As American as apple pie - the origins of picnic favorites
July 4th, 2011
11:30 AM ET
Share this on:

There's nothing quite so American as gathering your friends and family to celebrate Independence Day with a classic cookout.

We polled Eatocracy readers a while back, and nearly 38,000 votes later, it seems that the ultimate summer menu would consist of a burger (cooked medium and topped with cheese, lettuce and onions), potato salad, corn on the cob and watermelon, washed down with plenty of ice cold beer.

Only in the U.S.A., right?

Well, not quite. While those dishes may now be synonymous with American life, liberty and the pursuit of a really great picnic, like most of the citizens themselves, often their origins are elsewhere.

Let's start with that burger. Time Magazine's Josh Ozersky asserts in his 2008 book, "The Hamburger: A History" that the modern day incarnation of the formed patty between two halves of a bun is "an American invention" with endless regional variations like the Connecticut steamed cheeseburger, Mississippi slugburger or Oklahoma onion burger. Various inventors have laid claim to that innovation, from Charles "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen, a vendor at the Seymour Fair in Wisconsin in 1885 and Fletcher Davis in Athens, Texas in the 1880s, to Frank and Robert Menches at the Erie Agricultural Fair in Hamburg, New York in 1885 (they also take credit for the invention of the ice cream cone at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904), or possibly Louis Lassen at Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut in 1900.

While it took some American ingenuity to slap meat on some bread and render it a hand held sandwich, the concept of the patty itself was brought to the United States by German immigrants who had become fans of the Hamburg Steak. This cheap, chopped or roughly ground beef was mixed with fillers like breadcrumbs, suet and onions, bound with eggs and seasoned with nutmeg. The meat, often salted and smoked for preservation, was brought over to the United States by immigrants on the Hamburg America Line and became a popular menu item on New York City restaurants that catered to German sailors and European immigrants, hungry for the flavors of home.

That beloved potato salad, too, was the provenance of primarily German immigrants who brought over the endless regional variations that became popular in the U.S. in the latter half of the 19th century. While Spanish explorers introduced spuds to Europe in the 16th century and a few French and British potato salad recipes can be found in the texts of that time (see Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery and Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook), the German versions - characterized by warm dressings featuring a heavy vinegar bite - prevailed. It took good old fashioned American engineering to add mayonnaise to create the creamy, often egg-laden versions seen in delis and gracing picnic tables across this great land today.

Corn on the cob - now, that's one for the home team. Sweet corn - the variant of maize or field corn with a particularly high sugar content, which we use for cob consumption - was cultivated by Native Americans in the 1700s and shared with European settlers around the 1770s. It's also extremely popular served as a Mexican street food called "elote." In this preparation, cobs are grilled or roasted and slathered in condiments like lime, mayonnaise, cheese and powdered chiles.

Watermelon, ubiquitous at picnics from coast to coast, is believed to have originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. The melons were depicted in Egyptian heiroglyphics as far back as 5,000 years ago and were placed in the tombs of pharoahs to nourish them into the afterlife. Merchant ships brought the fruit to China by the 10th century, and that country remains the largest watermelon producer in the world. In his book "Southern food: at home, on the road, in history," food historian John Egerton writes of watermelon's introduction to the United States via African slaves, who also brought along okra, black-eyes peas, collard greens, yams and benne seed - also known as sesame.

And finally, to round out the feast: beer. Oh hoppy, malty, happy-making beer. Civilization has been brewing and quaffing permutations of beer since at least 6000 B.C., and studies show that Apache, Pueblo, Navajo and Tarahumara tribes in Northern Mexico and Arizona were no slouches, themselves - brewing a weak, corn-based beer called tiswin at least 1000 years ago.

Archaeologists also found evidence of fermented residue associated with beer production in 800 year old pots belonging to Pueblo tribes in what is now New Mexico. This contradicts previous assertions that the area had remained dry until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century with grapes and wine.

And as for that apple pie? English, Dutch and Swedish recipes go back centuries, but it's believed that mock apple pie - made without apples - was invented by pioneers traveling out West in the mid-1800s. The ingenious travelers used similar spices to evoke the taste of the bounty they missed from back East.

Now that's the flavor of good ol' American ingenuity.

Results of the Picnic Poll

Favorite Picnic Main Dish:

Burgers 43%
Ribs 23%
Steak 12%
Hot dogs 10%
Chicken 7%
Veggies 3%
Other 2%

Favorite Picnic Beverage

Beer 51%
Iced tea 20%
Lemonade 8%
Cola 7%
Water 6%
Wine 4%
Punch (spiked or non) 2%
Other 2%

Favorite Hot Picnic Side Dish

Corn on the cob 42.3%
Baked beans 28.3%
Macaroni & cheese 15%
Grilled veggies 13.2%
Other 1.2%

Favorite Cold Picnic Side Dish

Potato salad 38%
Deviled eggs 27%
Fruit salad 13%
Pasta salad 11%
Cole slaw 8%
Three bean salad 2%
Other 1%

Favorite Burger Toppings

Cheese 15.8%
Lettuce 13%
Onions 12.3%
Ketchup 12.1%
Tomato 11.5%
Mustard 10.4%
Pickles 10%
Mayo 8.3%
Relish 2.1%
Other – 1.6%
Potato chips 1.5%
Steak sauce 1.4%

Favorite Level of Burger Doneness

Medium 29.5%
Medium well 25.5%
Medium rare 22.3%
Well done 16%
Fair rare 3.7%
Practically mooing 1.8%
Hockey puck 1.4%

Favorite Picnic Dessert

Watermelon 36.4%

Pie 23.5%
Ice cream / sherbet / gelato 12.9%
Cookies 9.2%
Cake 8.1%
Other 3.6%
Fruit kebab 3.2%
Anything involving a Jell-O mold 1.3%
Popsicle 1.2%
Pudding 0.7%

All our best grilling advice.

soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. mjh


    July 11, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  2. mjh


    July 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  3. Amanda Huggekhiss

    FWIW, sweet potatoes were in the Americas before Africans brought yams to the New World.
    They are botanically distinct species, even though the are identical from a culinary standpoint.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  4. Barry

    I just read today that Cioppino, an Italian stew with seafood, was invented in San Francisco. Native Italians have never heard of it. It was creative US fishermen that created it. But does this article mention that? Nope.
    Seems articles like this are meant to simple undermine American culture, to try to put cracks in its history and try to decline trust in institutions. Thank god for the alternative media, where I don't have to read garbage like this article often.

    July 5, 2011 at 1:36 am | Reply
    • Pottrick Kettle

      It's not a picnic food. Why would it be mentioned in this article?

      I took the whole thing as a celebration of our varied American culture. Why are you looking for conflict? Knowledge is a good thing.

      July 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  5. Anthony

    Most Americans don't have their origins in America (unless you're native American) so it's no surprise that our foods don't either.

    July 5, 2011 at 12:24 am | Reply
    • toty lim

      You are the most logical person in this group exchange. and you certainly know what you are talking about.

      July 5, 2011 at 1:01 am | Reply
  6. Richwood

    Wait, here in Texas the former head of the Texas Board of Education said that people have only been around for a total of 6,000 years. If they were eating watermelon around 6,000BC (actually it is now called BCE) that would be 8,000 years ago. Now you know why Texas is near the bottom of the education scale and Gov Perry cut $4 billion from the education budget to make sure we remain there or drop to last and he wants to be President??????????????????

    July 4, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • Matt

      LMAO! Great... Americans are going to put another Republican Texas Governor in the White House??

      July 5, 2011 at 8:21 am | Reply
  7. Joe

    Americans are a mish-mash of all other cultures... yet some of us think we spontaneously came to be and are 'pure' Americans. Everything in America has its roots elsewhere! That's what make America awesome! We are ALL people!

    July 4, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  8. HearYe

    Being that this food article pertains to the US, I propose that America's favorite food is anything with a FAT content greater than 50%.
    Sorry, but your obese country urgently needs a diet plan and a geography lesson to educate 'youall' that you are not the sole country in this world.
    Enjoy your BIG Macs ... the arteries of the rest of us thank you. I believe it's called natural selection.

    July 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • Sarkazein

      Being 6'1", 165lbs., and from Texas no less, I'd like to thank you for pointing out that we are not part of your arrogance, ignorance, incompetence, and stereotyping. It is natural selection that removes those of us that cannot survive not only in the environment around us, but also with those around us.

      You apparently do not want to survive with anyone that disagrees with or disproves you, but are happy to rattle off stereotypes and ill-conceived perceptions without experiencing the reality of it all. It happened hundreds of years ago when we gave native Americans smallpox and they gave us tobacco. If you'd like to continue down that path, be my guest.

      July 4, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Reply
    • Matt@HearYe

      God must really like dumb folks because he sure made a lot of them. That would be you.

      July 5, 2011 at 8:19 am | Reply
  9. bluemax77

    Dumb and arrogant...

    July 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  10. Sarkazein

    Burgers and a few beers. Not crap beer (no Bud, Coors, or Miller Lite). Just good burgers (cook bacon on the second rack of the barbeque and let them drip on the burgers) with common toppings (lettuce, onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard, mayo, etc.), and a few decent beers (mostly foreign, but not all: Heineken, Blue Moon, Corona, Stella Artois, etc.).

    They have to be light (lager) style beers in the south, but porter/stouts/bocks work in the north to the same effect. Just, for the love of god, not the p1ss-water beers. A flavorful beer makes a big difference. Quality, not quantity.

    July 4, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • Noxious Sunshine

      Corona is crap, imo.. Unless you can find Corona Familiar. Try modelo or pacifico for lighter beer or Victoria for something a bit darker (if it can be found... They dont sell it here in TN)

      July 5, 2011 at 8:07 am | Reply
  11. kat

    Ugh - had pimento cheese sandwiches in Missouri recently and vomit would have been preferable. Many wonderful foods in the south, but I don't understand that one at all.

    July 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • Excuse Me

      Missouri is not a Southern state that is why you didn't like the pimento cheese because they probably didn't make it right. Try it again when you are actually in the South before you makes such statements against such a glorious thing like pimento cheese.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:19 am | Reply
  12. Reg

    People been eating something similar to corn cob all over Asia for centuries.

    July 4, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  13. Demos

    It is delicious and there is nothing like apple pie and ice cream.
    Visit for mouthwatering desserts like no other. The owner attended college in PA. to study the chemistry of ice cream production.

    July 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
    • HearYe

      Hope he was able to determine the rodent hair count and fat content in that slop. Check the ingredients – why WOULD you eat something like that\? Death wish?

      July 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  14. joesmith

    bbq chicken, ribs, flavourful hotdogs, potato salad,deviled eggs, corn on the cob,grilled peppers, and blackberry cobbler with french vanilla ice cream..oh yes, a tall glass of sweet tea..and to the moderator this're nuts..

    July 4, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  15. joesmith

    bbq chicken, ribs, flavourful hotdogs, potato salad,deviled eggs, corn on the cob,grilled peppers, and blackberry cobbler with french vanilla ice cream..oh yes, a tall glass of sweet tea..

    July 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
    • HearYe

      And Joe: what do you weigh in at?

      July 4, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Reply
      • Matt


        July 5, 2011 at 8:14 am | Reply
  16. Jimbob

    Most of what people call yams are the native sweet potato, not African yams, although the peanut should be added to foods brought by African slaves. Pineapple upside down cake and guacamole need to be added to the list of all American foods for Independence Day.

    July 4, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  17. MidWest bred

    Maybe it's midwest only but apples, peaches, pears and blackberry cobbler for the homemade ice cream.

    July 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  18. Anon_e_mouse

    Hmm... methinks that the beer industry must have loaded the balloting for the beverages, because I can't imagine how that ended up as #1 for a picnic. #2 maybe, but considering that most picnics nowadays either involve public parks where such consumption is not permitted and/or the person most likely to consume beer is also the driver (and hence – hopefully – isn't drinking), I sense an artificially skewed result. Iced tea or lemonade would logically be in the number one spot. Now if you're talking a neighborhood cookout, that's a different story.

    And while my personal favorites only made it to the top in the side dish categories, I certainly can see why the other categories stack up like they did.

    July 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply
    • Daisy

      It's a poll of "favorites", and not necessarily what is actually most consumed.

      July 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Reply
    • John Adams

      You don't understand why beer is overwhelmingly #1, and think it's a conspiracy?? You are way WAY too far out of touch with reality.

      July 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Reply
    • JD

      Many people still drink beer in the public parks. They just hide it in other containers.

      July 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  19. Tim

    As American as obesity and diabetes.

    July 4, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • HearYe

      Correct on both counts – natural selection at work

      July 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  20. Sarah

    And I must agree with senorblanco–I'm from Texas/Louisiana and pimento cheese sandwiches are clutch!

    July 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  21. Sarah

    Fun article. Just wanted to point out that "elote" simply means corn. The Mexican street food prepared with chile piquin, lime juice, mayonnaise, and cheese is called "esquites."

    July 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • Noxious Sunshine

      Yeah but many mexican street vendors still call it 'elote' regardless. Everyonr i know calls it 'elote' as well..

      It's kinda like how both lemons -and- limes are called 'limones'.

      July 5, 2011 at 8:01 am | Reply
  22. dj

    Bananas and peanutbutter sandwich... Fried chicken goes anywhere...

    July 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • Jo

      I can't believe fried chicken wasn't even mentioned!

      July 4, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • Jo

      I amend, cold fried chicken.

      July 4, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • Jo

      Happy 4th all!

      July 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  23. MNinGA

    A friend of mine down here (GA) stated a picnic wasn't a picnic without pineapple sandwiches. I think he's right...

    July 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • Tom Tersigni

      My favorite appetizer/ snack: Medium size russet baking potato, scrubbed and sliced lengthwise, seasoned with salt and pepper and baked on the top rack of the B-B-Q grille. Start these first, before preparing the main entree, and they will be ready to serve with the start of the main meal–or they can be sampled as snacks prior to the meal.

      July 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
      • Humor

        Yum that sound good. I will have to try it instead of the typical baked potato.

        July 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
      • Amy

        Coat the potato skin in olive oil, then sprinkle the salt and pepper. You potato skin will turn out crispy!

        July 4, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  24. senorblanco

    Wow. What about sandwiches for a main dish? If you've lived in the south you have to take either pimento cheese sandwiches or banana sandwiches to a picnic...

    July 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
    • skittrbrain

      The south of what country? Cuz I've never heard of that, although banana sandwiches sound delicious.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Reply
      • sdrawkcab

        I live in the south & sandwiches are a staple for picnics. Many places you cant have a fire, so you've gotta settle for something out of an ice chest. Sandwiches, chips, cold raw veggies, beer & soft drinks reign. 4th of July in Texas, I'd think brisket on the pit rules. But they got the beer & tater salad right . Regional differences aside, it's the family & friends get together that counts. Whatever your choice of eats.

        July 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • Sydney

        You must not have visited the American South, since pimento cheese sandwiches are as much as staple as sweet tea is!

        July 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
      • JD

        I can't stand pimento cheese or sweet tea.

        July 4, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Reply
    • amg.kmp


      July 4, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Reply
    • Bailes

      Or cold fried chicken

      July 26, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

| Part of