The U.S.A. is a huge and incredibly diverse country. Often called a melting pot of cultures, the foundation of the country is built upon people from other parts of the world. This plays out delightfully in the food scene as what is arguably some of the grossest, and most delicious, food in the world.
There are themes to the gross food coveted by many citizens in the country. What is it, for example, with Americans and shapeless, moldable, meat by-products? Or how about their affinity for neon-colored, gelatinous based desserts and salads? We don’t know, and we’re not sure we want to know.
What we do know is that as unappetizing as the gross food is on this list is how enticing the rest of it sounds. While traditionally not known for it in the same way that says, France or Italy is, the U.S.A. culinary scene is a thriving part of the countries culture. Nowadays, much of the food in the U.S. is competing quite well with those culinary mainstays.
This list is a breakdown of both extremes. The gross food is as much a part of the country as those that we can’t wait to try, and for this, we applaud the U.S. food culture. This variety is what keeps eating there interesting and somehow, in spite of the questionable items here, keeps us coming back for more.
The strangely colored gelatinous mixture that conjures up images of the 1950’s mom in an apron style cooking is still somehow afloat in the American world. While mostly regulated to church basements these days, and generally favored by an aging generation, for the time being, Jell-O salad is still alive and well. The dish can include everything from tuna salad to vegetables to fruit and nut combinations all encased by Jell-O as retold in Serious Eats. The convenience of the one pan moldable meal cannot be overemphasized, but the taste? That is still highly questionable.
Waste not, want not. Chitterlings, the stewed insides of basically any animal, is economical and waste-free, utilizing the parts of the animals that are all too often thrown away. However, the idea of boiled pigs intestines, for example, has us not wanting too much in this dish. Chitterlings are traditionally served up in the Southern United States, and can also be made with cattle leftovers. The broth and chewy bits of internal livestock have somehow remained a mainstay in the area despite its revulsion factor elsewhere in the world.
Cherries, oranges, marshmallows, nuts, sour cream, cottage cheese, it’s all fair game when it comes to an ambrosia salad. Kind of like a can of fruit cocktail dumped into a pile of dairy products and swirled around, ambrosia salad is a specialty of the Southern states that have since crept its way into the middle of the country. Is it dessert? Is it a side dish? Is it a salad? Honestly, we’re still not sure. One thing we do that we do know about ambrosia salad is that we’re not all that interested in finding out.
There are a few varieties of offensive cheese concoctions that are hot on the U.S.A. food circuit but none of them induce horror quite like the beloved spray cheese. Shake, turn it upside down, and gently apply pressure to the applicator tip to get a steady stream of fluorescent orange foam that is supposedly related to cheese. Fake cheese flavors abound, but the chemically induced cheddar and bacon flavor might be the most bizarre of them all. Close behind on the spray’s gross food heels is Cheez Whiz, a semi-solid substance found in jars, and the hot liquid cheese pumped out at sports stadiums, movie theatres, and onto cheesesteak sandwiches around the country.
The fascination with spongy, brightly-colored sweet treats has happily embedded itself into American food culture. Peeps, the baby chicken shaped marshmallow, is coated in crystalized colored sugars so bright they seem to glow, and not in a good way. Twinkies, another similarly textured and tasteless packaged dessert, favors a more subtle golden color. These greasy, log-shaped cakes are stuffed with fake vanilla flavoring and something that is supposed to pass for cream in the middle. The rumor for years now, spread amongst children on playgrounds nationwide, is that a twinkie is filled with so many preservatives that it has the strength to survive a nuclear explosion.
Also known as pork roll, taylor ham is a much-beloved tradition in one place and one place only: New Jersey. The food is a source of great pride for local residents and is embedded deep within the state's history. The original product, Taylor’s Prepared Ham, was created by a then state Senator in 1856. While revered within the state borders, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has heard of the strange breakfast meat outside of NJ. The meat, originally sold in a very unpleasant tube form, is a perplexing mixture of “processed pork product” and spices. Having no idea what a processed pork product is, but with the safe assumption that it has very little to do with the pig it supposedly originated from, the makings of taylor ham remain mostly a mystery. These days, taylor ham is found sliced in packages, where it is removed, fried, and usually, nestled within the safe confines of a breakfast sandwich.
Pizza demands a reverence in American culture that is just shy of a full-blown religion. And with good reason. The varying dough, sauce, and cheese combo that shifts between countries seems to be a universal love. In the U.S., it’s not all so simple. The debate of who makes the best and which city reigns king is hotly contested and ongoing, but there is one form of pizza that crept stealthily into the mix, settled in, and somehow has only gained in popularity. We’re talking about the Hawaiian pizza, the strange concoction of some kind of pork product, canned or sliced pineapple, mozzarella cheese, and tomato sauce all slathered onto an unsuspecting pizza dough base. Born in Canada, the Hawaiian pizza has made its way into mainstream American eating and, sadly, seems here to stay.
While it’s unclear where the “pie” comes into play here, the Frito part is very concrete. In its purest form, Frito Pie is utterly simple and equally nauseating. Simply open a bag of Fritos, ladle hot chili on top and voila, Frito Pie. There is quite the debate regarding where the dish originated. The two top contenders are New Mexico, which serves it as described above, and Texas, which usually tops their version off with shredded cheese and raw onion. While the two states dispute ownership, both agree on their love for the dish. This slop is served across both states at concession stands and restaurants alike and has even started to trickle into other Midwestern states.
While Spam is now found worldwide, the company was started right in middle America. Minnesota to be exact. According to Eater, the canned meat sensation didn’t come about until 30 years after the slaughterhouse had opened. It’s consumption spread worldwide during World War II when the U.S. government used it to feed American troops overseas. In the decades since, spam has evolved many times over. From its original target as the main course to more of an add-on to occasionally showing up on trendy restaurant menus led by world-renowned chef’s, this canned meat has stayed surprisingly relevant in the years since its inception. In spite of its popularity, a quick look at the jellied texture, strange residue coating the insides of the can, and ability to hold any shape it is served in lands Spam on the list of U.S. foods that very much grosses us out.
Cincinnati chili has little to do with what most of us think of as chili. As described by the Chicago Tribune, the dish was made by two immigrants from an area of Europe that is now Greece in the 1920’s. Instead of looking to their new country for inspiration, they relied on the flavors that they were used to when creating the chili. The result is a stewed, meaty tomato sauce, infused with Mediterranean spices like cloves and cinnamon, which is spooned on top of spaghetti. It is then topped with a towering heap of shredded Cheddar cheese, chopped raw onions, beans, or all three. Interesting? Maybe. But not enough to get us to want to try the strange mixture.
Depending on where in the world you are reading this from, you likely either find sushi a delicious meal or a weird meal. The raw fish, seaweed, and rice combo has made a huge climb in popularity in Western cultures over the decades, especially in the U.S. As food dishes tend to do when they enter this diverse of a country, the sushi that originally came to the U.S. is not the same as what is served there now. Some creations are better than others. The Philadelphia sushi roll, for example, made with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumbers are one interpretation that we could live without.
Even the people who regularly eat scrapple would be hard pressed to tell you exactly what it is. Sold in a slice or full loaf form, it is one of those unidentifiable meat product conglomerates that would make most people cringe. It varies in color, from pinkish-brown to greyish-brown, although the whole range of shades is equally unappetizing. However, to those who find a place in their hearts for it, scrapple is a breakfast staple, treated in a similar way as bacon or sausage in other households. So what is it, exactly? Unspecified meat--pork and “other” being popular on the ingredient lists--mixed with cornmeal and molded into a loaf. It is usually served sliced and fried. Scrapple is hyper-localized, being found almost exclusively in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Also known affectionately as “dirty water dogs” on the streets of New York City, a street hot dog is about as far from “food” as one can possibly get while eating. No matter how it’s served, almost all pre-packaged hot dogs that are eaten in the U.S.A. are questionable. Meat by-products that are ground into a form that in no way resembles the original meat they came from and then encased, the oblong-shaped hot dog is as American as apple pie. Taking the already very uninviting idea of the hot dog described above and throwing into a steaming pool of likely unsanitized water and you have the street hot dog. The counterparts, the grilled street dog, are only slightly less nauseating.
The only thing better than a great cheese is a great fried cheese, or so the saying goes, at least that’s how our saying goes. The state of Wisconsin happens to have some of the best in the business. World famous for its cheese, the state has an impressive dairy industry. Most well-known for the delicious varieties of Cheddars produced by Wisconsin’s farms, locals have taken things one step further. As Thrillist describes, the curd--the younger, milder cheddar created in the cheese making process--is the perfect structure for frying. Both the shape and the size of curds hold up well when coated in batter and dunked in boiling hot oil. The melted yet firm texture and salty, comforting taste of a cooked cheese curd embodies everything there is to love about American food.
It would be hard to find a New England native that did not have a strong opinion about Steamers. The local dish follows it’s namesake quite literally. It is, in fact, a pot of steamed local clams. Steamers are the type of clam used, a common shellfish that is found throughout the Northeastern coastal waters. The fishing industry is still very strong in this part of the country, meaning the catch is almost always fresh and local. Sold cheaply and tossed into a large pot, it’s also an incredibly economical meal. As part of a proper clambake, the pot will also likely include steamed potatoes, corn on the cob, and onion in addition to the clams. Seafood this fresh does not need much dressing up. Steam, dunk in melted butter for extra American food points and enjoy each delicious bite.
Buttery dough, cut into round shapes and left to bake up into biscuits are enough reason to celebrate, but why stop there? Thankfully, in many states in the Southeastern corner of the United States, they don’t. No, instead they take those melt in your mouth delights and top them with a gravy. For those familiar with the classic Thanksgiving feast, this gravy is a bit different than the kind you are used to pouring on your turkey. The gravy that comes with this Southern dish is white, not brown, and made from milk or cream instead of the bones of a meat product. Sausage is added to infuse the sauce with a savory flavor after it is thickened with flour. The result is a hearty, smoky, stick-to-your-bones gravy that pairs perfectly with the sweet, flaky, biscuit.
It’s hard to pick just one pie of all the varieties that the U.S. offers, and we recommend you don’t. The pie scene in the States is mostly seasonal, the selection showcasing the best of what the country is harvesting at different times of the year. Stone and vine fruit pies, like peach and berry, hit tables in the Summer. The fall is the time for popular tree fruits Apple and Pear to take over the pie crust filling, and winter tends to shift to the surprisingly delicious Rhubarb, Sweet Potatoes, Pumpkins, and Squashes. Then, there are other mainstays. Pecan pie, made from the nuts its named for are mixed into a gooey, buttery brown sugar filling. Or head down to the Southernmost tip of the country to get the best Key Lime Pie money can buy in the islands off the coast of Florida that grow the citrus treasures. There’s no need to be picky here. Be as American as Apple Pie and sample as many slices of this traditional dessert that you can get your hands on.
Baked meat is a big theme in American cooking. While it got a bad reputation in the middle of the century era of Betty Crocker only dishes, it has made a comeback, redefining itself as a staple worthy of the always evolving food scene in the U.S. Take any large cut of Beef, stew it in broth and it’s own juices for hours on end in a low and slow oven until it is so tender it is almost falling apart and you have pot roast. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Throw in some onions, carrots, or potatoes, and you’ve got a full meal by U.S. standards, though it wouldn’t hurt to add some more vegetables onto your now meat heavy plate.
Ask someone in the U.S. were spaghetti and meatballs come from and you may get the confident response, “Italy.” This is only partially true. While the pasta piece can be attributed to the glorious cooks of this European nation, the combination of rolled balls of meat with spaghetti began on American soil. Italian-born immigrants brought this much-loved staple to life over a century ago, says Escoffier International Culinary Academy. These working men and women spent less on food once in the U.S. then they did previously in Italy, and compensated for it by adding more meat to their diet. Thus, the meatball was born, something which most Americans are eternally grateful for.
We’re not talking about the boxed, neon-orange colored cheese variety here. No, this is a reference to the home cooking, stick to your bones, kind of macaroni and cheese. The kind where noodles and a homemade cheese sauce is combined and baked in a square or rectangle glass pan, sometimes topped with breadcrumbs, sometimes not. Preferably, this dish is being prepared by someone’s mother, father, or grandparent from a secret family recipe. This is the kind of meal that makes American food truly great. Where recipes are passed down through generations, the secrets of it protected by life and limb, and the results of it cherished by those who are fortunate enough to get a sample.
This one should really only be eaten when in Maryland. Of course, there are always exceptions, say, when a Baltimore born chef moves to Seattle, for example. But generally, a crabcake should be made with fresh, local Maryland blue crabs and eaten within the boundaries of the state. Nowadays, imitation cakes are found on bar and fine dining menus alike all over the country. Don't be fooled by these imitation cakes. The original Maryland crabcakes are the reason they make the list of things we just can't wait to try.
A DIY dessert that’s easy, cheap, and as delicious as can be. All you need for the perfect S'mores is a roasted marshmallow, preferably cooked over an open fire at the end of a stick, two pieces of chocolate, and two graham crackers. Layer the ingredients starting with a marshmallow, a piece of chocolate, and crackers on both ends like a sandwich. Proceed to dive right in for a bite of gooey, melted magic. These taste best when eaten around a campfire on a Summer night, preferably sharing stories and laughs with friends and family.
Chicken is not all that exciting on its own. However, chicken coated in batter and immersed in scaldingly hot oil until it turns a gorgeous, golden brown? That is something to get very excited about. The U.S. loves fried chicken, so much so that restaurants and fast food chains alike continue to experiment with it. Some of these have been wins and some losses. In our opinion, there may be no greater fried chicken victory than the genius who thought up pairing it with sweet, fluffy, waffles. Top it with maple syrup--trust us--and you have the makings of a sweet, salty, crispy, chewy culinary masterpiece.
In an effort to steer clear of the “which city has better pizza” argument, we are choosing to acknowledge both culinary masterpieces here. Pizza is not just pizza, the style ranging wildly depending on the origin of who is making it, sometimes being completely different foods within 100 miles of each other. While New York and Chicago share the same nationality, the pizza could not be any more different. Chicago’s style is also referred to as deep dish, a literal description of how it’s made. With a thick, chewy crust, heaps of melted mozzarella, and a slathering of rich tomato sauce, one slice of this will have you filled to the brim and ready for a nap. New York style, on the other hand, is made on a traditional pan sheet producing a much thinner and crunchier crust, with the sauce first and cheese last. Both deserve all the love and respect that they have rightfully earned.
Born in a small city in upstate New York that it is also named after, this dish is now found on just about every single bar menu in the country. Made with chicken wings, and sometimes legs, the meat is cooked in a fried and tossed with a spicy sauce. Be smart when ordering these for the first time, the heat level varies hugely on wings. Many regions host competitions for the spiciest sauce, with winners creating wings so hot they are inedible for the average American. Spicy levels aside, the wings are the perfectly tangy accompaniment to another American tradition: beers and football.
Another regional specialty, BBQ is very different depending on where it comes from. Traditionally, the Southern U.S. has the claim to the best BBQ in the country. Within them, the types of sauces, cooking, techniques, and meat choices all make for quite different meals from state to state and even city to city. In the Carolinas, it's more about the sauce. Here, the meat takes a backburner to what its cooked in. In Austin, Texas, the BBQ is about patience and time. Brisket is the specialty here, which is coated in a dry rub and then slow cooked for days. Other spots that are famous for their smoked meats are Kansas and Tennessee. Nowadays, BBQ can be found all over the country, but the originals are the best for seeking out this traditional American food.
There are too many varieties to pick just one. Regionally, there is almost always a local sandwich to be found. Traveling through the Northeast? Try one of the area’s famous lobster rolls. In Louisana, it’s the Po’Boy. When in Chicago, there’s little more important than sampling their Italian Beef sandwich. The sandwich comes in all shapes and sizes in the U.S., with very little disappointments. Do a little research about where you are visiting and seek out the sandwich that the locals can’t stop bragging about.
Yes, there is more ground meat molded into a specific shape on this list, the meatloaf. This very American dish is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of meats, often beef, pork, turkey or a combination of the three, that is baked off in a loaf pan. Before it is put into the oven, a variety of spices and aromatics, like parsley and garlic, are folded into the mixture. Eggs and breadcrumbs are added to bind all the delicious ingredients together, and then the loaf is topped with a tomato sauce, usually ketchup. It is best served sliced on top of a heaping mound of mashed potatoes.
Beginning in the Southern U.S., soul food is stick to your bones, down-home cooking. Heavy in butter, pork, and other fats, soul food will make you feel like you're eating at grandmas house. Normally, soul food is comprised of fresh, local vegetables, meats, and fish that is lovingly enhanced with the touch of great cooks. Collard greens stewed in pork fat and ham hocks, fried catfish coated in a light, flaky breading, and rich, buttery cornbread are a few examples of what to expect when sampling this American cuisine. A plate will often contain a protein, meat or fish, and several sides of your choice.
Of all the items on this list, there may be nothing more American than the cheeseburger. The concept of a bun, burger, and melted cheese is executed differently throughout the U.S., but the simplicity of it demands that it remain delicious in all of its forms. Thin beef patties or those reaching up to 1 lb., grilled over an open flame or cooked in a pan, sliced cheese, shredded, or crumbled, there are so many ways to eat the perfect burger and many places claiming that they have done it the best. The cheeseburger is highly adaptable and customizable. It shows up on menus created by world-renowned chefs and in diners in the middle of the country. The beef and cheese combination can be topped with just about anything and sandwiched between any bread-like substance. For the true cheeseburger experience, have one that is a ground beef patty, not too thin and not too thick, topped with a slice of melted American cheese, and a dab of ketchup sandwiched between a white bun.