Recently, I spent a few weeks teaching in Germany. Even though I had lived there a decade ago, I was reminded of something I had forgotten: German rolls are excellent. With a diverse selection in the bakery, they are fine-tuned to be crispy on the outside, tender beneath the crust and with the right blend of sea salt and fennel. It’s no wonder the Germans eat them for breakfast, along with cold cuts and cheese.

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Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

When discussing this with the Germans I met, I found no reason to hold back on the superlatives.

“Frankly, Hanz, the rolls in your country are amazing.”

If I was judging their reaction correctly, the people I told this to not only agreed, but seemed nearly relieved that someone else had realized this too. Their response was invariably the same: “And all you hear about is the French baguette.”

And it’s true. The French have gone to great lengths to nationalize their baguette and tie it so intimately with their identity that few outsiders (and certainly no French) question if there are better bakery goods to be found anywhere on earth. Even so, Germany probably also suffers from too much “food humbleness.” While their beer is, deservedly, well renowned, they also have an expansive and notable wine industry that doesn’t export much. As someone who believes that meat, sauces and bread are three food groups as good as any other, I think the German food stands up to any world cuisine. However, with their neighbors to the south loudly proclaiming their wares, it’s an Italian and not German restaurant found in nearly every mid-size town on the planet.


All of which leads to the following call of arms.

If we’re going to ensure America’s place at the global table, we’ve got some work to do. Compared to Europe, we’re a relatively young country with a short cultural past, but it’s time to assess what we have that others don’t and make sure it is getting its fair due.

To make sure we’re on the same page, I’ve started compiling a list of uniquely American food.


After World War II, many women remained in the workforce, giving them less time to take up the traditional role of housemaker. As a result, there was a large push by companies to create food that was fast to prepare. In 1961, Post, one of the major breakfast companies, had developed a shelf-stable moist dog food kept in aluminum packaging that didn’t need to be refrigerated. Inspired by this, they used similar technology to create Country Squares, which was a fruit-filled shelf-stable pastry.

However, the production of Country Squares hit a snag, allowing Kellogg’s to develop its equivalent in 1964 called Fruit Scones (later named Pop-Tarts after the pop-art movement occurring at that time). In 1967, Kellogg’s was able to figure out how to add frosting that didn’t melt in the toaster, creating the popular – and very American – breakfast food we know today.

Mac ‘n’ cheese

Yes, the Italians were making cheese and pasta casseroles in the 14th century, and sure, the first modern recipe appears in an English cookbook in 1769, but I think there’s little argument that mac ‘n’ cheese is entirely American at this point. Most Europeans know it from American movies and TV shows, or watched exchange students from the U.S. make it in their dorms.

In fact, macaroni and cheese became famous in the U.S. because Thomas Jefferson was a fan of it. James Hemings was the first American to train as a chef in France – and was also one of Jefferson’s slaves. Jefferson had Hemings recreate the dish in the U.S. and even served it at a state dinner.

The corn dog

Introduced by German Texans in the 1920s, the first corn dogs were rolled in cornbread and deep fried without the stick. In 1927, the idea of deep frying food on a stick was patented, and several decades later added to this classic fair treat.

One of the first anecdotes of the corn dog involves hot dog vendors running out of buns at a 1937 high school baseball game in Adel, Iowa. One of the vendors took the remaining hotdogs home, deep fried them in cornmeal batter and returned to save the day with fresh corn dogs.

Tater tots

Brothers F. Nephi and Golden Grigg, young Mormon entrepreneurs, wanted in on the frozen food craze after World War II and started manufacturing french fries. They found that much of the potato was wasted in the process. For a while they fed the scraps to cattle, until trying to mash the extra bits together into a new product.

In 1954, they bribed the chef at the National Potato Convention in Florida to serve their new creation at breakfast. After the room full of “potato businessmen” loved them, they began selling tater tots that year.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich

In the past, it’s been common practice to derogatorily call an ethnicity after what they are perceived to eat. If they could have found a catchier way to do it, I think Americans would have been called peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And if that did happen, it might be justified. According to a 2002 survey, the average American will have eaten over 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating high school. The first mention of the old classic appeared in print in 1901, when the Boston Cooking School Magazine called for peanut paste and currant or crabapple jelly to be put between thin slices of bread. With the advent of sliced bread in the 1920s, the popularity of the snack took off, especially because it was easy for children to prepare themselves.

In truth, a more earnest list of uniquely American food can be made that might represent the country better at the dining table, including candidates such as pecan pie, gumbo, po’ boy sandwiches and many other dishes that represent the mix of cultures within its borders. However, after World War II the U.S. became known as the country of “convenient” food, and those listed above tend to be what represents us abroad.

And maybe we need to embrace the corn dog in all its joviality, or the tater tot as the natural symbol of a childhood, if only not to fade into food obscurity like the Germans.