America prides itself on being a melting pot of all cultures. And this has led to an incredible variety of cuisines, some of which have origins that are no longer clear. We may sometimes feel tricked into believing we are eating Italian, Chinese, or Mexican cuisine — when in fact, some items on the menu originated here in the good old U.S.A. Here are six “international” foods that are actually American creations.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
What could be more Italian than spaghetti and meatballs? As it turns out, just about anything. Meatballs in Italy are typically served alone, either as an appetizer or a main course. Pasta toppings and sauces have a finer texture in Italy and are designed to stick to the noodles, so you can enjoy a mixture of all the flavors in every bite. If you’re a true Italian chef, meatballs have no place in pasta because they’re too big to stick to the noodles. So don’t try to order this “Italian” dish in Italy.
Spaghetti and meatballs is an invention of Italian immigrants who moved to America at the turn of the century. They were making a lot more money in America than they were in Italy. Eating became less about necessity and more about getting the food to taste as good as possible.
With more affordable meat, traditional meatballs went from being marble-sized to too big to fit into your mouth. In the late 1800s, there wasn’t much variety in the local grocery stores, especially when it came to pasta shapes. There was, however, plenty of spaghetti and tomato sauce. The three became forever intertwined.
General Tso’s Chicken
While there’s some debate over where this popular “Chinese” dish was invented, one thing is for certain: It wasn’t invented in China. A Taiwanese man named Peng Chang-kuei claimed to have invented the sweet and savory dish in the 1950s when serving U.S. military leaders. He then brought the recipe to his New York restaurant where it became a favorite of politicians like Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was supposedly one of the first people to try General Tso’s chicken, and he helped boost its popularity nationwide. As for the dish's name? It might have been named after a Chinese military leader.
In 1880, a man named Samuel Thomas moved to New York from England and opened his own bakery. He was used to making crumpets in England, which are very similar to English muffins except they are typically smaller and eaten whole. Thomas started making a brand-new recipe called Nooks and Crannies, which were larger and meant to be cut in half and toasted. Today, we know them as Thomas’ English Muffins. They have been an American favorite for 140 years.
Yes, English is in the name, and yes, they were made by an Englishman, but the muffins were invented after Thomas moved to America. So officially, English muffins were invented in New York City.
German Chocolate Cake
German chocolate cake is tricky. Most people believe that it’s named for its origin, but really, it’s named after its inventor. Sam German was an American baker who invented a new style of baking chocolate in 1852. The recipe stayed under the radar until 1957 when it was published in a Dallas newspaper. That’s right, German chocolate cake hails from Texas.
Originally, the cake was called German’s chocolate cake, which would have helped ease some of the confusion. Over years of reprints and publications, the name lost its apostrophe and “s,” and now people everywhere believe that it’s a fancy foreign dessert. Maybe that helped it become so popular?
In the 1960s, a Texas butcher shop owner named Sonny Falcon wanted to come up with a way to sell the unwanted skirt steak. He started to cook the undesirable meat and roll it into tortillas to entice shoppers with the smell and to be able to provide samples. He called the invention “fajitas” because he thought the skirt steak looked like a belt; “faja” means “belt” in Spanish. The recipe exploded in popularity. Falcon even traveled around making the famous recipe at rodeos and events all over Texas, and he became known as the "Fajita King.”
French Roast Coffee
After World War II, Americans had forgotten what it was like to drink good coffee. During wartime, importing good beans was too expensive, and coffee took a back seat to more pressing issues. When the war was over, people forgot that better coffee was out there. When Alfred Peet made his way to the United States from Holland, he couldn’t figure out why the richest country in the world was drinking the world’s worst coffee. He made it his mission to change the coffee-drinking culture.
In 1966, Peet set up his own coffee shop in California and started making dark roast coffee that Americans hadn't seen before. He called one of his brews “French roast.” By brewing superior beans, Peet inspired the craft coffee revolution and even helped Starbucks get its start.