it, tweaking it, and perfecting it until we get to a place where we all feel like we have a food culture to be proud of.

Fortunately, we’ve got a clean slate on our hands, and it doesn’t have to be filled by professional chefs and fancy restaurants. When I think of the things that are defining American food right now, I come up with multiple results, with everything from locavores to vegans to cupcake lovers to Paleolithic diets. These aren’t all trends that I’m in love with, but they’re all things that other places are paying attention to, and the variety proves that we have plenty of culinary options to choose from when defining our food identity. We don’t always have to be known for double cheeseburgers with bacon.

A couple of movements that could be game changers for our American food identity:

Farmers Markets

I am hearing a general sigh coming from anyone that’s traveled to Europe; “But plenty of other countries have had markets for years, that’s nothing special.” Yes, this is true, but without the farmers market movement in the U.S. we might be nowhere near a track to defining our food identity. Farmers markets have gotten us to truly think about our food, where it comes from and whose hands have touched it. And they’ve put the focus back on the independent, American farmer, an individual that we almost lost along the way of agribusiness.

Farmers markets have been a breeding ground for discussion – a discussion that has been very much needed, and for that, farmers markets should continue to get the credit they deserve.


Supporting your local economy isn’t just important for the food system, it’s crucial for building community. Farmers markets and a heightened awareness of sustainability issues have made everything “local” super hot on the food list, and that has benefited society as a whole. But just because something is locavore, doesn’t mean it always has to be grown, sewn and cooked within a ten-mile radius, and here’s why our version of the trend is so very American.

We’ve revived the notion of gathering our goods from close to home – something many other countries would never ponder as anything spectacular – and we’ve mixed it into our own melting pot that we’ve come to love. That means everything from fair trade coffee beans, hand roasted locally and delivered by bike to hole-in-the-wall must-sees that are staples in the local dining community.

The “Frees”

Gluten free, dairy free, wheat free, nut free… In the U.S. it’s getting easier and easier to find alternatives to foods that for some are harmful. We’re getting better and better about labeling, and people are thinking more creatively about what they eat, often for the better.

Without launching into a discussion about everyone’s personal opinion on exactly what we should and shouldn’t eat – “to be vegan, or not to be vegan?” that seems to be the ongoing question – a society that has to put limits on its food for dietary reasons is going to be forced to get creative. We can argue that our bad food habits may have gotten us in this place to begin with, but moving forward I know that I am personally thankful to have added gluten free cake (try this recipe for starters), and dairy free mousse (made with avocado and coconut milk) to my cooking repertoire.

Artisanal Everything

Be it liqueurs, cheeses or kombucha, the new food revolution is happening right in people’s own kitchens, backyards and basements. That’s promising for our food identity because it means that everyone can take part, not just the gastronomic elite — amateur is still in. And what you make doesn’t have to get sold at the local market, it just has to be something that you love and get excited about sharing with your friends.


When First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama gets behind food policy for kids, you know a step has been taken in the right direction. If we want to talk about changing our food system, and our food identity, it certainly has to start from the ground up and that means educating kids about healthy food as well as making sure they have access to it and know what to do with it.

Companies like Choice Lunch are ensuring that it’s easy to get fresh, local fare into the hands of babes, and there are even cooking classes, some even with a French flair, geared at the younger generation.

When it comes to our food identity, we’ve got the tools, it’s just up to us to determine what they will be used for.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Marshall Astor, Anna Brones

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.