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American Icons

American Icons

Burgers. Barbecue. Fried chicken. Mac 'n cheese. Apple pie.

These five foods have the power to evoke memories, emotions and opinions. They are quintessentially American and, like Americans, represent a multiplicity of interpretations and regional twists, from the sublimely simple to the haute.

Participants in a survey by the James Beard Foundation deemed these five foods American icons, and we aren't prepared to argue. Aside from their American roots, the icons shared one key quality: comfort. What do they mean to us?


Burgers are probably the fallback food for the majority of Americans, and we take our burgers very seriously. They're portable, satisfying and can take on a huge variety of qualities. In recent years, renowned chefs have embraced burgers in an upscale way, quite a stretch from their humble beginnings in 1906 at a Wichita, KS White Castle.

Consider Hubert Keller's take on the burger's place in American society, from his cookbook Burger Bar (John Wiley & Sons, 2009): “Built to satisfy large hungers — for juice-dripping-down-the-chin deliciousness, for the sound of fat sizzling and jumping as it hits hot coals, for Meat spelled with a capital M, for adventure embodied in glossy, grazing cattle guarded by rugged cowboys — burgers occupy a large, vital territory in American food consciousness. Quintessentially democratic, burgers belong to everyone. Biting into a thick, succulent burger, we all feel rich.”


Keller recommends grinding fresh meat, keeping the meat cold before cooking, shaping gently and quickly cooking the burgers in a heavy, hot pan over medium-high heat or over a hot fire on a gas or charcoal grill, then allowing them a few minutes to rest before serving to ensure juiciness. He says medium rare is the best way to maximize the qualtity.

Variations on a Theme

  • The Counter, a growing chain based in Santa Monica, CA, claims to offer more than 312,000 combinations of burgers, buns and fixings. A recently featured version, the Japanese Ahi Burger, is tuna topped with mixed baby greens, daikon radish salad, carrot ribbons and scallions, served on a bun with wasabi aioli,

  • Winners of Marx Foods' recent burger recipe contest included a Hoisin Ginger Burger with lime pickled onions, My Big Fat Greek Burger (ground lamb with mint and rosemary, in a pita with a cucumber, yogurt and mint dressing), the Oh La La! Burger (figs, walnuts, caramelized shallots and brie on a turkey patty) and the Under the Tuscan Sun Burger (parmesan cheese, ciabatta bread, fresh tomatoes and pancetta).

  • At Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace, a three-unit East Coast chain, all burgers on the menu can be “crunchified,” the result of a layer of potato chips crushed between the burger and the bun.


Barbecue is another food that defies definition and inspires emotion. Dry rubs, pork/beef/chicken, spicy or sweet, pit or charcoal: the factors that make barbecue memorable or connect it with a place are endless.

According to the National Barbecue Association, barbecue is the oldest cooking technique known to man. Evidence of barbecue pits dating back to 25,000 b.c. has been documented. But it wasn't until the British discovered the New World, where native Americans were barbecuing game, lamb, fowl and fish, that barbecue really came into its own. Cowboys, forced to live on tough cuts of meat during cattle drives, popularized barbecue as a way to make meals more palatable.

In its purest form, barbecue means to slow-cook meat at a low temperature for a long time over wood or charcoal. But being pioneering Americans, we will throw pretty much everything on a grill, including pizzas, vegetables and fruits, tofu — you name it. Although the U.S. is home to many styles of barbecue, mainly pork, overseas the style most associated with America originated in Texas, which stresses hand-rubbed beef cooked in pits filled with firewood.

Barbecue Tips

  • Boil ribs prior to grilling; cooking them on the grill alone will leave them dried out or burned.

  • Sweet or sugar-based sauces should only be brushed on at the end because the sugar in them tends to burn.

  • Pineapples, bananas, peaches, nectarines, plums, mangos, pears and papayas are great fodder for grilling. Grilling caramelizes the natural sugars in fruit.

  • The most popular woods used to add smoky flavor are mesquite, hickory, oak, fruitwood and alder.


A Google search for “best fried chicken U.S.” yields some 11 million results. That's a palpable testament to its popularity.

While fried chicken is an iconic American food, it did not originate here. There are Italian, Vietnamese, Austrian takes on this classic, as well as African and Scottish roots. The versions typically found in restaurants include Southern, Maryland-style with Gravy and, of course, Kentucky.

What's amazing is the 200-year run that this favorite food has enjoyed in the U.S. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, “Governor William Byrd II was dining on the iconic southern dish of fried chicken at his Virginia plantation by 1709.”

Few restaurant operators attain the status that Colonel Sanders did, and he built his reputation by doing this one menu item very well. So well, in fact, that he inspired pop culture songs (“She's Got Colonel Sanders Thighs,” by Rotunda) and made a special guest appearance in the 1967 movie The Blast-Off Girls (1967), in which a hungry rock band stops at a chicken place. When asked if he serves fried chicken, Colonel Sanders himself answers, “Ooo-eee! We do serve fried chicken!”

A Better Bird

  • Most chefs prefer to use small birds, under 3½ pounds.

  • The smaller the pieces, the more quickly and evenly they'll cook.

  • Choose an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola oil or peanut oil.

  • Keep the breading light, and don't let coated chicken sit too long before frying.

  • Avoid stacking chicken pieces once they've been fried.

  • Salt chicken immediately after it's been fried.



Thomas Jefferson has been credited with introducing his fellow patriots to macaroni and cheese, a staple for any family with young children and the epitome of comfort food. Jefferson reportedly transported a pasta machine home from a trip to Italy and combined pasta in baked form with cheese as early as 1802. Others suggest that the colonists had limited food stocks and had to make do with what they had — macaroni and a staple of the British diet, white sauce, with a little cheese added for flavor. Meat rationing during World War II pushed macaroni and cheese to the forefront of the American family dinner.

Elbows are the traditional pasta used in mac 'n cheese, but any form that is hearty enough to withstand the combined weight of the heavy sauce and cheese will work. Slight undercooking is important, since the pasta will continue cooking and absorbing the sauce once it's parked in the oven. Cheddar is the preferred variety of cheese, but anything that melts well and has an assertive taste (to balance out the bland béchamel and pasta) will do. Buttered bread crumbs provide a classic finish.

Best Reasons to Like Macaroni & Cheese

  • Tastes great.
  • Easy to make.
  • Kids love it.
  • Cheap.
  • Fast.
  • Is a meal in itself.
  • Has as few as two ingredients.
  • Anyone can make it.
  • Everyone will like you.
  • Cheaper than Prozac.



As American as…. anyone can finish that phrase. But ironically, given its origins, this is the least American of all the icons. English apple pie recipes have been traced back to the 14th century. One early version combined apples, spices, figs, raisins, all colored with saffron and encased in pastry. Sugar apparently didn't enter the picture until later, perhaps because of expense and availability. Dutch apple pie recipes go back to the 17th century; they are closer to what most Americans consider a standard for apple pie, only with a lattice crust.

Memorable apple pie is a simple concoction: Pastry encasing sweetened, spiced, sliced apples. Lard or shortening? Butter or oil? Regardless of the fat, use a food processor to mix the dough, be sure to work with chilled ingredients and don't overmix. And the apples? A slightly tart variety — one that will hold up to the high oven temperatures and complement the sugar and cinnamon — is the top choice.

Americans love apple and other pies, so much so that Baker's Square and Marie Callender have built entire chains around the dessert. And at Madison, WI's Hubbard Avenue Diner, where you'll find a pie garden, a half-dozen variations of good old apple are included on the menu of 10 dozen varieties.

Any Way You Slice It: Pie Rules

  • One out of four Americans prefers apple pie, followed by pumpkin or sweet potato, anything chocolate, lemon meringue and cherry.

  • If you love apple pie, you are likely to describe yourself as independent, realistic and compassionate.

  • Nearly twice as many people prefer their pie naked over a la mode.

  • One in five Americans has polished off a whole pie.

  • A third of Americans prefer a crust-free top.

  • 75 million Americans like to wash down their pie with milk.

Source: American Pie Council and Four Points by Sheraton study.