The definition of a shortcut is “a method, procedure, policy, etc., that reduces the time or energy needed to accomplish something.” (Thanks, dictionary.com!) Calling something a shortcut used to be pretty derogatory, implying that the person taking the shortcut was doing a worse job, or being lazy, or just didn’t care all that much.
But today? I don’t know any adult humans who don’t take shortcuts! Instead of admitting it, we say we’re “finding efficiencies” or “streamlining our workflow.” Shortcuts have gotten a makeover, and that’s a good thing, because they’re more necessary than ever.
I’ve strayed a bit, because I’m supposed to be talking about Rotel, which is a can of tomatoes and green chillies, and is also, most assuredly, a shortcut. It was invented in 1943 by Carl Roettele, because he was wise and realized that dicing tomatoes, and roasting/peeling/chopping chilies was a process that could certainly use some streamlining.
His customers agreed. Not only did they use Rotel in queso (still the most popular use, according to my research) they used it in chicken spaghetti, baked beans, cornbread, fajitas, guacamole, tater tot casserole, tortilla soup, and every kind of chili. It saved time, added flavor, and let regular people pull together a meal or a side that was a little more special than they otherwise could have managed.
I’m headed to a family reunion this weekend. I can already see the line of crockpots. The paper plates. The plastic forks. The tray heaped with cookout meats. The potato salad, pasta salad, green salad, and Jell-O salad. I can imagine how good everything will taste. I can even feel the comfort of my butt in a BYO lawn chair. We’ll sit, and eat, and be grateful for the shortcuts that let us spend a little less time in the kitchen, and a little more time with family.
I love the idea that when I’m running late, I’ll race through the kitchen, grab a Pop-Tart that’s flying out of the toaster, make it to the office just in time, and NAIL that presentation. Pop-Tarts are, and have always been, shorthand for sweet success on the go. Or toasted triumph under pressure? Whatever, from what I understand, they’re a foundational breakfast snack that pretty much guarantees a positive outcome to any situation. Which is surprising, considering the fact that they started as a rip-off of someone else’s good idea.
In 1964, cereal-giant Post announced to the press that it would be launching a toaster-prepared breakfast pastry. Was the product ready to launch? No. Was it wise to make an announcement so far in advance? Also no.
Upon hearing this exciting news, the devious folks at Kellogg’s sprang into action. They developed their OWN version of the toaster pastry. Did Kellogg’s steal the idea? Yes. Was it an idea worth stealing? Also yes.
Now looking back, I couldn’t tell you which toaster pastry was superior, but I CAN tell you which had the better name.
Post’s invention was called “Country Squares.” The name evokes a rural locale and a geometric shape. Ok, that’s boring, but fine. But in 1964, we called uncool people “square.” Naming your breakfast treat after an unpopular fellow is a bad move. Huey Lewis later said that it was “hip to be square,” but that idea came about 20 years too late to save “Country Squares.”
Kellogg’s, on the other hand, called their pastry “Pop-Tarts.” The name is a play on an art movement (Pop Art) that was currently influencing culture. “Pop” refers to “popular” and also the action of the pastry as it springs out of the toaster. “Tart” calls to mind a delicious fruity treat that people want to eat. “Pop-Tarts” is what we in marketing call, “a very good name” that does a lot of “heavy lifting.”
As you might imagine, Pop-Tarts outsold Country Squares by a large margin, and established dominance in the very competitive breakfast-convenience category. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that a great name can be the difference between a ho-hum product launch and a toaster-propelled success story.
Since the beginning of time, humans have delighted in developing exciting ways to communicate. It began with gestures and grunts. Later, using one’s voice to speak a language was popular. Then came the written word. Folks invented technologies that helped our communications travel faster and farther than ever. Telegrams! Telephone calls! Emails! Texts! Video chats! Today, you can tell anyone almost anything instantly.
But, amidst all of this innovation, one primitive message delivery device continues to surface for just a few weeks each year…the conversation heart.
Conversation hearts, for anyone who’s awfully far out of the loop, are chalky candy hearts stamped with messages ranging from fervent devotion to boredom and disdain. So, you know, the whole spectrum of romanic love. Sweethearts were invented by the New England Confectionary Company in 1902, as a related, but distinct follow-up to the already popular Necco wafer. Original messages included: “WHO ME?” and “LOVE U” and allowed crushes of all ages to communicate with sugar. Finally.
As years passed, the language used to express love changed, and so too, did the the phrases printed on Sweethearts. Mixed in with classics like “BE MINE” were radical gems like “AS IF” and “AWESOME.” The most important for my formative years was 90s favorite “FAX ME.” I spent a lot of time dreaming of the eventual romantic interest who would fax me out on a date. (This technological rendezvous never actually occurred, and I’m still sorta mad at Necco for getting my hopes up in the first place.)
All faxes aside, the idea of updating phrases was a smart one, and, like every good reboot, it allowed each new generation to enjoy a thing that they should have considered completely uncool.
We could speculate on the inclination to share our feelings with a kinda unpleasant candy rather than, say, a well-written poem or a heartfelt ballad, but let’s agree that the humble conversation heart hits the sweet spot (ha!) between over-zealous sentimentality and too-cool indifference. Which, as we all know, is the place where true love grows.
When we last saw him, Momofuku Ando had just invented an incredibly popular instant ramen product, which was selling like hotcakes. (It’s a food simile!) His noodles were a huge hit, but Ando had big dreams. He wanted the whole damn world to eat them, so traveling to different countries and doing promotion became an important part of his job.
Legend has it that on a visit to the United States to promote Chikin Ramen, Ando saw supermarket workers breaking bricks of the product in half, dropping them into styrofoam coffee cups, then adding boiling water. When the soup had cooked, it was eaten…with a fork?!
Now, instant ramen was designed to be cooked in a pot, and eaten in a bowl with chopsticks. That’s the way you eat ramen! But did Ando scold these silly ramen newbies for “doing it wrong”? NO! Did he add more instructions to the package so folks would quit doing ridiculous things to his noodles? NO! Our brilliant inventor recognized that people were using the tools they had to enjoy his product in the most convenient way. He saw an opportunity to make it even easier for them.
Over the next few years, Ando oversaw the development of a brand new product called Cup Noodles. The inventive design allowed one vessel to be used as packaging, cooking pot, and serving dish. The “cup” included noodles, soup base powder, and toppings. The consumer could peel back the lid, add boiling water, replace the lid, wait three minutes, and enjoy a complete meal, even if they were on-the-go. Oh, and it came with a fork.
When you’re attempting to create a product with global appeal, it’s pretty important to focus on the ways we’re the same. It’s hard to find a place on the planet where there aren’t workers who need a meal away from home. Who don’t have access to a kitchen, or much money, or much time. If you can give them a way to eat something warm and filling, and, let’s be honest, fun, you’re onto something. Momofuku Ando had done it again.
If we’ve learned anything by delving into the history of shelf-stable food, it’s that the United States has a looooong history of inventing convenience meals and exporting them all over the world. Thanks, USA! It’s with joy, therefore, that we take a moment to talk about a product that came from Japan, and found a home here (and just about everywhere else.) I’m speaking, of course, of Instant Ramen Noodles.
For any ramen novices out there, here’s a little background. Ramen is a Japanese dish with roots in China. It consists of long wheat noodles, often served in a savory broth and garnished with goodies like soft boiled egg, various meats, and veggies. In terms of fast food, you’d be hard-pressed to find a meal more complex, satisfying, or slurp-ful.
So why INSTANT ramen? Was it just an example of taking a popular restaurant dish, and giving folks a way to make it at home? The answer is a compelling mix of post-war occupation, international trade, and economic depression. Let’s dig in…
The year is 1945. World War II is over. Japan has suffered devastating losses, and its economy is in ruins. To further complicate matters, a series of poor rice harvests and a government-run food distribution system is making it hard for folks to get enough to eat. In this post-war disaster zone, hungry workers line up in the cold to buy bowls of hot ramen from black market noodle stands.
But soon, and Japan is awash in wheat. “How!?” you might ask. “Good question!” I’d reply. The USA has been hanging around Japan since the war, and is fully aware of the food shortages. Back home, the wheat harvest is abundant, leading to a historic surplus of the grain. Much of this is styled as aid for countries facing hunger. Like Japan.
At this point, the Ministry of Health was like, “Ok, we’ve got all this this American wheat. I guess we’ll make a ton of bread and everyone can eat!” A businessman named Momofuku Ando was aghast. Bread eating wasn’t really a big thing in Japan, but noodles were. Why disrupt cultural tradition? Why not use the imported wheat for ramen? “Too risky!” said the Ministry. “Noodle companies are small, and unstable, and hard to control. We can’t run a government food program through them!” (I’m paraphrasing, for anyone still paying attention.) The Ministry suggested that if Ando was so passionate about his noodle idea, he should find a way to do it himself.
From that day forward, Ando was obsessed with finding a way to make a ramen product that folks could enjoy at home, and that would ALSO help end world hunger. This guy had goals, folks. He knew he had to find a way to dehydrate fresh noodles, so they could be rehydrated quickly and easily. Did he have any food science experience? Certainly not! Was there any reason to believe that he would achieve his goal? Not really! But he did, and the answer lie in flash frying.
After nearly a year of trying various forms of dehydration, a frustrated Ando flung a batch of ramen noodles into his wife’s tempura oil. (I like to imagine that she was annoyed by this interruption to her meal prep, but history does not record this detail.) The noodles emerged completely dehydrated, and with a rough, perforated texture that made for remarkably easy rehydration. Finally! A breakthrough! Things moved quickly from there, and instant ramen hit store shelves in 1958.
The initial flavor was “Chikin,” which was delicious and surprisingly expensive. I saw one breakdown that said the cost was about 6 times that of fresh noodles. But remember, it’s 1958! Japan is doing MUCH better economically by now, and folks are ready to try new things and save time at home. Instant Ramen, however expensive, is a spectacular success. Over the next decades, it marches steadily across the globe, finding enthusiastic fans wherever it goes. The cost comes down as production kinks are ironed out.
Instant ramen is a commercial success! But what about Ando’s big goal of ending world hunger? I’m happy to report that in 1997, he founded the World Instant Noodle Association with the aim of strengthening the instant noodle industry, but ALSO to provide global food aid. Between 1997 and 2021, the organization donated almost 7 million servings of noodles to folks in need. Not too shabby.
I’ll close this out by saying that instant ramen is one of my all-time favorite Indestructible Foods. It was invented to bring sustenance to as many folks as possible, and 65 years later it still is. If you’ve got 3 minutes and 35 cents, you’ve got a hot meal. And in times of trouble, there’s just nothing more important.
A mascot can make or break a cereal. General Mills obviously knew that, and by choosing famous movie characters for the first two Monster releases, they all but guaranteed their success. Everyone fears Frankenstein! Everyone dreads Dracula! It’s puzzling, then, that two years later, hoping to build upon a successful cereal series, they said, “Hey, why not just use a ghost?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Ghosts are scary. Maybe not “monsters” per se, but frightening just the same. However, they’re kinda generic. OK, Casper is a brand name ghost, but Boo Berry was, as far as I can tell, a run-of-the-mill spectre. If you watch a movie, and it’s called “Ghost” it stars Patrick Swayze, NOT Boo Berry.
These cereal moguls did something smart, though. They chose Paul Frees to voice the character. You’d probably know him as the voice of Boris Badenov in early episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle, or as the Pilsbury Doughboy. The man was a legend. For Boo Berry, Frees did a passable impression of Peter Lorre, and so the character always seemed spooky and also kind of out of it. (Which to be honest, is how I imagine any ghost to be.)
Boo Berry was always the third wheel in the monster cereal tv ads. Chocula and Frankenberry would argue about their cereal’s superiority, and at the last minute, Boo makes an entrance to stump for his. Generally, the other two monsters shove him in a trunk or push him out the door or whatever, but since he’s a damn ghost, that doesn’t even work. Boo Berry is an underdog, even in the spirit world.
Although Boo Berry has its disadvantages, he’s still got a lot of loyal fans. I reached out last week to see if any of you were, and the response though limited, was enthusiastic. Most people were into the mascot, claiming that “The ghost seemed nice.” This niceness was interpreted as intoxication by many of you. I heard a lot of versions of, “That ghost was high AF.” The limited availability of Boo Berry was a saving grace for some, increasing the nostalgia and enthusiasm for the cereal. One of you said that Boo is “clearly into ska, based on that hat.” I’d have to agree.
The lesson we learn from Boo Berry is that we don’t all start out with the same advantages, but with perseverance and an incredibly artificial blueberry flavor, we can still earn a limited, but lasting, success. May we all be a little like Boo Berry. Today, and every day.
General Mills Monster cereals came out in 1971, and at the beginning, there were only two: Count Chocula, and Franken Berry. It makes sense, when you think about it. Dracula and Frankenstein were extremely popular movies and why wouldn’t you want to eat a cereal loosely based on the antagonist of a horror film? “It just makes sense!” I exclaim, as I pour myself a bowl of Krueger-Os.
Count Chocula had a Bela Lugosi-type accent, while Franken Berry was British. The first TV ad showed them arguing about whose cereal was superior, and ended with the monsters being scared by a little kid. This story construct was meant to show that the cereal mascots were not frightening themselves, but served instead to reinforce the fact that most kids are, indeed, terrifying.
By 1972, Franken Berry was causing true terror. Children were being rushed to local hospitals by horrified parents. The chief complaint? Bloody stool. These kids were examined, observed, scoped, and prodded, and the cause, when it came back, was earth-shattering.
The dye used to turn Franken Berry Cereal that delicious shade of strawberry red was also dying the bowel movements of its most enthusiastic fans. No harm, no foul, really, but “Franken Berry Stool” is not the best sales tactic for a cereal. “Turn your poo blood red! Terrify your folks!” (Ok. Actually, maybe it IS a great sales tactic for a Halloween cereal.) Nevertheless, the good folks at General Mills found a new dye, and Franken-Stool was no more.
Over the years, more characters joined the ranks of Monster cereals, some of which we’ll be discussing this month, but I gotta say, this goofy Frankenstein with strawberries for fingernails is a favorite…Franken-poo, or no Franken-poo.
I mostly talk about food, but today I’ll share that I just moved to Rhode Island. It’s hard to feel at home when you move to a new state, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the fastest way to make new friends is to ask them what they like to eat or drink. Some states even help you out by designating an “official” food or beverage that corresponds or somehow contributes to the personality of the people who live there.
Most states have an official food or snack, but only thirty states have claimed a beverage. (The rest, I assume, are busy with other things.) Massachusetts’ drink is cranberry juice. Makes sense. Nebraska’s is Kool-Aid! Rad! Indiana’s is water, which, although health-conscious, is not something I’d build an identity around. But here’s the real surprise: 21 states have the same official beverage! MILK!
Now, if I were a state, I might be depressed that SO MANY OTHER STATES had the same favorite drink as me. I might yearn to stand out from the crowd. To choose something remarkable. That’s just what the great state of Rhode Island (my new home state!) did. They didn’t choose plain ole’ milk. They chose Coffee Milk.
The origin of Coffee Milk is said to stem from the great influx of either Italian or Portuguese immigrants to Rhode Island in the 19th century. (Both take credit.) These folks, or more specifically, their kids, drank a sweetened coffee with plenty of milk at home, and by the 1930s the drink was featured at soda fountains, too. The restaurant version was made by stirring a syrup made from coffee and sugar into ice-cold milk, and it was a delicious treat for kids to enjoy while their parents drank hot coffee.
In 1932, the first commercial Coffee Syrup was being produced. NOT in Rhode Island, but in neighboring Massachusetts! (New Bedford, to be exact.) The manufacturer was Silmo, and the product was a hit. By 1938, a Warwick, Rhode Island brand called Eclipse launched their own version. In the 40s, Autocrat entered the Coffee Syrup fray. There was competition among the brands, and spirited disagreements between folks that thought that this or that syrup was best, but by the 90s, Autocrat was the brand that remained. (You can still buy Eclipse, but it’s made by Autocrat!)
It’s awfully exciting to be the biggest Coffee Syrup manufacturer, but there are some problems that come with this role: Your main market is a state with a million people. They love Coffee Milk and drink a lot of it, but no one else really does. OK, maybe you have some splash-over (it’s a milk joke) into other New England towns, but Coffee Milk is not going to take the country by storm. How do you increase sales? How do you bring an incredibly regional product onto the international stage?
The answer surfaced during a behind-the-scenes collaboration with Cambridge, MA coffee chain, The Coffee Connection. The shops were looking for a frosty summer beverage that would increase sales during the hottest months of the year. Through a partnership with Autocrat, they developed one. It was called, wait for it…the Frappuccino. This icy-sweet, coffee-flavored beverage was a sensation, and when Starbucks bought the 23 Coffee Connection locations in 1994, they bought the rights to the Frappuccino as well.
For years, Autocrat continued to supply syrup for the Frappuccino recipe, and the drink’s popularity grew exponentially. Eventually, Starbucks brought the syrup manufacturing in-house, but Autocrat had learned a thing or two. In order to thrive and grow in what could have been a very niche Coffee-Milk-market, it had to develop and maintain a pipeline of relationships with other businesses, supplying extracts and syrups internationally.
Today, Autocrat is owned by a British tea extract producer, and they make a ton of amazing products for a bunch of different brands, but most importantly, they keep making the syrup that makes the coffee milk that made them famous in Rhode Island. And nothing in the world goes better with a couple of New York System wieners…all the way.
There are certain foods that remind you of who you are. Flavors you grew up with, and couldn’t live without. You share them with friends and acquaintances so that they can understand you a little better. These foods provide a link between past and future in an incredibly powerful way.
Old Bay is one of these foods. Ok, it’s technically a seasoning, not a food, but it’s edible, so it counts. (Right?) I casually mentioned my interest in Old Bay to a friend, and he excitedly rattled off 145 things I had to try it on. He was insistent. I LOVE that. And I’m going try all of those things. But first, let’s talk about the origin of this incredible product.
The story of Old Bay begins in Germany, where inventor Gustav Brunn was running a successful business making spice blends for sausages. It was 1938. Hitler was in power. Brunn was Jewish. Things got bad, then worse. Brunn was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he spent two weeks before his lawyer was able to secure his release (with a 10,000 mark bribe to the Gestapo.) His head had been shaved and he had pneumonia, but he was free. Within weeks, Brunn and his family were on a ship sailing to the United States, with an electric spice grinder in tow.
They settled in Baltimore, where they had family, but earning a living in their new country was a challenge. Brunn was hired by McCormick and Company, a spice brand you might recognize as the current manufacturer of Old Bay. But we’re not there yet! Hold your horses, kiddos.
Gustav Brunn was fired from McCormick after just three days. I’ve read accounts that attribute this to his poor English language skills, while other articles say he was fired for being a Jew and told to “Go see the Jewish charities.” Either way, it was enormous, discriminatory mistake that McCormick would come to regret. (Note: The official word from McCormick is that they have no record of ever having employed Brunn. However, his family’s word, and the fact that he was so resistant to ever sell to them lead me to believe this part of the story.)
Brunn decided to start his own business: The Baltimore Spice Company. His shop was right across from a bustling fish market, and as time went on, Brunn noticed that fish peddlers would often stop in to buy spices for seafood blends. Pepper, salt, mustard, and a few other ingredients here and there. Soon, Brunn began working on his own spice blend, a complex mix of 18 different spices that added up to something savory and a little sweet and a little hot and incredibly delicious. Old Bay was officially on the scene. The only problem was…no one really wanted it!
As we mentioned, each fish peddler made his own spice blends, and was reluctant to try anything else. There was ego involved here, folks. But Brunn was generous with samples, and when the fish guys offered Brunn’s invention to their customers, the customers wanted more.
The spice blend began to catch on, but it needed a cooler name. Brunn had originally called it “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,” which certainly explains what it is, but the name lacks pizazz. Luckily, Brunn had “a friend in advertising” (which is something everyone needs) and that friend suggested “Old Bay Seafood Seasoning.” This tied the product to Baltimore and the Old Bay steamship line, and established a “local” identity that would bind generations of Marylanders together forever and ever.
Anyway. Brunn was again a successful businessman. His spice blend was gaining popularity rapidly, and you know who noticed? McCormick. Yup. The same McCormick who had fired him. Over the years, they would try to buy his recipe, or copy it, or make something better, but it was impossible.
For 44 years, Gustav Brunn made Old Bay and sold it to a public who used it to flavor their seafood, but didn’t stop there. Old Bay became a popular topping for French fries, (they’re called crab fries, obviously) deviled eggs, popcorn, poultry, corn on the cob, Bloody Mary’s, roasted nuts, cornbread, and even melon. There was almost nothing that this spice blend couldn’t improve. (Or at least nothing its fans weren’t willing to try.)
When Brunn was 92, he finally sold the company. NOT to McCormick, but to Smith Corona Machines who were most famous for making typewriters. The brand switched hands a few times over the coming years, but in 1990, McCormick finally got their hands on it. (For an estimated 11-14 million dollars.)
This origin story is incredible. That a man who was meant to be executed in Nazi Germany escaped and went on to create one of the most popular spice blends in the United States is surprising enough, but when you add in the fact that McCormick FIRED this spice genius and then spent the next several decades pursuing him and his creation…its hard to fully comprehend.
Today, Old Bay is more popular than ever, and you can buy Old Bay beer, Old Bay ice cream, Old Bay Goldfish crackers, Old Bay hot sauce, and even Old Bay vodka. You can wear an Old Bay t-shirt while you air your grievances about the recent change in Old Bay packaging . (They went from a metal tin to plastic, and people are losing their MINDS.) You can get an Old Bay tattoo. You can pepper the internet with hundreds of Old Bay recipes, and send all of your friends Old Bay gift baskets. And at the end of the day, you can sit down to a pile of blue crabs and lick the Old Bay off of your fingers and say a little thank you to Gustav Brunn.
We all eventually reach an age where we begin to get philosophical. We ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of life?” or, “What is my place in the universe?” We may even begin to wonder… “What exactly IS a sardine?”
The first two questions are your own to explore, but let’s dig into the sardine query together. I, personally, always thought that a sardine was a kind of fish, but in reality it is any of 22 species of fish in the herring family Clupeidae. So…every sardine is a herring, but not every herring is a sardine! It’s like an un-fun riddle! To be a sardine, these fish should be small or immature. There is no entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “World’s Largest Sardine.” I checked. Just in case.
Another thing that makes a sardine a sardine is that it is preserved or canned in oil or sauce. So a fish could NOT be a sardine, and then BECOME a sardine when it is processed for consumption. Not to complicate things further, but in some cases, unprocessed, fresh fish can ALSO be sardines. I supposed we could say that being a sardine is a state of mind, but perhaps we’d be casting too wide a net. (I had to. I’m sorry.)
Once you discover what a sardine is, you might get around to wondering why in the world we eat them. You’d be forgiven for questioning the rationale of eating such tiny fishes. After all, isn’t it easier to get one big fish and cut it into a hundred portions?
As it turns out, no! Sardines travel in great big schools through most of the planet’s oceans. Over the history of humankind, folks have become pretty good at finding these schools, encircling them with a net, and hauling them up.
Once these tiny fishes are caught, it’s off the the cannery, where they’re cooked and processed and packed into cans for future meals. To tell you the honest truth, when I began to research this topic, one of the aspects that interested me most was the work force responsible for getting sardines into cans. I read that industry-wide, sardine packers tended to be women, chosen for the work because they had “small hands and strong backs.”
I found a great public radio program about the last sardine cannery in the United States, the Stinson Seafood Co. The whole thing is worth a listen if you have an hour, and the interviews with workers were thought-provoking and, at times, hilarious.
Packers talked about the bus that came out from the factory and picked everybody up for work. But not on a set schedule. No way! They went in when there was a catch and worked as long as it took to process and pack that catch. Some days it was a 8 hours, some days 12, some days 4. Eventually, schedules were regulated, but in the olden times, the fish were the boss. If you weren’t there when they were ready, they’d spoil and be wasted. No one was going to let that happen.
The women who packed the world’s sardines, in addition to trimming heads and tails off and getting them nestled into cans, made time for a variety of practical jokes. One woman recalled filling a worker’s lunchpail with nails. Another lunchpail was secretly nailed to the floor. A manager got a promotion, and showed up to work the next day in a necktie. His staff thought he was putting on airs, so they wrestled him down and nailed his necktie to the floor. No one in the whole damn interview mentioned why nails were so popular in the sardine packers’ humor lexicon, but we can appreciate it just the same. This light-hearted gaiety might ALSO be why, to this day, sardines are one of the funniest foods.
As you might imagine, working in a fish-processing facility was a fairly stinky profession. The odor permeated clothes and cars and hats, even the groceries workers picked up on the way home. But, as one packer said, “Everyone smelled like sardines, so it wasn’t like you would be embarrassed.” (This is my favorite kind of solidarity.)
Over the years, the popularity of sardines began to wane. People just weren’t throwing a can of sardines into every lunchbox the way they used to. As sales declined, federal regulations to limit the overfishing of sardines further cut into the profitability of the industry. By 2010, the Stinson sardine plant (the last in the United States) had closed its doors for good. It was the end of an era.
Luckily for all of us, the sardine population has rebounded, and you can still score a can packed in olive oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, tomato sauce, hot peppers, mustard, or just plain water. Sardines are one of the healthiest canned goods you can find! They’ve got B-12, Calcium, Vitamin D, Omega-3s, and Iron. Being at the bottom of the food chain, they tend NOT to have the issues with mercury that you’ll find with larger fishes like tuna or swordfish. Even pregnant women can eat sardines! Your baby might come out smelling a little fishy,* but as long as it’s healthy, right?
Not everyone can love sardines like I do. In fact, they are one of the most divisive foods I’ve encountered. We each have our own taste in canned fish, and that’s good, because otherwise, the grocery store would always be out of sardines, and my snacking options would be severely limited!
I appreciate you, so I’ll leave you with one last tale from the Stinson sardine cannery. One day, an electrician came to fix a problem in the storehouse. The room was filled with wooden barrels of mustard, so to get to the issue the man had to walk along the tops of the barrels. One of the lids gave way and he fell right in. In a moment, he surfaced and climbed out, covered from head to toe in mustard and looking, according to one witness, “just like a hot dog.”
*There is absolutely no research to show that if you eat sardines when pregnant, your baby will smell like them. 🙂
I’m willing to bet that you have a peanut butter story. Everyone does. Maybe not a super entertaining story, but a story nonetheless. Perhaps you always got a PB&J in your sack lunch for school field trips, or you made a peanut butter and pinecone bird feeder in kindergarten. (Extra points if it had a red yarn loop for hanging.) You may have eaten ants on a log at summer camp or smeared peanut butter on saltine crackers at your Grandma’s house. Peanut butter toast! Peanut butter cups! FLUFFERNUTTER SANDWICHES!
The point I’m driving at, albeit in an extremely roundabout way, is that peanut butter has become foundational to American childhood. You can find peanut butter in 91% of American households! 91%! I’m pretty sure that’s the first time 91% of Americans have agreed about anything, and it may be the last, but that’s depressing, so let’s move on.
The history of peanut butter begins with the Inca, who were grinding nuts into a paste hundreds of years ago. If we fast-forward to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ll find a new set of folks attempting to invent a ground peanut spread for the modern day.
In 1884, a Canadian chemist/pharmacist named Marcellus Gilmore Edson obtained a patent for his peanut butter. It was a wonderful food for people with dental issues, which many folks in the late 19th century apparently had. His process involved dry-roasting and grinding peanuts and sounds pretty similar to what we do today. However, he described the product as having the texture of “an ointment”, which we all know is an absolutely terrible way to sell peanut butter.
A year later, in the United States, a doctor named John Harvey Kellogg was experimenting with another peanut butter prototype. His process involved boiling the nuts, then grinding them into a paste. “Boiled nut paste” seems less than delicious, but it did have a few virtues: Like Edson’s creation, it provided valuable nutrition to the ill and the toothless. It was also a protein-rich alternative to meat.
“That’s very progressive!” you might exclaim. “Raising meat is tough on the planet and we should all eat less of it!” That’s very true, but Kellogg had a different point of view. His concern was that meat sparked carnal desires and lead to sinful sexual excess. His hope was that peanut butter could help curb these disturbing inclinations toward physical intimacy. (To put your minds at ease, I’ll say here that it has since been proven that it’s possible to eat a lot of peanut butter AND have a lot of sex. Phew.)
In less sexually frustrated peanut butter news, Dr. Ambrose Straub (That’s right… ANOTHER medical professional) patented a machine for making peanut butter in 1903. If you didn’t have access to a cool peanut butter machine, Good Housekeeping magazine had another idea: Just run peanuts through your meat grinder at home! DIY peanut butter was born.
The First World War solidified the idea that peanut butter was a food for the masses. Although there was no formal meat ration, public campaigns encouraged people to eat less meat. “Meatless Mondays” emerged, and peanut butter could help fill your family up. “Supporting the war effort” was a much more popular angle than the whole “don’t have any sex” thing. More households than ever gave peanut butter a try.
This was all fabulous, but beneath the pasty glamour, there was a dark side. If you left a pail of peanut butter on a store shelf for any length of time, the oil separated and rose to the top, where it went rancid and spoiled everything. Shopkeepers were advised to stir their peanut butter stock frequently with wooden paddles to keep the oil integrated. This was a total pain in the butt, and the shopkeeper’s arms got super tired. Something had to be done!
Luckily, by 1921, a man had solved the peanut oil separation fiasco. Joseph Rosefield filed a patent for a process called partial hydrogenation which converted the oil in nut butters from being liquid at room temperature to being semi-solid at room temperature. This meant that the oil would not separate! Peanut butter could remain a harmonious whole! Shopkeepers and peanut butter lovers everywhere rejoiced.
We talked a lot about childhood at the beginning of this article, so I’d like to discuss one final innovation that allowed peanut butter to become the kid-friendly household staple it is today: In 1928, sliced bread was invented, and while many things since then have been “the best thing since sliced bread,” none of them have been better. Without the hassle of cutting bread into pieces, kids could venture into the kitchen, ravenous from the exertions of childhood, and MAKE THEIR OWN PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH. Nothing would ever be the same…
Modern life comes with a lot of perks, not the least of which is a dazzling array of crackers from which to choose. I could wax poetic about the virtues of Cheddar Cheese Goldfish or the intoxicating appeal of Wheat Thins (and someday, I probably will) but our hero for today is the humble Saltine.
This is truly the Swiss Army knife of crackers. Saltines can be used to stretch a meatloaf recipe, top a casserole, make a pie crust, coat fried chicken, sandwich peanut butter, crumble into soup, or even settle an upset stomach. They are the perfect platform for cheeses and spreads. In a pinch, they can even be used to catch minnows or make catfish bait. There are sexier crackers, sure, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one as serviceable.
The history of the Saltine begins in the late 19th century, when innovations in milling and industrial baking had contributed to a cavalcade of crackers. Bakeries across the country were developing new and tasty crackers at every turn. The F. L. Sommer & Company of St. Joseph, Missouri was one such bakery. In 1876, they created a cracker that used baking soda to help leaven a thin white flour cracker. They were called soda crackers or Saltines. And they were a revelation. Business for the company quadrupled!
It wasn’t just F. L. Sommer & Company who was having staggering success with crackers. The sheer amount of cracker currency changing hands across the nation caught the attention of entrepreneurs, and a series of mergers began. On the east coast, several bakeries were joined to create the New York Biscuit Company. In the midwest, 40 more bakeries united to form the American Biscuit Company. Then, in 1898 the whole shebang was smashed together into the National Biscuit Company, which would eventually be known as Nabisco.
This series of mergers allowed for the standardization of the cracker industry. Until then, crackers were a generic product, sold out of barrels in general stores. Folks would often have to take them home and toast them in the oven so they’d be crisp again. Listen, the people wanted crackers, not another chore! The National Biscuit Company solved all that by making big investments in packaging and advertising. These served to protect and promote a cracker’s most important characteristic: TEXTURE! So began decades of ads showing people running sleeves of Saltines under the faucet or dropping them in streams before biting them loudly to demonstrate that they were still crisp. (As someone who isn’t crazy about mouth noises, I find this tactic incredibly annoying.)
Perhaps the best advertisement for Saltines was the Great Depression. Suddenly, people needed a way to stretch their food budgets. They were watering down soups and trying to make one portion of meat feed a family of six. Saltines were the answer. They were a cheap carbohydrate that could stand in for a lot of the average household’s missing ingredients. Those lean years transformed a crunchy snack into a household necessity.
It turns out that those old ads got it all wrong. The texture of Saltines, as pleasant as it is, was never the most attractive thing about them. Their strength lies in their simplicity–their ability to fill a plethora of culinary roles without ever stealing the spotlight. Saltines are cheap as heck and you can eat them 1,000 different ways and to me, that’s a perfect food.
I’m gonna go make a batch of crackerflitter, but I’ll leave you with a wish for the New Year: May you never run into a problem that Saltines can’t solve.
I don’t like to brag, but I know the gal who INVENTED Cheetos Bag of Bones. She’s a copywriter named @oh_that_sarah and she’s full of great ideas. (Although, I don’t know how you top the creation of the best Halloween snack food of all time.) Anyway, here’s the story of how Bag of Bones came to be:
Sarah started her advertising career at an agency in San Francisco, and her first assignment was to work on the social media accounts for Cheetos. (You didn’t think Chester Cheetah wrote his OWN Tweets, did you?!) It should have been a mundane learning experience, but the hands of fate had other things in store. You see, Sarah and her partner were ambitious, and they kept bringing their creative director ideas he never asked for and certainly didn’t want. Rejections piled up like autumn leaves, but the pair was undeterred.
Their persistence paid off (for all of us) when one day Sarah waltzed into her boss’s office with yet another zany idea. “Hey, what if we made White Cheddar Cheetos in the shape of bones for Halloween?” There was a record scratch and time froze. Nothing would ever be the same.
The boss loved the idea, and soon it was on its way to Frito Lay for review. They ALSO loved the idea, and a year later, Bag of Bones Cheetos were on store shelves.
This new product was great for everyone: Frito Lay got a seasonal hit snack and some cultural relevancy. Cheetos fans got to build little Cheeto skeletons with which to scare their roommates. And Sarah’s family got to go to Walmart, buy something that came directly out of her brain, and then eat it.
If there’s a moral to this story, it must be that having a lot of ideas will eventually lead to something mind-bogglingly rad. And that we owe @oh_that_sarah a debt of gratitude for expanding the Cheetos universe. Happy Halloween, everyone!
If you call Reese’s (and you should) someone will answer the phone and tell you anything you want to know about peanut butter cups. Maybe there’s a limit to what you can ask them, but I kinda doubt it.
I called to verify a date, because Wikipedia claims that Peanut Butter Pumpkins were introduced in 1993, which couldn’t possibly be true. Peanut Butter Pumpkins are younger than Selena Gomez? It can’t be! Anyway, the rep informed me that the Pumpkins were, in fact, introduced in 1993. She listened to my protestations of shock and gently interjected “It makes you feel so OLD doesn’t it?” I hung up the phone and all of my illusions of youth.
Anyway, original peanut butter cups were invented in 1928 in the basement of Hershey candy company employee H.B. Reese. The name of the product was “Penny Cups” because that’s what they cost at the time. (Now we can all feel young again!) They sold so well that Reese discontinued his other candies and put all of his eggs in the Peanut Butter Cup basket. I know we’re supposed to be talking about Halloween, but speaking of eggs and baskets, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs were introduced as the first seasonal variation in 1967. Then came Pumpkins and Christmas Trees in 1993, and Hearts in 1997.
The seasonal shapes of Reese’s treats are arguably the best, because the peanut butter to chocolate ratio is higher. Also, original peanut butter cups have those ridges at the edge, and while they’re adorable, they’re the “crust” of the candy and throw off the whole texture/balance of the experience. Some folks may disagree with me here, so I’ll add that seasonal Reese’s are bigger than regular cups and therefore superior. I rest my case.
In the hierarchy of Halloween Reese’s, Pumpkin is best, then full sized cup, then Reese’s Pieces, then mini cup. The Reese’s candy cars are their own thing and should be classified among other candy bars (Fast Break>Mr. Goodbar, etc.)
Whatever your favorite candy, I hope you get some for Halloween. Or maybe the day after, when it will certainly be on sale.
Candy Corn is undoubtedly our most controversial Halloween treat. I’ve seen fistfights break out over whether it’s delicious or completely disgusting. OK, maybe not fistfights (my friends tend to be a fairly mild-mannered bunch) but heated arguments for sure.
It was invented in 1888 by noted troublemaker and Wunderle Candy Company employee George Renninger. At that time, agriculture-themed butter-cream treats were popular, and you could get them in the shape of turnips or chestnuts or pumpkins or corn. An awful lot of the country was rural, and offering candies in the shape of produce seemed like a money-making miracle. Candy Corn was named “Chicken Feed” and it was an instant success at penny candy counters across the nation.
Recipes for this candy category sound like the fever dream of an inventive 6-year-old: Mix sugar, corn syrup, carnauba wax, and water to make a slurry. Not sweet enough? Add some fondant! Looking for a pleasant mouthfeel? Add some marshmallow! Dye it three colors, layer it in cornstarch molds, and give it a final polish in a food-grade shellac.
That three-color layering is probably the reason that we’re still eating candy corn, even though we’ve forsaken butter-creme turnips. Candy Corn looks cool! You can bite it off one color at a time! They make incredible DIY fangs!
I’ll be honest. I’m pro-candy corn. Mostly because it’s a food that looks like another food, (a candy that looks like a grain?!) and I love stuff like that. That being said, a little goes a very, very long way.
PEZ are a year-round treat, but there is something VERY “Halloween” about snapping someone’s neck back and eating candy from their throat, so we may as well talk about them.
There are a handful of candies that are elevated by their method of delivery. Fun Dip is, for instance, just loose Pixy Stick dust that you lick off that weird white bar. And who would eat the beads of a candy necklace if they didn’t come on an elastic string? Even a lollipop is just a hard candy on a stick. But there is NO candy that comes with as many exciting accessories as PEZ.
The dispenser was originally invented to make PEZ more convenient to eat. Before that, you had to open a tin, take one out, manually put it in your mouth, and close the tin. That’s a ton of work for a 3 calorie snack. What’s worse? They were marketing this to people trying to quit smoking! I’m pretty sure people who are trying to quit smoking don’t need more aggravation. There had to be a better way!
Anyway, they invented the dispenser in 1949, and it looked just like a cigarette lighter. You know, so your smoking friends wouldn’t think you were uncool for trying to quit. However, Americans DID think it was uncool to quit smoking, so PEZ swung its marketing around to focus on small children, most of whom did not smoke. The first character-head PEZ dispenser was a witch, which brings us full circle on that whole Halloween theme.
To date, there have been over 1500 Pez dispenser designs, which means that this year, you can probably find one to match your costume.
PS: An early ad campaign for the dispensers really went hard on the idea of eating this candy with ONE HAND. Which immediately made me think about eating candy with BOTH HANDS: grasping a king-size Butterfinger and nibbling it lengthwise like a corncob. If you have further thoughts about two-handed candy eating, I’d love to hear ‘em.
Giving out raisins for Halloween!? Please read this important message:
Listen, there’s nothing wrong with raisins! They can be a pretty pleasant experience in the right context. Nestled in a bowl of oatmeal, perhaps. Or atop a rib of celery with peanut butter. But there are certain places that they Just. Do. Not. Belong. A bag full of candy is one of those places.
Candy is about frivolity. When you eat candy, you’re admitting, momentarily, that you don’t really care what happens next. You’re living fully in the present. I’m pretty sure that’s called mindfulness, and we’re all supposed to be practicing it. A box of raisins is a stark reminder of a reality where we have to make sure we don’t eat too much high fructose corn syrup. That mindset leads to anxiety, and there is no place for it on Halloween!
At this point, you may be protesting: “But I LOVE raisins. They’re nature’s candy! YOU CAN MAKE A KAZOO OUT OF THE BOX!” You can love raisins 364 days of the year. You can add ‘em to your scrambled eggs if you want to, but consider this a lighthearted public-service announcement: Please go buy a mixed bag of Snickers, Twix, and Three Musketeers, (or even Rolos/Milk Duds/Whoppers if you want to celebrate yesteryear) and hand them out to the hopeful children in your neighborhood.
Last year, a great tragedy befell candy fans: the complete absence of Halloween Peeps. Just Born (the company that produces these cuties) suspended production due to the pandemic, and everyone took a moment to mark the NO PEEPS square on their 2020 disasters bingo card.
Granted, you could still get Peeps chicks during the Easter season, but for those of us who wait each year to eat an entire sheet of marshmallow ghosts, it was cold comfort.
This year, we’re rewarded for our patience with 5 great Halloween Peeps varieties: Mild-Mannered Pumpkin, Sneaky-as-Hell Cat, Empathetic Frankenstein’s Monster, Enthusiastic Ghost, and Blankly-Staring Candy Skull. (Descriptors are mine, but swipe for a pic and see if you disagree.)
They’re all great, because they’re all marshmallow snacks coated with granulated sugar. I just found out that their facial features are made of carnauba wax, and that made me like them even more.
Some folks like their Peeps soft and fresh, and some like them on the crunchy side, but I can’t choose, so I’ll continue to buy trays of them, loving the soft ones at the beginning just as much as I love the crunchy ones I get to a few days later.
The best thing about getting wax fangs for trick-or-treat is that they’re an instant costume game-changer. Are you a witch? Now you’re a vampire witch! A Ninja Turtle? Vampire Ninja Turtle! A slice of pizza?…You get my drift.
We owe the existence of this superior treat to the petroleum industry. See, Americans are at their best when they are trying to make money out of what would otherwise be trash. Paraffin wax is the byproduct left over from refining oil, and inventive folks used it to create some of my favorite things: crayons, petroleum jelly, and wax fangs.
Now, paraffin is a food-grade wax, but you are SUPPOSED to chew it like gum, not eat it like candy. Actually eating your wax fangs may cause digestive upset, which really puts a damper on Halloween.
This year, I hope your costume starts off great, and is then improved by a pair of wax fangs. Happy chewing!
Every year, a bunch of smart alecks make lists of the worst Halloween candy, and every year, Necco Wafers are right at the top.
Invented in Boston in 1847, these sugar wafers really haven’t changed much. They are brittle and powdery, and if you shatter one, it’s capable of inflicting a painful wound. (Ask me how I know.)
The Necco Wafer may not be the sexiest Halloween candy, but it’s the perfect candy for New England, because if you’ve ever been here, you know that we love to have something to complain about. Mild suffering is a recognized hobby. We’ll even complain about free candy!
In this household, we remembered that Necco Wafers were sort of flavorless, so we bought some and did a tasting. WE WERE WRONG. Orange, Lime, Cinnamon, Wintergreen, and Chocolate are all distinct. Lemon is a little mild, but you can get it if you concentrate. Clove and Licorice are…pretty overwhelming. I wanted to spit them out, but I held on, and I’m stronger for it. Maybe we got a fresh batch, but I’ll certainly never call Necco Wafers flavorless again.
In closing: There are no bad candies. Candy is a good thing. There are candies you eat first, and candies you eat later. Then there are candies you discover when you swore you were out of candy.