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Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

“American food is bland…”  they said...

I’ve had more than one dear friend from overseas share this sad assessment over the years. It’s usually not coming from a place of insult but genuine experience--the conversation is always interesting, because there’s both truth and misconception to the statement. Most of the times the topic has come up, it’s usually with a friend from a country where food is flavorful, well-spiced, and fresh like South Africa, India, Nepal, or portions of Europe—all places with incredible culinary traditions. A lot of these friends have also experienced the lowest common denominators of American food—heavily-processed burgers and fries, overcooked vegetables, flavorless meats, and the most blasé fare the country can offer…

There’s a little surge of joy whenever I’ve seen the misconception proven wrong: the US actually offers a wide, wide range of incredibly flavorful food cultures, and few match the mouth-watering flavor of proper American BBQ.

Memphis Dry-Rub Ribs at Regal Eagle Smokehouse
Image: Disney

Unlike most US theme parks, food is not an afterthought at Walt Disney Parks—it’s a part of the magic. While this facet of Disney parks is on display in all four Disney parks, nowhere is it more pronounced than in Epcot’s World Showcase. World Showcase has long proven a magical place for the culinary explorer. Guests can try eleven different international cuisines across the park’s pavilions, and an even greater variety in booths throughout Epcot’s annual festivals.

One pavilion has always proven problematic in this category, however—The American Adventure…

While the other ten World Showcase pavilions shine with bold examples of culinary creativity, the American Adventure has long raised eyebrows as a bit dull compared to its counterparts—largely because its food selection has mostly surrounded burgers, corn dogs, funnel cakes, and fries. While these can all be delicious when well executed, they’re also the predominant food options available throughout Disney parks.

Are burgers and funnel cakes really the best Disney could do to express the staggering variety that makes up American food? This question has long itched at fans of the park… and as of 2020, Disney has finally solved the problem in the form of Regal Eagle Smokehouse.

What exactly is “American food”?

American Adventure Pavilion
Image: Flickr, Steven Miller (license)

It’s a tough question for good reason. America is the ultimate melting pot—there’s a reason we are one of the only nations on earth where people identity themselves by ancestry instead of just citizenship. Immigration played a major role in our roots, and many Americans hold the heritage of their forebearers who came to the country in high regard. We’re also a very large country—you can fit 30 European nations neatly inside our borders. Within that space is an incredibly diverse range of culinary traditions, most of which have roots abroad.

Many foods from other countries have experienced dramatic evolutions since coming to America. Pizza came over from Italy but has taken on many different forms since being introduced to major metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago. French influences are still easy to spot in Cajun food. A large variety of Southwestern food expressions (Tex-Mex, New Mexican, etc.) grew out of a mix of the traditional cuisines of Mexico, Texas (which was formerly a country of its own), and Native Americans.

You’d be hard-pressed to pick one food culture to fully capture American food… but if you were to pick one that has held a dear place throughout our history, it would be BBQ.

Sam Eagle gold crest for Regal Eagle Steakhouse
Image: Disney

The US is certainly not the first country to invent BBQ. It first made its way to the US mainland from the Caribbean. Spanish conquistadors brought the cooking method to American shores where it became a favored cooking style even before we became a nation of our own. Native American cooking traditions (like those of the Chickasaw) also had a strong influence on the roots of American BBQ.

Over the course of our history, the US evolved four primary BBQ traditions: Carolina, Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City. Carolina style is possibly the oldest, known for vinegar-based sauces (a holdover from British immigrants’ love for tartness and basting their meats), as well as the introduction of mustard-sauces. Texas BBQ has long been unique for being the first US BBQ tradition to emphasize beef (particularly lean brisket) over pork. Memphis BBQ arrived soon afterwards, introducing sweet, molasses-based sauces and dry-rubbed pork ribs to the party. Kansas City arrived last, incorporating elements from the other traditions to produce their own eclectic style (they are particularly known for mouth-watering burnt brisket ends).

Proper BBQ across all four styles has one thing in common: it’s all about the smoke. Just putting a dry rub or sauce on a piece of grilled meat doesn’t make it BBQ. Whether pork, beef, or chicken, careful smoking of the meat is essential to BBQ.

The American Adventure dilemma

Mark Twain and Ben Franklin animatronics with torch for American Adventure show
Image: Flickr, Loren Javier (license)

As we touched on already, Epcot’s American Adventure stood out for decades as an odd duck in the midst of the World Showcase food scene. Burgers, fries, and funnel cake certainly are expressions of American food, but for many guests, these seemed like a cop-out since these items could be easily found elsewhere throughout the Most Magical Place on Earth.

Disney tried a number of experiments over the years to expand The American Adventure’s culinary range, mostly tested during Epcot’s annual festivals like the Food and Wine Festival. Periodically, they would test run offerings of roasted chicken, seafood chowders, beef sandwiches, oysters, and even boudin (a particularly tasty Cajun rice sausage). None of these attempts quite fit the bill for completely revamping the pavilion’s culinary scene.

 
 
 
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