Ranking the 50 Most American Foods
America may be the birthplace of the airplane and the printing press, but you know what else we have? Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches perfectly made throughout our childhoods, with or without crusts. Hot dogs made from a melting pot of animal parts, much like America's past, but grosser. And pizza that changes depending on where you drive, and how fat you feel like getting. From regional specialties and nostalgia-inducing oddities to Americanized renditions of some of our greatest immigrant fare, we decided to rank the top 50 best foods in America. You might want to read it with a Jell-O cup nearby.
There are few things as beautifully American as a neon-lit diner, and greasy-spoon food is hard to top. So, while we respect the classics, this Jersey diner staple is, well... it’s canned tuna with melted cheese. You kind of pick up on that in the name.
50. Tuna melt sandwich
49. ScrappleNot to be confused with that American soft drink popular in the '90s, Scrapple is actually a mixture of pork scraps, that are combined with cornmeal and flour, then fried. It is a shoutout to Pennsylvania’s Dutch settlers and their money saving ways, but those scraps and trimmings also make it like the original mass-manufactured hotdog, but without any of the fun of a bun or a grill.
48. Gas station beef jerkyRemember that time you drove cross-country with your college girlfriend, and she threatened to abandon you on the highway as the smell of jerky slowly flooded the car? Nostalgia. But, also, that smell.
47. BurgooThe Kentucky stew was traditionally made with squirrel and raccoon. Which is amazing. It’s now loaded with (boring) mutton, beef, venison, and chicken, but you gotta respect (FEAR?!?!) a dish whose alternative name is roadkill soup.
46. Rattlesnake stewIt’s a steaming bowl of a reptile that’d totally kill you. Pro: You can tell yourself that you’re a badass/cowboy the whole time you eat. Con: You’re totally wondering if there’s any way you’re about to die from this.
45. Rocky Mountain oystersThis is American innovation once again realizing that if you deep-fry something, it becomes infinitely more appealing. Also, giving bull balls a different name is just a good way to approach marketing, which is very American in and of itself.
44. TwinkiesPreparedness is important and we, for one, are thankful Hostess is still pumping cream into yellow cakes in case Cold War Dos strikes and a well-stocked shelter filled with things providing no nutritional benefits, but lots of empty calories are needed.
43. Reindeer sausageWe like this Alaskan specialty, because sausage, but we’re also very pro-Rudolph, so this is a conflict. At least it's not wolf-shooting from a helicopter sausage.
We love frankenfoods, and they’re all the better when they provide an easier vehicle to up the protein intake/variety.
41. Fried alligator
Killing and eating a giant, almost pre-historic animal is about the closest you’ll ever get to Chuck Norris-status. And Chuck Norris basically invented America with Abe Lincoln on the truck bed of a Chevy.
American-sized immigrant fare, the Italian sandwich is typically ordered by the quarter… because even a half is too much to house, even by our super-sized standards. It’d be ranked higher if our dry cleaning bills weren’t so long thanks to olive salad drippings.
They taught you how to spell with their commercials! But that tiny one-serving cup was never enough. Also, what happened to their pudding pops?
38. New England clam chowder
It’s protected by law from being tainted by tomatoes, like Manhattan’s chowder, and we fully support laws that protect… bowls of soup. But since the thick, creamy soup is only appealing in the Winter months, it couldn’t snag a higher spot.
HEY MA! CAN WE GET SOME MEATLOAF? They said that in a movie we liked in America.
36. Sweet tea
Since we dumped all that pricey tea in the Boston Harbor, we set about improving on British specialties, and there are few better ways to recover from a humid, deep-South day than with cold sweet tea with extra sugar and a squeeze of lemon. NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH SCRAPPLE.
35. Tenderloin sandwich
Wiener schnitzel may belong to the Bavarians, but Iowa and Indiana have the sandwich version, because we like to make sandwiches out of everything since sliced bread is the best. Also, it's deep-fried instead of pan-fried because, again, this is America. But you’re also left wanting about three times the bread to take down that huge loin.
34. Soft drinks
Pop, Coke, soda -- whatever you call them, America invented most of them. And there’s a reason the ‘50s Coke commercials make everyone feel nostalgic and chubby, simultaneously.
33. Fried catfish
Catfish may be one of the uglier-looking edibles, but it’s a great testament to our ability to overlook beauty, or lack thereof.
32. Movie theater popcorn
America was practically founded on corn and, later, the movie industry. And together they become the dynamic starring duo of our snacking lives while we watch that movie where Queen Latifah drives a cab with Jimmy Fallon.
They’re damn delicious, but no one knows how to cook them above the Mason-Dixon. So they’re really only delicious 30% of the time, and that’s a travesty. Also, I'm from the South, so I would make this 6, but I'm trying to be fair, OKAY?
30. Cincinnati chili
While Texas wages chili war against the bean-using rest of the country, Cincinnati simply dumps its dish onto noodles, which is so peculiar. But it’s the ultimate reminder of America’s dedication to regional uniqueness. Or maybe laziness.
29. Frito pie
It may have the “white trash” label, but Frito pie’s rumored beginnings make it a classic. Daisy Dean Doolin, the Mom of Frito’s founder, supposedly created the first Southwestern casserole/Southern football concession-stand treat in her home. And what’s more American than a mother-made recipe that’s just happened to spread nationwide?
28. Frybread tacos
The fillings are just like the stuff your Mom used to prep to cram into Old El Paso hard shells (Hard shells: another odd creation of the US of A), but the taco fixin's are served on Navajo frybread, which comes hot and puffy out of the hot lard.
27. Raw oysters
Slurping oysters is like a whirlwind cross-country travel for your taste buds, with the unique brines from the Atlantic to Pacific and down to the Gulf.
26. Pacific Northwest salmon
They swim out of those streams into our bellies, and we love them for it.
25. Fried cheese curds
Fried squeaky cheese is the comfort food of long Midwest Winters, and the accompanying ranch dipping sauce is the condiment of America. This would be dangerously higher if we could find it in more places.
24. Chicago-style pizza
More is better. So’s a pizza that’s really a casserole of meat and cheese. But we cannot shake the feeling we’re being lied to about its name.
23. The basic hotdog
There are few things more American than this encased mish-mash of meats (a porky symbol of America’s melting pot?!) that can be grilled, boiled, microwaved, or even baked and served in beans, mixed into stews, or topped with kraut. But a basic dog, sandwiched between a sliced bun, with a squiggle of ketchup and mustard says Summertime, sprinklers, and obesity. It doesn’t get more American than that -- until you are reminded of that “mish-mash of meats” part.
22. Sweet Summer corn
America’s original veggie is still just as delicious. But we now know that humans cannot actually digest corn. Just try to get that image out of your head.
21. New York pizza
Do you fold it? Do you flip the tip? Do you dart your head at it like a snake after its prey to keep everything from sliding off the end before it gets to your mouth? Do you eat it with a fork and knife? (You don’t. Trust us.) The NY slice is like the choose your own adventure of pizza, and we loved those books. But, really, it actually can be a little difficult to eat.
20. Thanksgiving turkey
It may be cardboard-level dry when it comes out of Aunt Beatrice’s oven every Thanksgiving, but Ben Franklin wanted it as our national bird and dammit if we don’t continue to honor that by forging ahead with inedible tradition. Because tradition matters here. Now where’s the gravy? 'Cause this is so hard to eat.
19. Grilled cheese
Plastic-ish, perfectly meltable American cheese, oozing out of buttered, browned white bread = childhood in the US of A.
18. Deep-fried anything at a county fair in the Midwest
Oreos? Check. Butter? Duh. GUNS? Wait, no. Our ability to batter and fry pretty much anything is a true greasy toast to America’s collective creativity and love of the deep fryer. Eaten beneath the neon bulbs of a Midwest state fair makes it all the better. Points subtracted for cramps.
America is damn near perfect in the Fall -- apple trees, red leaves, HAYRIDES! -- and that first bowl of chili ushers in the season. We love it all: white bean chili, Turkey chili, bean chili, all-beef Texas chili.
16. Philly cheesesteak
Like New York or Chicago pizza, this is a prized, touted, cheesy, meaty food that locals will claim you can only get right when it's made in its birthplace. But unlike those pizzas, a good cheesesteak actually is relatively hard to snag outside Philly, and the rivalry between cheesesteak shops in the town is one for the ages.
Never has a bowl of soup been so rooted in tradition while having so many drastic variations. Okra, file, or roux -- the tiny details totally alter what's in the finished pot of gumbo. But those big pots of stew are the kind of dinners that bring together neighbors for shared dinners on a front porch, and that's a great, but dying tradition.
The burrito may have its Spartan meat-and-beans only roots in Mexico, but the Americanized bundle is textbook, Yankee-style more-is-better -- and more is also more delicious.
13. A Maine lobster roll
There may be two versions out there but the Maine style, served cold like it’s meant to be -- no offense, Connecticut -- encapsulates New England Summers.
Whether it’s pink-ringed, juicy slices of brisket in Texas or vinegary pulled pork in North Carolina, barbecue is the original food that drove people into a frenzy -- before all the foodie hype.
11. Kraft mac 'n cheese
Mac & cheese has gone gourmet these days, and we are obsessed with every fancy variation. But before our taste buds grew up there was Kraft, and it’s hard to deny its deliciousness -- both in our bellies and in our memories.
10. Pastrami on Rye
These epic sandwiches are meaty heaven when grabbed from a Jewish deli. But they're also well-preserved recipes from our immigrant past, and absolutely worth the bellyache you get after finishing a whole behemoth.
9. Chicken-fried steak
Country-fried steak is a plate full of American frugality -- a cheap cut of meat, turned into a full, tasty meal thanks to spiced breading. The Texas "chicken-fried" variant takes the already delicious dish and makes it bigger and better, like they do in that state, by deep-frying it and then covering it in just the right amount of peppery gravy to sop up at a cafe somewhere in cattle-country.
8. Fried chicken
When done right, fried chicken combines brown bags (we stand on the shoulders of the gents who brought brown bag lunches.), milk, and lard to provide you with the crispiest, most delicious thing you've ever put on top of waffles.
We didn’t invent the hamburger, but we turned it into the beautiful, sometimes crazy, perfect bite that it is.
6. PB & J sandwich
Made by Mom. Crusts optional. AND NO, NOT FLUFF.
5. Buttermilk biscuits
Remember what we said about bread? Flaky, salty buttermilk biscuits are even better, even if they’re just sandwiching butter.
4. Apple pie
All cliches aside, apple pie actually is American -- the pilgrims were real-big fans. If it’s made from an old family recipe or just cooked by your granny, all the better. Plus Jason Biggs had sex with it once in a movie I wasn't allowed to see in theaters.
3. Buffalo wings
Sports bar. Football game. Beer. Patriotism. Gross fingers.
With a dousing of chili, dogs move from cheap backyard food to baseball fare. So thank chili for uniting two of the most American ideals we have.
It’s the simplest of desserts, made by hand and cooked outdoors, usually on a camping trip with friends and family and Rick. There are lighting bugs twinkling, and you eat the s'mores around a campfire, while telling scary stories that are definitely made up. Your hands get chocolatey and marshmallowy and start to stick to pine needles and attract bugs. It's messy, delicious, nostalgic, and simple. It's America as the Founding Fathers intended it. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find a sharp stick.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Liz Childers is Thrillist's Cities Strategy Director, and she's pretty sure the s'mores she has made over the burners in her NYC apartment don't taste as good as the ones on her camping trips. Follow her to comfort wherever she can find it @lizchilders1.