Human history is rife with trade and cultural exchange, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the marriage of cultures that we see in modern cuisine. From the spice trade to Cajun cooking and the multitude of European and Asian influences that go into Vietnamese cuisine, cooking styles born of cultural exchange thrive across the planet. Because of this, it isn’t always easy to trace the origins of foods to a single country, and we are often mistaken in our attributions. The Cuban sandwich, for instance, is actually a Floridian invention, and although the hamburger is often attributed to Hamburg, Germany, the sandwich of ground beef placed between sliced buns is a decidedly American invention. Likewise, some of our revered "American" food heritage has its roots firmly planted elsewhere.
The disastrous cliché of asking for ketchup in a fine dining establishment seems as American as apple pie (more on that later). However, ketchup itself is not an American creation. Fermented food pastes were a staple of Chinese culinary arts since ancient times. The word “ketchup” is actually derived from the Hokkien Chinese word “kê-tsiap.” This recipe for ketchup was actually made from fermented fish, and when the British copied the recipe, they included ingredients like anchovies, mushrooms, and walnuts.
When ketchup arrived on American shores, it was painstakingly hand-crafted and fermented in the kitchen with a list of complicated ingredients, without sugar or vinegar. “Ketchup” referred to a variety of fermented sauces, with mushroom ketchup being a popular option. However, the face of American condiment shelves was destined for change when H.J. Heinz used sugar and vinegar to preserve tomato ketchup in 1876.
Speaking of apple pie, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the fruity baked good did not originate here in the home of the brave. Apples are native to Asia, but the Europeans had brought them home hundreds of years before America was founded. The oldest known recipe for apple pie dates back to England in 1381 – calling for figs, raisins, pears, and a sugarless pastry shell.
The association of apple pie to patriotism didn’t come about until the early 1900s. It was around this time that apple pie became a symbol of prosperity and American home cooking. Decades down the road, “for Mom and apple pie” became the go-to response of WWII soldiers when asked why they were going to the frontlines.
Whereas apple pie seems so universally loved and inoffensive that it only makes sense that others would have ventured along the same culinary route, meatloaf takes a decidedly different turn. It raises the question as to how on Earth more than one group of people could dare to insult the natural order and all things holy with such an abomination.
Surprisingly, the closest ancestors of American meatloaf have their origins in German and Scandinavian dishes, with the first American iterations being introduced as “scrapple” by German-Americans in Pennsylvania. However, similar recipes date all the way back to the 5th century in the Roman Empire, and countless cultures across the world cook some similar variant of the dish. Jokes aside, with the right twist and ingredients, meatloaf can be somewhat of a delicacy, and it perhaps makes sense that a ground meat dish would have iterations all over the place.
With all due respect to the legacy of George Washington Carver, the key ingredient of your PBJ is, sadly, not a national innovation. Rather, the earliest patent for the production of peanut butter from roasted peanuts dates back to Marcellus Gilmore Edson in Quebec, Canada, in 1884. Edson milled the roasted peanuts till they reached a semi-fluid state and then added sugar for consistency.
Around a decade later, John Harvey Kellogg (of Corn Flakes) acclaim created his own iteration using boiled peanuts to offer a high-protein food supplement to the infirm. Peanut butter offered a protein source that could be taken in without chewing and started out as an expensive food supplement for the wealthy. The invention of industrial peanut butter machines and chemical methods to prevent the oils from separating culminated in the creation of Skippy peanut butter in 1932, for which we owe our thanks for the popularization of the beloved American treat.