United States Western Region
Western American cuisine – Cuisine of the Western United States
The Western United States has its own cuisine, distinct in various ways from that of the rest of the country. Those states west of Texas, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska would be considered part of this area, as would, in some cases, western parts of adjoining states. The locavore movement is increasingly influential, as is the concept of sustainability. The influence of the Native American cultures of each area, but especially in the Northwest and in Navajo country, is important in the cuisine picture of the Western United States
- 1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
- 2. HISTORY AND FOOD
- 3. FOODS OF THE WESTERN REGION
- 3.1 Cranberry Salsa
- 3.2 Fortune Cookies
- 3.3 Marinated Artichokes
- 3.4 Broiled Salmon Steaks
- 3.5 Chinese Peanut Sauce
- 3.6 Apple Crisp
- 3.7 Parsley New Potatoes
- 3.8 Blueberry Muffins
- 4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
- 5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
- 6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
- 7. FURTHER STUDY
1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
The Western region of the United States may be defined as including the states west of the Rocky Mountains. These include California, Oregon, and Washington bordering the Pacific Ocean on their western coasts; moving east, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona form the basin and plateau region and feature some of the most dramatic scenery in the United States, with canyons (including the Grand Canyon), the Great Salt Lake, and the deserts of the southwest. The combined population of these states is about 42 million, the majority of whom (about 33 million) live in California.
The environment of this region is varied, but one problem that affects most Western states is the availability of fresh water. In urban areas, air pollution inspired government regulations in the 1970s, 1980s, and1990s to help curb smog-producing emissions from industrial and consumer sources (especially from automobiles). California has stringent auto emissions regulations. Phoenix, Arizona, also has problems with air quality.
2. HISTORY AND FOOD
As pioneers began moving west, they expected living to be difficult. Traveling with horses, livestock, and their families, the pioneers encountered challenges both from the harsh environment and with the Native Americans already living in this region. While some Native American tribes were friendly, others regarded the white pioneer settlers as invaders. Disease and lack of adequate food and water were trials that the pioneers confronted as they traveled from eastern towns and villages to the open spaces of the West. Drought was a regular happening on the prairie, which made life hazardous for those making a long westward journey.
Nopales, or prickly pear cactus, appears in the bowl behind a
display of foods. All dishes contain nopales: nopales and eggs
(bottom left); beef and nopales stir fry (top left); cactus juice
(bottom center); nopales salsas and nopales avocado dip (bottom
right). Dishes made using nopales are rarely seen outside the
Western United States.
Despite these hardships, the pioneers enjoyed social gatherings. Shooting contests, riding and cattle-roping competitions, and other games that made use of the pioneer skills were organized. Some pioneer men, many of whom traveled without their families, also liked to gamble, playing poker in the saloons that grew up around settlements.
Most women did not get involved in the competitive sports, but socializing was important to them. Women would meet to “put up” (can) stores of food for the long winter months, gather for “sewing bees” when they would make quilts or do mending. Carding and spinning of wool and weaving cloth were also done, often meeting together as a group. Men and women would join together for dancing parties and harvest socials; many of their activities included food.
2.1 Chuck Wagon Brisket
Brisket was roasted all day over a low campfire until the cowboysreturned for their evening meal.
- 2–4 pounds lean beef brisket
- ½ cup white sugar
- ¼ cup salt
- Ground pepper, to taste
- 2 cups barbeque sauce
- ½ cup white vinegar
- 1 cup catsup
- 1 18-ounce jar of grape jelly
- Coat brisket with sugar, salt, and pepper. Let meat marinate in this combination in the refrigerator overnight.
- Combine barbecue sauce, vinegar, catsup, and jelly in a saucepan and heat until jelly melts completely.
- Line a baking dish with a sheet of foil long enough to wrap back over the top of the brisket.
- Place brisket in foil-lined baking dish. Pour cooking sauce over brisket.
- Wrap foil around sauce-covered brisket, and pinch foil edges together.
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Roast for about 2 hours in the oven. Reduce heat to 200°F and roast an additional 4 hours.
- Remove brisket carefully from oven with mitts. Place on a large cutting board.
- Cut meat crosswise into thin slices. Place on serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
Serves 8 to 10.
The foods of these early pioneer days combined the recipes brought by families from the East, as well as contributions from the Spanish and Native American inhabitants of the region. Ranchers raised cattle on vast tracts of lands, and often took their meals over an open campfire while tending to the herds. A chuckwagon—a large cart that carried the supplies and utensils for cooking—often accompanied the ranchers as they traveled with the herd. The foods prepared for these men, known as cowboys, were hearty and filling.
As farmers began planting crops that grew well in this region and women became adept at cooking the foods of the area—such as buffalo and deer—recipes and eating habits were transformed.
In the late nineteenth century, workers were needed to build both the cities of the West and the transcontinental railroad to bring more people from the East. Immigration from Asia, especially from China, brought new foods and cooking styles. In the twentieth century other Asian groups (Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese) and Mexicans immigrated to the West, and contributed their own influences on the style of cooking. While meals still centered around meat, especially beef, cooks began including the vegetables and grains of Asia and Mexico in their recipes.
In the late twentieth century healthy lifestyles became a focus of many Western citizens, and the Western region seemed to take the lead in learning how to eat healthier and live a healthier lifestyle. Many people became vegetarians (those who do not eat meats and animal products), preparing meals from legumes (beans), rice, and vegetables.
3. FOODS OF THE WESTERN REGION
The foods found in the West are varied. The Pacific Northwest has fruit orchards—pears, cherries, apples, blueberries, and grapes. Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, are all home to wineries and produce much of the fresh fruit that is sold throughout the United States.
California produces almost 100 percent of the artichokes consumed in the United States, and is also a top producer of dried fruits like raisins, prunes, dates, apricots, and figs. The coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean provide abundant seafood, including Dungeness crab, calamari (octopus), and salmon. Relishes and salsas are popular accompaniments to many dishes, and combine the influences of the many ethnic groups who live in the coastal states.
Idaho is home to vast potato farms, and the Idaho potato is stocked by almost every supermarket in the United States. Reflecting the Americans’ love for potatoes that are quick and easy to prepare, about three-fourths of Idaho’s potato crop is now processed and sold as frozen french fries, instant mashed potatoes, or similar products. In Idaho, fur-trapping was one of the first occupations. Today it is also famous for gold and silver mines, and beautiful mountains and rivers.
Meat, especially beef, is produced on the vast tracts of ranch land that make up large sections of sparcely populated states such as Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. (Ranches in Arizona and Wyoming average over 3,700 acres each.)
In the desert regions, one might find foods, jellies, and candies made from the prickly pear cactus, or nopales. These foods are rarely seen outside the Southwestern region where the prickly pear cactus grows in the hot, dry desert landscape.
3.1 Cranberry Salsa
- 1 package fresh or frozen cranberries
- ⅓ cup sugar
- ¼ cup thinly sliced green onions
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 lime, grate the peel, then squeeze for juice (You may substitute a
- 1 or 2 jalapeño chilies, seeded and finely diced
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- Coarsely chop cranberries with a knife or in the food processor.
- Combine chopped cranberries with all other ingredients.
- Mix well in food processor.
- Use as a dip with tortilla chips or to accompany chicken or fish.
Makes 1-2 cups
3.2 Fortune Cookies
Chinese immigrants introduced the fortune cookie first to California.
- 1 egg white
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pinch of salt
- ¼ cup white flour
- ¼ cup white sugar
- Clean strips of white paper, about 4 inches long and ½ inch wide
- Write fortunes on strips of paper.
- Preheat oven to 400°F . Generously grease 2 cookie sheets.
- Mix the egg white and vanilla until foamy, but not stiff.
- Sift together flour, salt, and sugar.
- Blend dry mixture into egg mixture.
- Place teaspoon-sized portions of batter on the cookie sheets, at least 4 inches apart. Use the bottom of the spoon to make round shapes of about 3 inches in diameter. Make sure batter is spread evenly.
- Bake cookies for 5 minutes or until golden-colored on the edge. The center will remain pale.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and with a wide spatula quickly remove and place upside down on a wooden board.
- Quickly place one fortune in the center of each cookie.
- Fold the cookie in half. Place the folded edge across the rim of a glass and pull the pinted edges down, one on the inside of the cup and one on the outside.
- Place folded cookies into the cups of a muffin tin or an empty egg carton to hold their shape.
- Allow the cookie to cool completely in the muffin tin to set the shape.
Makes 1 dozen cookies.
3.3 Marinated Artichokes
- 1 to 2 pounds small artichokes
- 3 cups water
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- Ground pepper, to taste
- 4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
- Cut off the tips and stems of the artichokes. Remove any outer leaves with scissors or paring knife.
- Combine all remaining ingredients in an uncovered saucepan. Add prepared artichokes.
- Heat mixture over medium-high heat until the liquid begins to boil. Lower heat and simmer the mixture for about 30 minutes.
- Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Serve artichokes at room temperature or chilled.
Makes 4 servings.
3.4 Broiled Salmon Steaks
- 4 salmon steaks, ¾ inches thick
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Ground pepper, to taste
- ¾ stick butter (6 Tablespoons)
- 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
- ½ Tablespoon dill or parsley
- 1 lemon, quartered
- Preheat broiler.
- Rinse salmon steaks under cold running water and pat dry. Lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- In small saucepan melt butter over low heat. Set aside.
- Lightly coat broiler pan with vegetable oil. Lay fish on the pan.
- Brush fish generously with melted butter. Broil for 5 minutes, brushing with melted butter after 2 to 3 minutes.
- Wearing oven mitts, remove pan from oven and carefully turn fish over. Brush with more butter and return to oven.
- Broil as you did the first side. To test for doneness, carefully remove pan from oven (wearing the mitts). Using a fork, pull some fish away.
The fish flesh should look opaque and light pink, not translucent and glassy, and the flesh will flake away easily.
- If the fish is not done, return to oven and broil for another 1 to 3 minutes. Over-cooking will dry the fish out.
- Serve, garnish with remaining melted butter, dill or parsley, and lemon wedges.
Makes 4 servings.
3.5 Chinese Peanut Sauce
Use as a dip for fresh raw vegetables, as a dressing for cold or hot noodles, or as a sauce for freshly cooked fish.
- ½ cup peanut butter, chunky or smooth
- ½ cup hot water
- 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- 3 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 1–2 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
- Cayenne pepper, to taste
- Place peanut butter in a small bowl. Add the hot water, stirring with a small spoon or whisk until evenly blended.
- Stir in remaining ingredients. Mix well.
- Cover tightly and put in the refrigerator.
- Let sauce come to room temperature to serve.
Makes 1 cup.
In the cool, wet climate of the Northwest region, apples have become an important food product for the state of Washington. This orchard crop dominates the state’s agricultural economy. Washington is the nation’s leading producer of apples.
3.6 Apple Crisp
Crunchy apples from Washington state are the inspiration for many baked apple dishes.
- About 10 medium-sized Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apples, peeled,
cored, and sliced.
- ½ cup white sugar
- ¼ cup brown sugar, light or dark
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Ingredients for topping
- ½ cup white flour
- ¾ cup white sugar
- ½ stick butter, at room temperature
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Place sliced apples in a bowl. Toss with the sugars and cinnamon
- Place apple mixture in an 8-inch or 9-inch square baking dish.
- Sprinkle with the lemon juice. Set aside.
- To make topping, combine flour and sugar. With fork, add butter. Mixture will be crumbly.
- Sprinkle topping over apples in pan.
- Bake for 45 minutes, or until apples are soft and topping is browned.
Serves 6 to 8.
3.7 Parsley New Potatoes
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 12 small new potatoes of about the same size, scrubbed clean
- 1 stick butter
- ¼ cup finely–chopped fresh parsley, or 2 Tablespoons dried
- ½ fresh lemon, cut into four wedges, optional
- Pour 3 quarts of water into large pot, add the salt, and bring to a rolling boil.
- Gently, and carefully, drop the potatoes into the boiling water.
- Boil for 15 to 20 minutes. Test doneness with fork. (Fork should pierce the potato easily.)
- Place cooked potatoes in a colander in the sink, allowing them to drain.
- Melt butter in a skillet, add the cooked potatoes, shaking until well-covered.
- Sprinkle on the parsley.
- Serve with the lemon wedges on the side.
3.8 Blueberry Muffins
- 1 cup blueberries, washed and drained
- 1¾ cups plus 2 Tablespoons flour
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 cup milk
- ½ stick butter, melted and cooled
- Paper baking cups
- Preheat oven to 400°F
- Line each cup of muffin tin with a paper baking cup.
- Sift 1¾ cups of the flour with the baking powder, salt, and sugar into a large mixing bowl.
- In a smaller mixing bowl beat the egg with a fork or whisk until frothy.
Add milk and melted butter to the egg mix, and stir to combine.
- Add the liquid mixture to the flour mixture. Stir gently with a wooden
spoon to blend. Do not beat; the batter will be a little lumpy.
- Sprinkle the remaining 2 Tablespoons of flour over the blueberries and add them to the batter, stirring gently.
- Spoon batter into the baking cups, filling each about ¾ full.
- Bake 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops are dry and the muffins slightly shrunk from the sides of the muffin tin.
- Remove tin from the oven, and turn muffins out of the pan. Allow to cool slightly.
Blueberry muffins are easy to make and may be enjoyed
anytime—for breakfast, with lunch or dinner, or as an
afterschool or bedtime snack.
4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
Western citizens celebrate all the usual American holidays—Fourth of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter (Christian); Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah (Jewish), and Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr (Muslim) are celebrated by people who practice those religions.
Two holidays celebrated in the Western region reflect the influence of Hispanic and Asian immigrants to the area. A special celebration influenced by the immigration of Mexicans into the United States is Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May). Latino Americans hold festivals where special food, such as guacamole, Mexican rice, refried beans, burritos, and tamales, are served.
Cinco de Mayo remembers the victory of the Mexican army over the French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. To the Mexicans and Mexican Americans, this event is regarded as a symbol of their resistance to European
domination. In the United States, this holiday was celebrated as early as 1863 in San Francisco, California.
With the influx of Asians into the Western region, especially northern California, came celebrations long-practiced in Asia. One holiday of special note is the Chinese New Year. Because the Chinese New Year is based on the lunar (moon) calendar, it is celebrated on the occasion of the first new moon of the year. Chinese New Year can fall anytime between January 21 and February 19. For its celebrants, Chinese New Year is the beginning of the Spring Festival. The New Year is celebrated for fifteen days. On the last day, called Lantern Day, children march in parades
carrying brightly colored, glowing paper lanterns.
Chinese New Year is a time of family reunions, thanksgiving, and remembering one’s ancestors. When families gather there are always special foods that are prepared and eaten. One special dish is called jai, which is a vegetarian dish of root and fibrous vegetables. Each vegetable ingredient has a special meaning and is included in the dish for
a purpose. Many holiday practices are based on traditions and superstitions. Vegetables prepared for New Year represent good luck, happiness, and prosperity for the coming year. It is considered unlucky to include any white ingredients, such as tofu or bean sprouts.
Other foods for New Year’s celebrations include whole fish (for abundance); chicken (for prosperity); head, tail, and feet of the chicken (for completeness); and uncut noodles (for long life).
Chinese New Year’s traditions require that the entire house be cleaned before the celebration and all brooms and mops put away. To use a broom or mop on New Year’s would be to “sweep away” the good luck. Another popular custom is to wear and decorate with the color red, as this color is considered lucky. Although many modern Chinese Americans are not superstitious, they carry on the traditional practices in celebration of the New Year with family and friends..
5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
Westerners generally eat three meals each day, like most Americans. However, because of the intense heat in the desert regions, lunch may be more leisurely, and features a lighter menu of cool foods (such as salads and fresh fruits) accompanied by refreshing lemonade, limeade, or iced tea.
6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
Westerners generally receive adequate nutrition in their diets, although recent immigrants sometimes experience difficulties finding adequate resources for shopping for and preparing food from their native countries. With an abundance of rich soil and farming land, the region produces nutritious fruit and vegetable crops. Westerners in general are among the most active and health-conscious of all Americans.
7. FURTHER STUDY
Altman, Linda Jacobs.
Celebrate the States: California.
New York: Benchmark Books, 1997.
Matt Braun’s Western Cooking.
Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1998.
D’Amico, Joan and Karen Eich Drummond.
United States Cookbook
. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.
Kirlin, Katherine S. and Thomas M.
. London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Linsenmeyer, Helen Walker.
From Fingers to Finger Bowls: A Lively History of California Cooking.
San Luis Obispo, CA: EZ Nature Books, 1990.
7.2 Web Sites
Lone Hand Western. [Online] Available
(accessesed August 17, 2001).
Northwest Palate. [Online] Available
(accessed August 17, 2001).
Nutritiously Gourmet. [Online] Available
(accessed August 17, 2001).
Western Recipes. [Online] Available
(accessed August 17, 2001).