When you think of American food, you probably think of burgers, hot dogs, pizza, meatloaf, and of course, apple pie. However, despite their iconic status in American cuisine, all of these foods have roots that go back well beyond their current, modern iterations.
Hamburger, as the name implies, traces its roots back to Hamburg, Germany. Back before the beef patty was wedged between two pieces of bread, it was the famous Hamburg steak. Popularized in New York by Charles Ranhofer, a French immigrant who brought European influences with him. Minced, and mixed with breadcrumbs and onions, the Hamburg steak was usually salted and smoked, but not always cooked. Going even further back, the Hamburg steak was in turn influenced by Russian methods of preparing meat (which later became steak tartare), and the Russians, in turn, adopted the method from the Mongolians.
Hot dogs, of course, owe their existence to sausages. While it is not certain who was the first to put a sausage on a roll, the two leading claims are German immigrant Charles Feltman, or Bavarian immigrant Antonoine Feuchtwanger. Much like the Hamburg steak, sausages came to America mostly via Germany. Also often called “frankfurters” or “weiners”, these terms come from the popularity of sausages in Frankfurt, Germany; and Vienna (called Wein by German-speaking peoples), Austria. Despite the popularity of sausages in Germany and Austria though, the sausage itself is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history, with references to sausages being found in the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire, and Ancient Greece.
Pizza is widely credited as originating in Italy, which is certainly true of the modern, savory version of the dish we know today. In fact, pizza was so popular in Italy in the late nineteenth century that no single Italian immigrant can be credited with bringing it to the United States. However, Gennaro Lombardi of Naples is the one credited with opening the first dedicated pizzeria State-side in 1905. Italians were not the only ones to top flatbread with toppings though. Both sweet and savory predecessors to pizza can be found in Roman Jewish culture, Persia, China, India, Central and South Asia, Sardinia, Finland, Alsace, Germany, France, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and even as far back as the Neolithic era.
Meatloaf is a classic, homestyle dish known for its comfort food status. It is generally agreed that American meatloaf originated with scrapple, or panhaas, a mix of pork scraps and cornmeal shaped into a loaf and sliced. The mix of German, Alsatian, Dutch, French Huguenot, Moravian, and Swiss immigrants that moved to Pennsylvannia in the late 17th and early 18th centuries later came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, or Pennsylvania Deutsch (referring to a form of the German language that grew out of the various dialects), and it is this blending of immigrant groups which is credited with scrapple. Variatons on meatloaf are traditional in German, Scandanavian, and Belgian culture (also closely related is the Dutch meatball) and meatloaf can be found in cookbooks going back as far as the 5th century Roman Apicius.
Apple pie, if popular wisdom is to be believed, is as American as it gets. “As American as apple pie.” However, only two varieties of apple trees – both strains of the extremely sour crabapple – were originally native to North America and due to their extremely sour nature were rarely used as a food source. Even when apple trees were first brought over by European immigrants, their primary purpose was making apple cider, not apple pie. Conversely, the earliest recorded apple pie recipe comes from England in 1381. Additionally, apples themselves are not native to Europe, but rather originated in the mountains of Central Asia where they were cultivated by the populations of southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang, China. Alexander the Great is credited with bringing apples back from Kazakhstan to Macedonia in 328 BCE and beginning the spread of apples into Europe.