The United States is known as a melting pot, and food is no exception: The national menu is a mix of cuisines from all over the world. The influence from every nationality that has landed in America can be found, with regional cuisines developing as early as the mid-19th century [source: Collins]. Sometimes it's not the ingredients but the technique that provides the influence. When enough people of the same nationality move into a region, that food culture infuses itself into the neighborhood kitchens and restaurants. The techniques are introduced and the ingredients become more readily available. Before you know it, a regional cuisine is established and local foods emerge. Here are 10 regional foods you may have never heard of.
Sometimes, regional foods are made from ingredients that make it seem like the dish was destined to stay local. Take chitlins, for instance. Also known as chitterlings, this food from the Deep South is made from hog intestines. Chitlins are traditionally served during the holiday season, but they're enjoyed year-round by chitlin enthusiasts. The intestines are thoroughly cleaned, then boiled for a few hours, creating a unique smell that many might find offensive. This is why they were traditionally prepared outdoors. After the stewing process, they're typically cut up, breaded and fried, then served with hot sauce and spicy vinegar along with collard greens, corn bread and fried chicken.
Hawaii is known for its breathtaking sunsets, miles of beach and killer surf. It's also famous for its Polynesian influenced cuisine, from whole roasted pigs at the luau to poi and poke. One of the lesser-known Hawaiian dishes is called loco moco, a comfort food that can be found in just about any fast food restaurant and diner on the islands. Loco moco is typically absent from the menu in finer restaurants, but it's embraced by the masses. So what exactly is a "crazy" moco? It's a large pile of white rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy. Variations mix up the brown gravy with white, and how the egg is prepared, but sunny-side up is the most common incarnation.
Lutefisk is one of those foods that was probably destined to stay regional. There's something about a dried fish soaked in a lye solution that attracts only the most adventurous foodies. It's a dish only a mother could love, or more specifically, only a Norwegian mother. Over the course of as many as eight days, dried whitefish is soaked in water and a lye-based mixture in order to rehydrate the fish, causing it to swell and lose about half of its protein in the process. This leaves the fish with a jelly-like consistency that's very much an acquired taste. Norwegian-Americans eat the salty fish on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in some Midwestern states, you can find it prepared in grocery stores and restaurants. Eating the fish is linked to courage and hardship.
This dish from the Southern United States, mainly the Carolinas, is the traditional meal served in many homes on New Year's Day. Its roots lay in the black-eyed peas believed to be brought the American South by African slaves who worked on rice plantations. The meal today consists of black-eyed peas, white rice, ham hocks and tomato sauce. Other variations include spicy pork sausage, and the meal is always served with collard greens. Some families hide a shiny dime in the Hoppin' John, and whoever finds it gets good luck in the coming year. The greens represent financial gain for the New Year. The meal has such superstitious roots for being the first thing eaten on New Year's Day that some families toast at midnight with a bowl of steaming hot Hoppin' John.
Boston Baked Beans
Boston, Mass., is known by many as "Beantown" because of the city's long association with baked bean dishes. This all came about because of Boston's rum trade, which was part of what was known as the triangular trade. Sugar cane shipped to Boston from the Caribbean became molasses, which became rum that was traded for slaves that were sent to the Caribbean to grow more sugar. The key ingredient to Boston baked beans is the molasses, and at one point the city was literally awash in it. A molasses tank exploded in Boston in 1919, killing 21 people and flooding the neighborhood with hot molasses. The popular dish is still served in many restaurants and in the homes of Red Sox fans everywhere.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are known for producing quality goods, whether it's artisan wood furniture or delicious handmade foods. No other dessert is tied to the Amish country like the shoofly pie. Variations of the pie abound, but the most common form is akin to a rich coffee cake, with a sticky molasses bottom. Served warm with whipped topping, this favorite of the bakeries and restaurants of Pennsylvania owes it roots to the treacle tart dessert in England. There are various stories about the unusual name, but the most commonly held theory is that the sugary pies cooling in the windows attracted a fair amount of unwelcome flies.
This colorful Mardi Gras sweet treat can be found in bakeries all over New Orleans, but its roots lay in France and Spain. These countries brought the King Cake, named for the Bible's three kings, to the Louisiana region in the mid-18th century [source: kingcake.com]. The cake itself varies depending on the baker, but it's traditionally twisted bread cake with some kind of colorful, sugary icing. Sometimes, the sticky bread contains a filling, such as chocolate, fresh fruit or cream cheese. However, some more daring bakeries have included eccentric fillings made from crawfish. What makes the king cake truly unique is the little plastic baby baked inside. The tradition started in France, with an uncooked bean being placed inside. It evolved into tiny trinkets, and in the case of Mardi Gras, a small plastic baby. Whoever gets the piece the baby is in is the king or queen for a day and must provide the cake at the following year's celebration.
Shrimp and Grits
Grits are a specialty of the South, and along the coastal regions of South Carolina, gulf shrimp remains its most beloved companion. People from the South often get the following question from people in other parts of the country: What exactly is a grit? Grits are made from stone ground corn, and have been a part of North American cuisine for a long time. Recipes date back to 16th century Native Americans. The addition of shrimp to the creamy grits comes from the low country of South Carolina, when fishermen would eat shrimp with their breakfast during fishing season. The grits are especially creamy, and the shrimp are typically prepared in butter or bacon grease. What was once a staple of the working class is now served in five-star restaurants.
Chances are that if you've never been to New York, you may not have heard of a bialy. These cousins to the bagel never made it out of New York. You'll know a bialy from a bagel by sight when you notice that a bialy doesn't have a hole. It has a depression in the center that can be filled with onion, garlic, poppy seed or any combination of the three. The other main difference between the two is that bialys are not boiled before they're baked like bagels are. This leaves the bialy with a less shiny outer shell. Bialys came from the Jewish settlers of Bialystok, Poland, many of whom settled in Brooklyn, New York, recipes in hand. Still a favorite of the Jewish population, bialys are enjoyed in delis and bakeries all over New York by those with a desire to buck the bagel.
A whoopie pie is another sweet treat that owes its heritage to the Amish. Common in New England, the popular "sandwich" pie is made from two cookie-shaped cakes, with a white, fluffy filling, usually made from marshmallows. The most traditional and common flavor of a whoopie pie is chocolate, but pumpkin whoopies are popular in the autumn. The whoopie pie migration from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is most likely due to the inclusion of the recipe in a 1930s New England cookbook. Marshmallow Fluff was also a popular grocery store product in the New England area in the 1920s and 30s.
Are you wondering who invented macaroni and cheese? Check out this article and learn who invented macaroni and cheese and more about this food.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "Bialys, Bialystok Kuchen." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/Bread/Bialy.htm
- Collins, Maria. "Not By Bread Alone: America's Culinary Heritage." cornell.edu, 2009. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/food/american_taste/American_Regional_Cuisine_L.htm
- "Grits - Shrimp and Grits - How To Make Grits." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/GritsHistory.htm
- "Hawaiian Loco Moco - Hawaii's Feel Good Food." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/LocoMocoHistory.htm
- "History of Chitterlings/Chitlins." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/ChitlinsHistory.htm
- "History of Lutefisk." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/LutefiskHistory.htm
- "Hoppin' John." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/HoppinJohn.htm
- "Shoofly Pie." amishnews.com, 2009. http://www.amishnews.com/amisharticles/shooflypie.htm
- "The History of the King Cake." mardigrasunmasked.com, 2009. http://www.mardigrasunmasked.com/mardigras2/KingCakeHistory/tabid/65/Default.aspx
- "The Kossar Way." kossarsbialys.com, 2009. http://www.kossarsbialys.com/bialy%20making.htm
- "The Tradition of Mardi Gras King Cakes." kingcake.com, 2009. http://kingcake.com/History.aspx
- "Whoopie Pie." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/WhoopiePieHistory.htm
- "Why is Boston called Beantown?" Bostononline.com, 2009. http://www.boston-online.com/faq.html#beantown