Go west, young man, and eat deviled ham: A story of innovation, war, and spicy meat.
The Underwood brand began selling preserved foods in 1822. Ketchup, Mustard, Cranberries… You know, the basics. As time went on, the offerings expanded to include seafood. This was important for all those folks in the USA moving west in the 1840s-1860’s. Because no matter how inspired you were by Horace Greeley, you still had to eat. And a lot of these settlers had very little experience with farming/food production. So a can of oysters would come in handy.
As the United States government was giving away land that didn’t belong to it, another storm was brewing, the Civil War. And as always, the problem of getting food to soldiers was a pressing one. The Underwood company stepped in and sold its canned goods to Union and Confederate soldiers alike. (Capitalism!) And as those soldiers were eating cans of mackerel, so were the Southern folks at home. Their food supplies had been choked by blockades, and canned fish became a staple.
Deviled Ham surfaced after the war, in 1868. It was a spicy ground ham spread, and folks loved it. (Deviling, by the way, is just making foods spicier. And the logo for Deviled Ham is the devil. Because hell is hot. Obviously.) Deviled Ham was a huge success because it was delicious, they spent a ton of money on advertising, and it could be used in a boatload of ways. Keep in mind that canned foods were special. They were not second best to fresh foods, but a novel invention that let people enjoy foods that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
Speaking of inventions, the canned good was not without its flaws. Often the cans would bulge and explode, resulting in a tremendous amount of food waste. And injuries, I assume. So in 1895, the grandson of old Underwood went to the biology department of MIT and was like, “Let’s get to the bottom of this.” The worked on it every afternoon, and eventually discovered a time/temperature formula that would work to stabilize foods.
Sometimes a canned good takes us from the American West, to the halls of MIT. From a wartime encampment, to a suburban sandwich. It is a messy history that is bigger even than Deviled Ham.
Breadcrumbs are a way of using up old bread that would otherwise be a punishment to eat. And as old bread is a worldwide concern, most every culture has breadcrumbs. Crackers, Tortillas, Pumpernickel, Rusk, French bread, Pita… Any bread-like thing can become a breadcrumb. They can be used to thicken soups or top deserts or bake onto casseroles. OR they can be used to coat foods before frying.
Enter Shake ’n Bake. If there is a better example of a product existing purely because of marketing, I wanna know what it is. The folks at General Foods started selling Shake ’n Bake in 1965. And you know what it was? A box of bread crumbs. People already HAD bread crumbs. They used them all the time! But THESE breadcrumbs were different. Because you put them in a plastic bag and shook it real hard to coat your meat. There was no startling new technology. It was breadcrumbs in a bag. A little bit of built-in seasoning. But it was a phenomenon. And frying?! Why fry things when you could bake them and they would still be breaded? We don’t want food. We want breading!
Anyway, chefs talk all the time about elevating simple ingredients. And although this isn’t quite that they mean, Shake ’n Bake did it admirably. (I had to look up if they still make this. They do. And now you can get Pretzel Flavored?! You’re welcome.)
Spam was invented in 1937 as a way to use pork shoulder, a cut of meat no one wanted at the time. It had some popularity in the US, but it spread widely during WWII. Getting fresh meat to soldiers was near impossible, but Spam was shelf-stable and lasted forever. Problem solved! And as soldiers were eating their Spam (Hormel kept a file of military complaints about it) so were an awful lot of civilians. WWII brought Spam to the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Japan, Great Britain… and the list goes on.
In the coming years, Spam would continue its march around the planet (aided by American colonialism and various wars). And an interesting divergence occurred. In some places, Spam was a temporary food staple. It surfaced in response to an urgent need, and receded when the need was gone. But in other places, Spam was more tenacious. People experimented with it and came up with smart ways to use it. They made the product an ingredient. Spam wove itself into these cuisines.
You may ask “What caused the difference in Spam uptake? Why is Spam popular in some places and ridiculed in others?” Good questions. And complicated ones. One answer I’ve seen is rooted in economic circumstance. In places where economic hardship was widespread for a short time, Spam was tolerated. It was a food of necessity, and folks tended to want to (and be able to) distance themselves from it as soon as possible. In places where economic recovery came slower, cooks found ways to use the ingredient to its best advantage. It was around long enough not to be associated with any particular economic trauma. It was food. And if you prepared it well, it was remarkably good.
Each country has its own story when it comes to Spam. You’ll see stories about hardship. And war. And colonialism. And family meals. And silly merchandise. And comfort foods. This post is not long enough, nor am I knowledgable enough to cover all of the complexities of Spam. There is a whole lot to learn.
Remember Jiffy Pop? I hadn’t thought of it in years, but a reader suggested looking into it so here we are…
Jiffy Pop was invented in 1958, but I really can’t figure out why. I’ve searched all over the internet, but no one provides a reason to invent an expanding disposable popcorn pan for popping popcorn on the stove. You could ALREADY pop popcorn on the stove. In a regular pan! Jiffy Pop just made it take slightly longer. I’m looking for help here, friends. If you have thoughts, shoot ‘em over. (Was it because the nation was enamored with space travel and shiny aluminum, maybe?)
I know some of you might say, “Dudek! It’s for camping!” And I agree that popping Jiffy Pop over a fire is not to be missed. But the original ads showed a mom making it on a stove. No campfire in sight. I’ve also heard a few suggestions that it is “safer,” but is it? Really?
Why ever it was invented, it was a huge hit. People oohed and ahhed and happily shook that pan for 1000 minutes to see the Jiffy Pop pan expand and accommodate those exploding corn kernels. And then all those families enjoyed popcorn that was a little less good that the kind you pop in oil on the stove. (My bias is showing.)
Microwave popcorn was really a nail in the coffin for the popularity of Jiffy Pop. In 1983, Orville Redenbacher introduced his version. It was fast and easy and safe, and clearly the popcorn of the future. But microwave popcorn is its own story, and one we will get to soon enough.
(A note after the fact… Now that I think about it, Jiffy Pop is a little like space ice cream: A product designed to treat you to an interesting, yet slightly disappointing experience. Sorry, kids.)
People have been stuffing things since the beginning of time. Or, like, early, anyway. Because stuffing something (vegetables, meats) helps it to retain moisture. It also helps the dish to go a little further. Stuffing was so popular it became a side dish in its own right. Even if there was nothing to stuff. But that is the story of real stuffing. Stove Top Stuffing is a science project from start to finish. And an awfully successful one.
In 1970 or thereabouts, the marketing department at General Foods said, “We need an instant stuffing product.” Domestic Scientist Ruth Siems rose to the challenge. And it WAS a challenge. The secret behind Stovetop is the particular size of the bread cubes and the time it sits and absorbs the added water. But Ruth figured it out. And the product was an “instant” success. I know! I’m the worst!
Remember how it was the marketing department who wanted this novel product in the first place? Well, it wasn’t to go with turkey. It was really engineered to replace potatoes in a weekday chicken dinner. (What focus group requested that? Tater haters!) Early ads showed families rejecting mashed potatoes in favor of Stovetop. But for me, Stovetop ads reached their peak when they showed two kids inviting each other over for dinner so that they could eat Stovetop TWICE IN ONE DAY. I never did that even once, but I dreamt of it.
Folks still buy 61 million boxes of Stovetop every year for Thanksgiving. There are a bunch of flavors to choose from. And yes, I watched Dave Chapelle tell his Stovetop joke before writing this article.
Corned beef hash does what the best recipes do. It stretches food for longer, serves more people, and wastes nothing. You know how some people like leftovers better than the original meal? Well, corned beef hash is leftovers. From a New England Boiled Dinner, of all things. See, hacher is French for “to chop,” and that’s how you make hash. You chop your leftovers. And fry ‘em.
The New England Boiled Dinner has Irish immigrant roots. But not in the “corned beef came from Ireland” way that you might expect. Corned beef WAS made in Ireland, as a cheap export of questionable quality. And as cheap as it was, most Irish could never afford to eat it. But after the Great Famine (caused by the potato blight in 1845) Irish immigrants came to the US, and made enough money to be able to afford corned beef occasionally.
And where did they get this corned beef? Well, in NYC, it came from Kosher butchers, of course! Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were making high quality corned beef brisket, and Irish immigrants were buying it, boiling it with potatoes and cabbage, and making hash out of the leftovers.
The ideal hash ratio is 1 part potatoes to 1 part beef, but you have to assume that most hash consumed by the poor had a lot more tater and a lot less meat. But it was delicious. And it spread across the US. And today they sell it in a can. Don’t worry, it’s still leftovers, but of industrial food production instead of your home kitchen. Waste not, want not!
Cornbread is, and has been important in America since the beginning. Native Americans were using corn in a million ways when colonists came here, and the inception of a European-style bread came quickly thereafter. Corn was plentiful, cheaper than wheat, and a good way to fill up bellies. Corn!
As time went on, regional differences emerged. There were people who said that cornbread was a little bit sweet, and people who said that cornbread was not sweet at all. I always heard that this was a Northern/Southern thing. But it is way more complex than that.
With the advent of industrial milling, sweeter white corn was passed over in favor of cheaper, less tasty yellow corn. So families that couldn’t afford the more expensive, but naturally sweet white cornmeal, tended to add sweetener to their cornbread recipes. This brings us to Jiffy mix. Which was invented in the 1930s to help poor families put delicious baked goods on the table. The brand was made to be cheap. And easy. That was the whole point. And, you guessed it, the mix had an awful lot of sugar in it.
This is the part where I say that nothing about food and class is simple. That we absorb our tastes from our families. And that means that your comfort foods lag behind your financial position by at least a generation.
PS: If you want to read an interesting piece about the cornbread divide and race, Kathleen Purvis wrote a great one for the Charlotte Observer a few years back. A lot of these facts were learned from her.
PPS: If you want to get a 12-pack of Jiffy baking mixes for $6!!! go to jiffymix.com (Not a paid endorsement, because I’m not really anybody. I just like Jiffy.)
Here’s a lucky food for New Year’s Day. Italians have a tradition of eating lentils at the stroke of midnight to usher in wealth for the coming year. Because lentils look like coins. There are only two problems with this: Lentils don’t really look like coins, and no one gets rich because they have a lot of coins. But lentils are are worth discussing anyway…
Lentils are super old. They’ve been found in human settlements from 11,000BC. They are nutritionally spectacular, packing as much protein per ounce as steak and a ton of fiber, too. And they are pretty much our eco-friendliest crop. So, you know, if you want to keep living here on Earth, tuck into good-luck-lentils a little more often.
You can prepare lentils in about 5,000 ways. Here is an incomplete list of ideas: Lentil soup, red lentil dal, lentil burgers, lentil salad, misir wat, lentil fritters, marinated lentils, lentil hummus. Basically, if you type “lentil” before any food a google search, you will find a recipe for it. And some of those recipes might even be good. Use your own judgement, please.
Finally, if you’re like me, you cannot think of lentils without thinking of The Young Ones. Which is a British comedy series from the 80s that you should watch if you like lentils. I think it brings good luck for the New Year.