Does America have a cultural food icon and a food philosophy? by Linn Steward

When Professor Shewfelt asked if me if I would share some throughs on the topic of American food philosophy, of course my answer was yes.

Linn Steward is a frequent reader, commenter, and guest blogger on this site. We discussed food philosophies via email last year. The last two posts were inspired by her. Here she takes on the American philosophy of food and assigns it an icon.

Linn steward French plate
Leeks with oil and vinegar dressing. Paris 2016. photo credit

Then the immensity of how to approach the topic sunk in …

We’re a big, geographically diverse country of immigrants, each contributing different food cultures and traditions. No patterns of commonality emerged no matter how many times I looked.

Inspiration arrived just in time from another of my other favorite bloggers. This post featured a French baguette and was titled Does a Cultural Icon Need a “Healthy” Label?. I read the post and knew where to start. My thanks to Ted Kyle.

France has a food philosophy and that philosophy has a cultural icon. The baguette is ubiquitous. Every town has a baker and bread is baked daily, sometimes multiple times each day. Pictured above is a half slice of baguette which is used to mop up all that extra dressing left over after finished those beautiful steamed and marinated leeks. And trust me, it was delicious!

The baguette is a cultural icon and has come to symbolize the French approach to eating characterized by an appreciation and enjoyment of food.

Every food philosophy needs a cultural icon so I went out looking for our American cultural food icon. What single item could reflect a common thread holding our social and gastronomic approach to food together?

Thanksgiving is the day when Americans eat essentially the same meal so I considered maybe roast turkey would work as our American cultural icon. There are southern and western and east coast and mid-west variations for appetizers and sides but the focus of the meal is always the same – the bird. I decided to reject roast turkey as a cultural icon however because Americans don’t eat turkey every day.

Is there a single item could reflect our practical minded, innovative, individualist approach to getting on with the daily task of eating? A single food that most Americans eat every day? An image that cuts across gender, race, geography, and ethnic origin?

Well yes I said to myself there is such an item and it’s called fast food. According to industry stats, one in three Americans eat fast food every day. And according to the CDC, that number cuts across race, gender, geography, and income bracket. Fast food outlets are ubiquitous across our country just like the Boulangerie is in France.

Fast food matches up with our American gift for getting things done cheaper, faster and better. So how could my choice of an American food icon be anything other than the American Hamburger 🍔!

An American Hamburger or a French Baguette may not qualify as healthy but for me at least each qualifies as an accurate reflection their culture of origin.

If we Americans have a food philosophy, that philosophy too will be grounded in our practical minded, innovative, individualist approach to getting on with the daily task of eating.

Being a practical people, eating for many of my fellow Americans is an interruption to an otherwise productive day. As a colleague of mine used to remind me – It’s just lunch. Ordering a hamburger from a fast-food chain is fast, suits our practical nature, and completed the task quickly.

Now think about food innovation. What country provides such a fertile ground for encourage new ways to make and market food? From those first cans of Borden’s evaporated milk, Americans have distinguished ourselves as food innovators. Fast food began when McDonald’s automated the food production line and significantly speeded up service. The hamburger has undergone stylist changed but the structure has remained essentially static. Innovations are coming and it will be interesting to watch how our American Hamburger adapts to plant-based burgers or cell cultured burgers. It’s speculation on my part, but my guess is that if these innovations are successful, the hamburger will play a significant role.

Food manufacturers, restaurants, even home cooks willingly cater to options for individualization. For example, you will find a mind-boggling array of different formulations for BBQ sauce on any supermarket shelf. Customers in most restaurants and fast-food outlets can choose to customize basic items. Even home cooks find themselves juggling the social or sports schedules of family members or catering to different family preferences. Eating occasions have become flexible. The hamburger can be ordered at any time day or night and can be eaten in solitude or in a group.


So that’s my case for the American hamburger as our own cultural icon and the representative of our American food philosophy. We may not be willing to spend two hours every day appreciating and enjoying our lunch, but we excel at getting the job of eating done in a practical, innovative, and individualist manner.

Coming soon: Why I eat what I do.

4 thoughts on “Does America have a cultural food icon and a food philosophy? by Linn Steward

  1. Hello Linn and Robert,

    The hamburger is a great choice.  Pizza could be second, but isn’t as
    worldwide and still has the Italian culture attached.  I object only to
    your implication that hamburgers are unhealthy.  They do lack some
    micronutrients and roughage, but are OK with bun for the macros of
    carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  I know there are bun-chuckers, and
    how much matters.   I told my no-longer-children about 9-4-4-0 (Kcal/gm
    for fats/proteins/carbs) but they don’t care, and they turned out
    differently: one doesn’t eat meats and minimizes carbs, one is proud
    carnivore, and the third eats everything and at 52 is diabetic (so what,
    I get pills!).

    We make and eat hamburgers at home, but with veggies (especially onions,
    bell peppers) on the side, and skip the bun.   One pound raw feeds two
    largish elders, but the starch is a personal choice and even a baguette
    is OK.  In Germany they are Frikadellen not hamburgers, pan-fried which
    is how I do mine, and may have lettuce and tomato.  I suspect the bun
    isn’t the same, either, or there is another starch on the side.  Origin
    may not even have connection to Hamburg city. People from Hamburg are
    Hamburgers.  In any case, the American Hamburger is unique, worldwide,
    and a worthy iconic food.

    The veggie-burger feeds the American middle-class obsession with plants
    and proteins, and will achieve some success if priced sensibly (a little
    more than meat to make buyers think they are getting something special,
    which they are).  I can’t say much about synthetic meat, but expect its
    cost to control its volume.  Not plant, not animal, not for me.

    Your recognition of speed is right on.  Also, it does make a difference
    whom we eat with and how long we stay at the table.  And who invites and
    who pays.  But for everyday eating it’s like filling the car with gas. 
    (Analogy: resentment of time needed to charge electrics.)  Speed is more
    important.  I see it as connected to our competitive ethic and the
    prospect of longer senior-lives plus decreasing importance of
    afterlives.  Are there hamburgers in heaven?  What do angels eat?

    Best regards


    1. Thanks Allan. I agree with you that hamburgers contribute to good health. Many dietitians caution against vegetarian diets for children as they benefit from the protein and micronutrients found in meat. The other point I must make is that veggie burgers are more expensive than real meat. There is evidence that they are approaching the same price point. If veggie substitutes become less expensive, it is thought they will become much more competitive. The imminent demise of the veggie burger proclaimed by its opponents reminds me of the 2006 movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” It seems like it was resuscitated. Rob


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