From the Melting Pot
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The True Origins of 19 Classic 'American' Foods

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From the Melting Pot
FPG / Staff / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

From the Melting Pot

The United States is often called a melting pot of cultures, and the adage holds true for our cuisine. Many of the specialty dishes we consider wholly American are actually reinterpretations and hybrids imported from cultures around the world, reflecting our rich history of immigration. Considering how beloved these foods are, we can only hope international cuisines keep making their way to our tables.

Related: 34 Beloved Regional American Foods That Can Be Shipped to Your Doorstep

Apple Pie
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Apple Pie

Despite the expression, "as American as apple pie," the popular dessert isn't native to the U.S., originating as fruit (often mixed with meat) stored in thick, sugarless, and largely inedible pastry containers, or “coffins,” in 14th century England. Colonists starting with the Puritans planted imported apple seeds in the Americas to supplement native stocks, and by 1759 apple pies were reportedly used throughout the whole year in Delaware as "the evening meal of the children." Johnny Appleseed helped to make apples feel American as he traveled the country to plant apple trees, even if they were largely for use making alcoholic cider, and pies became more commonly sweet with the introduction of butter and sugar in everyday baking. In short, pie is just another American immigrant, much like pie "a la mode": The term describing pie served with a scoop of ice cream was popularized in the 1890s, and though its origins are obscure it is described universally as American in origin … despite being borrowed from the French.

Related: 19 Savory Pies From Around The World

Hamburgers
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Hamburgers

If you've ever wondered why all-beef patties are called hamburgers, the answer has nothing to do with pork and lots to do with the German port city of Hamburg. The earliest known patties were eaten raw by Genghis Khan’s Mongol horse riders and adopted into Russian cuisine as "steak tartare." It arrived in other European ports in the 17th century to be prepared cooked or raw with regional spices as "Hamburg Steak" by the poorer classes in Germany. From there it didn’t take long to reach New York. And while there are numerous legends surrounding who actually invented the hamburger as we know it, it's undoubtedly become known worldwide as an American classic.

Related: Best Hole-in-the-Wall Burger Joint in Every State

Hot Dogs
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Hot Dogs

The hot dogs Americans enjoy from ballparks and street vendors are descendants of the sausage, and particularly the frankfurter originating from Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, and Vienna, Austria, as far back as the 15th century. The North American version was an amalgamation of sausage styles popularized by German and other Central European immigrants in late 19th-century New York City. They were served in milk rolls with sauerkraut from pushcarts and Coney Island stands, becoming a common baseball concession thanks to German native and St. Louis Browns owner Chris Von der Ahe.

Related: America's 25 Best Hot Dog Stands

Charles' Country Pan-Fried Chicken in Harlem, New York
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Fried Chicken

Fried chicken was invented far from Kentucky, having been traced to Scottish and West African traditions of pig lard-frying and seasoning, respectively. Though the earliest known written recipe for fried chicken appeared in a 1747 British cookbook, these cultural influences collided most notably in the U.S. South among African slaves, with the Southern home-cooked specialty evolving into a more readily available fast food favorite in the 1950s.

Related: Best Hole-in-the-Wall Spots for Fried Chicken in Every State

French Fries
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French Fries

There's a reason they're not called American fries. Credit for inventing the crisp potato strips you'll find at stateside restaurants from fast food dives to fine bistros must go to either France or Belgium, where folks were frying them up as early as the late 1600s when fish were scarce. The French largely considered the potato poisonous, but when prisoner of war Antoine-Augustine Parmentier was fed a steady diet and lived, he came back to France to spread the gospel. He won over everyone from Benjamin Franklin to King Louis XVI, and reliance on potatoes during a famine made sure there was no going back. By 1795 the French loved them — and introduced them to Britain and the U.S., where they became staples. Wait, did we say they're not called "American fries"? Outside of Europe and America, plenty of places do call them that, because we spread them around the globe through our expanding fast food empires.

Related: Why McDonald's Fries Used to Taste Better

French Dip
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French Dip

A hot beef sandwich served with a dipping cup of its own juices, called "au jus," the French dip actually originated in California. According to one legend, its accidental inventor was French immigrant Philippe Mathieu, who owned the still-open Philippe the Original delicatessen in Los Angeles. The story goes that Mathieu dropped a French roll sandwich he was preparing into a roasting pan, and the customer loved the extra meat juices it absorbed so much he came back with friends to reorder the same. Cole's, a nearby bar and eatery, however, also claims to be the birthplace of the French Dip. So, like many other famous restaurant rivalries, the true winner can only be determined by trying them both yourself.

English Muffin
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English Muffin

Similar to the French dip, English muffins were born in America, but by a newly emigrated Englishman. They were first sold at Samuel Bath Thomas' New York City bakery in 1880 based on his mother's recipe, a variation on traditional crumpets with less moisture and meant to be split in half. As he sold them to more grocery stores and hotels throughout the area, the "muffins" became a popular toast alternative for breakfast, and Thomas' name became the basis for the most identifiable brand for them still today.

Peasants slaughtering a pig
Peasants slaughtering a pig by Sailko (CC BY-SA)

Bacon

Long before "bacon mania," the first salted pork belly was eaten and prepared in ancient China, then later throughout the Roman Empire and among Anglo-Saxon peasants (for whom the term "bacon" referred to all pork). In the U.S., this fatty pork industry matured in Chicago under the German immigrant brothers Oscar and Gottfried Mayer, whose company introduced prepackaged bacon products in 1924. But to stay relevant as a breakfast option against the leaner cereals favored by white-collar workers at that time, they depended on Edward Bernays, "father of public relations" and nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his "conscious and intelligent manipulation" techniques to turn bacon and eggs into a breakfast staple.

Related: The Price of Bacon the Year You Were Born

sugar donut
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Doughnuts

Another quintessentially unhealthy American breakfast food, doughnuts arrived on our shores in Manhattan as Dutch olykoeks, or oily cakes. In the mid-19th century, the fried pastries got their name from a New England ship captain's mother Elizabeth Gregory, who infused her dough with imported spices of nutmeg and cinnamon and put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center – literally, dough nuts. How the nuts got replaced by simple holes is a matter of dispute, but doughnuts got a boost in popularity after World War I from the soldiers who'd enjoyed them as a token of home in the European trenches, and the invention of the first doughnut machine in 1920.

Patti Labelle’s Macaroni And Cheese
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Macaroni and Cheese

Perhaps unsurprisingly, macaroni and cheese hails from Italy. A similar pasta and cheese casserole is recorded in Liber de Coquina from the 14th century, one of the oldest medieval cookbooks, and the first modern recipe appeared in English author Elizabeth Raffald's 1770 cookbook "The Experienced English Housekeeper." One early booster of the dish on American shores was Thomas Jefferson, who made detailed notes on its preparation and tried to commission a machine for making macaroni before resorting to importing it to his Monticello estate from Europe.

Related: 20 Super Simple Twists on Boxed Mac and Cheese

Corn Flakes
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Corn Flakes

The original American breakfast cereal, Kellogg's corn flakes were invented at Michigan's Battle Creek Sanitarium by devout Seventh-day Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, who was hoping his healthful new food would curb patients' sexual appetites. In experimenting with toasted starch cereals, the pro-abstinence Kellogg and his brother William Keith let one batch of their flattened wheat berries become overcooked and found the grain broke into crispy, thin flakes. By 1905, the Sanitarium was producing 150 cases of the stuff a day.

Jan 24: National Peanut Butter Day
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PB&J

The average American child will have eaten  1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the time they graduate high school, according to a Prepared Foods survey in 2002. The uniquely North American phenomenon of peanut butter sandwiches became popular thanks to the advent of pre-sliced bread and the spread's low price during the Great Depression. Jelly became the default pairing for such sandwiches thanks to its inclusion on American GI's ration lists in World War II, so they sought out the same pairing of PB&J upon returning home.

Related: 18 Things You Didn't Know About Peanut Butter and Jelly

Soda
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Bourbon Whiskey
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Bourbon Whiskey

America's trademark spirit was created from a combination of Scots-Irish distilling techniques and native corn grains usually traced to the Ohio River Valley in Kentucky. War with the British made sugar more scarce, reducing rum supplies and forcing Americans to turn to distilling spirits from local grains. There are competing legends about who invented bourbon and what it was named after, but the consensus is that the whiskey was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a major shipping port for the Kentucky-raised whiskey.

Popcorn
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Popcorn

Archaeologists have found traces of popcorn in the remains of millennium-old Peruvian tombs, meaning North and South Americans have been popping kernels since long before the days of movie theater concessions and kettle corn stands. The first European-Americans to enjoy the natural snack likely got the idea from the Iroquois nation settled in the Great Lakes region, who would pop kernels in pottery jars full of heated sand. Mass consumption took off in the 1890s with the first popcorn-popping machine developed by candy store owner Charles Cretors.

Jan. 15: National Bagel Day
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Bagels

Like many U.S. staples, bagels were introduced and peddled on the streets of New York City by newly arrived immigrants. In this case, Polish Jews brought with them the traditional beigel. It remained a niche breakfast food confined to the Big Apple and surrounding Jewish communities until the invention of the bagel machine in the '60s, which also streamlined their texture and shape into the doughnut-like configuration we know today.

Thanksgiving Dinner
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Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving may be an American holiday; the feast it's built around is pure Old World. Though staples such as turkey, potatoes, and cranberry sauce were missing from the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the combination of roasted bird with a sour fruit and pumpkin pie was a common European culinary tradition for feasts dating back to the Medieval era, later reconfigured with the Americas' native turkey and cranberries.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich
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Grilled Cheese

The grilled cheese is an idiot-proof hot sandwich beloved by American kids and kids at heart, bearing some similarities to the French croque monsieur invented in the early 1900s. The American preparation was enabled by two major breakthroughs around the same time — the invention of sliced bread by Iowan Otto Frederick Rohwedder and of shelf-stable processed cheese by James L. Kraft.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
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Chocolate Chip Cookies

More American than apple pie, some might say, chocolate chip cookies were invented by dietician Ruth Graves Wakefield in 1936 in the kitchen of her Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. By adding chocolate chips to her plain cookies, she was hoping the chocolate would melt and be absorbed into the dough; the version she got hit the spot just the same. As the dessert gained popularity, Wakefield struck a deal with Nestle to print her recipe on all their semi-sweet chocolates, in exchange for a lifetime supply of it.

Related: Taste Test: The Best and Worst Chocolate Chip Cookies at the Grocery Store