Warning: Food May Vary

Many American dishes have been adapted from or inspired by the cuisine of immigrants who came to the country generations ago. Some of our food has been Americanized over the years, and other quintessential American dishes were concocted on their own merits. Though the cuisine across America’s 50 states varies from one region to another, some of the names remain the same – often to the confusion and dismay of hungry newcomers.

Texas Chili or Cincinnati Chili?

At its simplest, the American dish called chili – short for chili con carne and occasionally misspelled as chilli – contains beef (or another meat), chili peppers, and spices. Chili has been the official state dish of Texas since 1977 and was introduced to the region far earlier. Though it’s difficult to track down an exact history of how and where the now-revered Texas chili recipe was first developed, it was preceded by similar Mexican dishes, and the popularity of the dish is usually traced to San Antonio and the Chili Queens who operated there until around 1940.

Any Texan will tell you that chili should never have beans – but when you order the chili enthusiastically offered in and around Cincinnati, Ohio, at restaurants like Skyline Chili, it is served a number of ways: on a bed of spaghetti noodles and covered with cheese (“3-Way”), onions (“4-Way”), and, yes, even beans (“5-Way”). Credit for the creation of this American dish is generally given to brothers John and Tom Kiradjieff, Greek immigrants who founded Empress Chili in 1922.

Despite being called Cincinnati chili, this regional food is not another version of the chili Texans love (and love to debate). This is an entirely different dish, one that, if you’re looking to try it, can be found across the nation on Steak ‘n Shake’s menu, where it’s called “Genuine Chili.”

Crab Sandwich

When you order a crab sandwich at a restaurant, you might expect perfectly round crab cakes or lumps of crab meat stuck neatly between two slices of bread. If it’s soft-shell crab season, beware: your sandwich may have legs.

That’s because soft-shell crabs are blue crabs that have shed their harder shells and, if caught in a window of just a few days, can be prepared and eaten more or less whole. To make a crab sandwich, the soft-shell crab – claws and all – will usually be battered and fried, then stacked between a bun with lettuce, tomato, and condiments.

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The molting crabs are in season from May to September, when the crab sandwich and other soft-shell specialties crawl onto menus along the mid-Atlantic coast. It’s especially popular in and around “the DMV,” a region including the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Although newcomers to this regional food may think they’re being pranked by locals who want to see if they’ll actually eat it, the soft-shell crab and its fried appendages can be found elsewhere (like on a po’ boy at Big & Little’s in Chicago).

Chicken and Waffles

If you order chicken and waffles at a restaurant in the south, or in Los Angeles, or in Harlem – all of which are places this American dish is rumored to have originated – you would expect to enjoy delicious, perfectly fried chicken on top of a crispy waffle, probably covered in syrup.

But locals to the Pennsylvania Dutch region are accustomed to a chicken and waffles recipe that looks (and tastes) quite different. The waffle is still there, but the chicken is roasted instead of fried, shredded, and topped with gravy.

While the history of fried chicken and waffles is hotly contested by several regions wanting to lay claim to it, the origin of the version popular in Pennsylvania can easily be traced back to America’s colonial beginnings and the German and Swiss immigrants who gave the Pennsylvania Dutch area its name.

Regular Joes

For many Americans, sloppy joes are a comfort food that harkens back to childhood. Another American food simmering in mystery, it may be considered a type of loose meat (or tavern) sandwich and has been mass-produced under the brand name Manwich (although it’s marketed to parents) since 1969. Whether it’s homemade or store-bought, everyone knows a basic sloppy joe is ground beef mixed with a tomato-based sauce and various seasonings – unless you’re in a New Jersey deli.

In the state perhaps most famous for its well-documented shore, a sloppy joe is a cold sandwich made with one cheese, two meats, and three layers of rye bread, topped with coleslaw, and Russian dressing. Credit for the sandwich is given to Town Hall Deli, which is said to have created it in 1934. Today, the deli offers nearly a dozen different joes, each of which is meant to feed as many as three people.

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Interestingly, Jersey Mike’s Subs, a sandwich chain founded in New Jersey in 1956 that has more than 1,000 locations across the country, doesn’t have any version of the sloppy joe sandwich on its menu, no doubt because customers outside of the Garden State would have a beef with the cold concoction.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.