Whether you pop into an old-school diner, drive to pick up fast food or raid your mom’s kitchen pantry, one thing’s for sure: there are some iconic American dishes you’re sure to find everywhere you go. These plates aren’t just tasty or nostalgic or quick and convenient. They’re recipes that rippled across the country and, in some cases, made their way to foreign shores because they’re so universally enjoyed. In other words, they shaped the nation’s palate, so it’s interesting to learn how these humble morsels came to be so celebrated in the United States and beyond.
20. Potato skins
Football Sundays wouldn’t be the same without a basket of potato skins – but they weren’t even on the menu until the 1970s. Several restaurants claim to have invented them, but the style in which we love and eat them today traces back to the TGI Fridays restaurant chain – which were originally conceived of as a series of singles bars, by the way.
TGI Fridays’ vice president of concept development Matt Durbin told the story of potato skins to website Eater.com. He explained, “As legend has it, one of our cooks was making our mashed potatoes in the back of the house, and decided to drop the potato skin in the fryer. When it came out, he threw our proprietary fry seasoning on it, added cheddar and smoked bacon, and the rest is, as they say, history.” Now, no appetizers menu would be complete without them.
19. Buffalo wings
You get a little bit of a clue into Buffalo wings’ origin from the name itself. Yes, these spicy snacks trace back to the city of Buffalo, New York, but there’s an even better story to be told about them. It all started in 1964 when Dominic Bellissimo’s friends came to visit him while he worked at his parents’ restaurant, Anchor Bar. They wanted a snack – so his mom Teressa had to whip up something quickly.
Teressa had some chicken wings on hand to make a soup, but she threw them into the deep fryer instead. Then, she whipped up a spicy topping consisting of butter and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce with which to smother the chicken. To cool down the flavors, she served the wings with a side of blue cheese and some celery sticks and, with that, invented a classic. You can now get buffalo-flavored sandwiches and pizza, and the National Chicken Council has estimated that more than 1 billion wings are eaten annually on the day of the Super Bowl alone.
18. Cobb salad
Bob Cobb owned a Los Angeles-based restaurant, The Brown Derby, and one night in 1926 he felt hungry after shutting the place down. So, he threw himself together a salad with all of the kitchen leftovers: frisée, romaine, iceberg, watercress, tomato, avocado, chicken, bacon, blue cheese and egg. On top of that, he drizzled French dressing and, as he dug in, he realized he had created something seriously tasty.
So, Cobb put his eponymous salad on the menu and, with that, changed the game. Restaurant customers – including Hollywood celebrities – lined up for the first-ever main-course salad, and they continue to do so to this day. Some dispute the origin story of the Cobb, though, to the point that the salad-centric debate got a mention on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
17. Banana split
The origin story of the banana split has a few different starting points. In Latrobe, Pennsylvania they say it came to be in 1904 when aspiring optometrist David Strickler invented it while working at a pharmacy’s soda fountain. Yet Ohio’s residents of Wilmington say the sundae came to be in 1907 when a man named Ernest Hazard concocted the cool treat as a way to draw local college students to his restaurant.
But what really shot the banana split to fame in the U.S. was when a Chicago-based Walgreens made the dessert its signature sweet in the roaring ’20s. From there, it became a nationwide menu staple, and the split has even inspired its own festival in Wilmington each June.
16. Hot dog
Nathan Handwerker worked on New York’s Coney Island at Feltman’s German Gardens as a bread slicer when he heard rumors of discontent with the restaurant’s famous meat-based snack. At ten cents, people thought it was too expensive, so he decided to branch out – and seriously undercut his one-time employer. Handwerker sold better-tasting hot dogs, thanks to his wife Ida’s recipe, and he only wanted five cents for them.
And that’s how Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs became a staple of Coney Island – and how the sausage-style, bun-based bite became an American favorite. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council – perhaps a bit biased as an organization – estimates that Americans now eat a whopping 20 billion hot dogs per year. Regardless of the veracity of that figure, one thing’s for sure: you can’t go to a baseball game, barbecue or carnival without smelling their aroma wafting through the air.
You can do a lot with corn, and the Native Americans, as well as the earliest black and white people to arrive in America, all knew this. One such bit of magic: grinding up the starchy vegetable into cornmeal, adding a bit of baking powder and heating it up makes a golden, savory loaf of cornbread.
Cornbread is easy to make and it tastes delicious – and as such it remains as much of a staple as it was for the land’s first residents, the pioneers and Americans beyond. Over the years, people have learned to spice it up by adding in jalapeños, herbs and cheese, but plain old cornbread tastes just fine, too.
14. Lobster roll
When you think lobster roll, your mind probably takes you to Maine. But that may be a mistake – some experts say that the famous northeastern sandwich was actually born in Milford, Connecticut, 250 miles away from Portland, the largest city in the Pine Tree State. In Milford a restaurant called Perry’s doled out simple local seafood, including a butter-drizzled lobster sandwich.
Perry’s closed its doors in 1977, but it made an indelible mark on the entire region. Nowadays, you can find lobster rolls across New England, and each comes with a local twist. The Connecticut version still comes slathered in butter, while the Maine one is more like a lobster salad with mayo and seasonings. Either way, it’s an American classic.
The chimichanga was born from yet another kitchen misadventure, this time in the 1950s. Monica Flin – founder of El Charro restaurant in Tucson, Arizona – had to prep food for her nieces’ sleepover party. She started building a pile of beef burritos for them, but one slipped from the pyramid and into a pot of hot oil. As it bubbled away, she screamed in dismay, opting for the PG-rated Mexican expletive, “Chimichanga!”
But the fried burrito was a hit with the girls, so Flin decided to add it to the menu at El Charro – and customers loved it, too. The crispy beef burrito remains on the restaurant’s menu, and the same family whips up the accidentally invented dish. Now, though, you can buy it at eateries around the country, a sign of just how tasty the crispy roll-up is.
12. Key lime pie
A Chicago reporter jetted to Miami, Florida, in 1968 to sample the famous stone crab. When he returned, he wrote about it and, more importantly, the delicious Key lime pie he had enjoyed at the eatery, which he named as Joe’s Stone Crab. There was only one problem: he hadn’t actually eaten the zesty dessert at that restaurant.
But rather than correct the error – and the visitors coming to sample the Key lime pie – Joe’s Jo Ann Sawitz came up with her own recipe. She created a Graham-cracker-and-butter crust and topped it with a lightweight condensed milk-based filling flavored with juice from a freshly squeezed key lime. Now, Key lime is the official pie of Florida, and guests still flock to Joe’s Stone Crab to sample the famous dessert.
11. Reuben sandwich
The Reuben is a simple pile-up of corned beef, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing – but the story of its origins is much more complicated. Some believe that a hotelier invented it during an after-hours poker game in 1925, when a customer named Reuben Kulakofsky asked for a sandwich. Others credit the creation to Arnold Rueben, who sold the eponymous sandwich from his New York-based Reuben’s Delicatessen.
The impact of the Reuben is easy to map – you can’t walk into an all-American deli or diner without finding it listed on the menu. It’s also an easy sandwich to create at home, so long as you have the proper ingredients. Reuben aficionados agree that you have to have fresh pumpernickel or rye bread, pastrami or corned beef and homemade Thousand Island dressing: store-bought bottles just won’t cut it.
10. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
The first recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich traces back to the year 1901 when it was published in the Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. But the lunchtime classic didn’t take off until World War II, when all of the ingredients made their way onto the U.S. Army’s ration menu for serving soldiers.
Peanut butter had a long shelf life and lots of protein for soldiers at war. Grape jelly added just enough sweetness, and pre-sliced bread made it easy for GIs to put it all together in a flash. So, PB&J became a hit on the front lines – and it was so tasty that military men and women brought the recipe home with them, too. Soon enough, it became a staple for families whipping up tasty, budget-friendly lunches, and it remains that way today.
World War II gave us more than one American classic meal. Twinkies would be completely different, if not for a shortage of a key ingredient during the international conflict. The puffy pastry came to be in 1930, but inventor James Dewar had a fruitier flavor profile for the classic treat: he piped it with banana cream, rather than vanilla.
But World War II made bananas scarce in the United States, which meant Twinkies manufacturers had to improvise. They swapped the fruit-flavored filling for a vanilla cream and, with that, a classic was truly born. Nowadays, you can find Twinkies on the shelves of just about any American grocery store, thanks to the Hostess factories that churn out hundreds of millions of the iconic pastries every year.
8. Philly cheesesteak
A trip to Philadelphia wouldn’t be complete without sampling the city’s famous cheesesteak, a sandwich that wasn’t initially invented for such an exalted position. Instead, hot dog stand owners Pat and Henry Olivieri decided to prepare themselves sandwiches while on the job. They tossed chopped steak, grilled onions and cheese onto a bun and dug in – but someone was watching them.
Legend has it that a cab driver spotted the Olivieris eating their tasty-looking sandwich, and he told people across the city about it. Soon enough, the hot dog stand owners switched up their menu to meet new demand for the ribeye-onion-and-cheese-filled sandwich. Nowadays, rival grills whip up their unique takes on it, and Philadelphians will forever debate which is the best. But they all agree that the best cheesesteaks come from the City of Brotherly Love, despite the fact that it appears on sandwich menus the country over.
7. Deep-dish pizza
Cut into a deep-dish pizza, and you’ll quickly come to realize that its inventors made their gastronomic vision into a tasty reality. Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell came up with the idea for their massive pies when they realized that traditional pizza couldn’t satiate hungry Midwesterners. They wanted their slices to be a real meal.
So, at Pizzeria Uno, they began serving deep-dish pies, which have a thick crust covered in cheese and toppings, and then slathered in tomato sauce. The style of pie is one of Chicago’s most famous culinary offerings, and you no longer have to trek to Illinois to try it. Instead, many of the deep-dish pizzerias have franchised – thanks to their popularity – so you can sample the hearty slices across the country and world.
Spanish settlers came to Louisiana and found themselves in a culinary nightmare: there was no saffron to be found in their corner of the new world. That meant they couldn’t whip up their beloved paella any more. But the colonists weren’t going to give up on their seasoned, rice-based fare just yet.
Instead, the settlers started experimenting with Louisiana’s selection of herbs and spices to create a new kind of paella. That dish came to be known as jambalaya, and it’s one of the Bayou State’s most famous offerings to this day. You can make it with endless combinations of sauce bases and add-ins, but the most iconic version might be the Andouille sausage and shrimp version.
5. Tollhouse chocolate-chip cookies
Rumor has it that Ruth Wakefield, one-time owner of the Toll House Inn, accidentally invented the chocolate-chip cookie when she knocked some of the sweet stuff into a batter for another confection. But those who knew her would be able to say this tale is nothing more than a myth. After all, she was a fastidious chef and baker – she wouldn’t just serve an incorrect batch of cookies to her customers.
So, Wakefield is more likely to have crafted the chocolate cookie recipe with meticulousness, and we’re all lucky she did. The baker created an American classic, one that became accessible to everyone when she sold her recipe to Nestlé for $1. In turn, they printed it on bags of their semi-sweet chocolate morsels, which just so happen to fold perfectly into a cookie batter.
4. Mac ‘n’ cheese
A recipe combining pasta and cheese isn’t likely to be of an American origin. And yet, most people associate gooey casserole dishes full of mac ‘n’ cheese with the United States. We can all thank Thomas Jefferson for that: on a journey to Europe, he was so enamored with a similar meal that he wrote down notes on how to replicate it at home.
Jefferson then had his new-favorite noodles prepared for a White House State Dinner, and he called the recipe “macaroni pie.” His cousin, Mary Randolph, then put the recipe in an 1824 cookbook called The Virginia Housewife, but she titled it differently: “macaroni and cheese.” And, since then, it’s been a certified American favorite, whether you whip up a homemade serving or a microwave-prepped bowl of Kraft’s famous version.
3. Potato chips
In 1853 a guest at the Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York, inadvertently caused chef George Crum to invent potato chips. The persnickety customer sent their plate of fries back to the kitchen once, saying they were too thick. Crum sent out a new batch, but they returned the potatoes once again, requesting something thinner.
Understandably annoyed, Crum decided to make a statement with his third batch of fries. He cut them so thin that the diner wouldn’t be able to slice and eat them with a knife and fork, as was custom back then. The chef figured the customer would be mad that they had to pick up the fried potato and eat it but, instead, the crispy version went down a storm. From there, salesman Herman Lay sold potato chips using the trunk of his car as his mobile store until he, of course, founded Lay’s Potato Chips, which you can find in shops across the globe.
Food historian Andrew Smith told Bon Appetit magazine that the first written recipe for American-style meatloaf appeared in the late 1870s. The instructions gave home chefs leeway to use whatever cold meat they had laying around. For New Englanders following along in the 19th century, then, the choice would have been beef. That’s because they had to slaughter their cows pre-winter to save on livestock feed, so they cooked with red meat and looked for ways to use every single piece of the animal.
Ground-up meat could easily work its way into a meatloaf – and spices, onion, egg and bread made it taste delicious. The same goes today, although home chefs probably aren’t slaughtering their own cows to make the classic American dinner. Instead, it’s a simple, tasty comfort food that you can easily whip up for dinner on a chilly evening.
When someone tries to hide something, we say they sweep it under the rug. What we should really say is that they’re slapping a piece of cheese over the burger – because that’s exactly how the cheeseburger came to be. Supposedly, a young chef used a slice of cheese to hide the fact that he had burned a beef patty meant to feed customers at The Rite Spot in Pasadena, California.
With that move to save face, the young chef inadvertently invented an American classic. Nowadays, you can find cheeseburgers at just about any restaurant or fast-food joint across the country. You can’t go to a backyard barbecue without finding them on the grill. And we can’t imagine the 100-year-old dish going anywhere any time soon, either.