Kraft Mac & Cheese

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Mac &Cheese

“A meal that can be ready before things get any worse.”

Everybody has a killer mac & cheese recipe that they want to brag about. I get it. I really do. Y’all are grating 100 cheeses, and blending silky-smooth roux, and sprinkling everything lavishly with breadcrumbs. Your mac & cheese is second to none. You are the comfort food champion… 

Now that we’ve established your superiority in all things cheesy, let’s be real. Some days you work 14 hours. Some days there’s a sinkful of dirty dishes. Some days the kids are about to mutiny. This reality demands a different kind of comfort food: the kind that comes in a cardboard box and only needs a little butter and a splash of milk–a meal that can be ready before things get any worse. There are a million brands of boxed mac & cheese, but it was Kraft that invented the category, so let’s talk about how they took a labor-intensive culinary classic and transformed it into a meal for tough times.

The story of boxed mac & cheese really begins with the cheese. Or maybe we should say “cheese,” because the cheese in a box of mac & cheese is not quite the same as the cheese in your fridge. Cheese itself is an innovation. It takes highly perishable milk and turns it into something that can be consumed at a later date. But as most of us know, cheese still goes bad, and not always in the blue-cheese-is-delicious kind of way. In 1911, two Swiss cheese fellows named Fritz Stettler and Walter Gerber were working on just this problem. They found that by heating shredded cheese and adding sodium citrate, they were left with a smooth cheese product that did not spoil. The first processed cheese had arrived. Huzzah!

Meanwhile, in the USA, James L. Kraft was making a solid living as a cheese distributor. In 1914, he opened his own cheese factory. By 1916, he had secured the first patent for a method of making processed cheese. Not only would this new cheese-food stay fresh, it was also incredibly cheap to make, since it used scraps of fresh cheese that would otherwise be trash. It was a big couple of years for Mr. Kraft, but he was just getting started. In 1917, the United Stated joined the first World War. The troops needed to eat, and the United States Army treated them to 6 million pounds of Kraft’s processed cheese. (Soldiers were supposed to eat 4000 calories a day, so they obviously needed plenty of cheese.)

Never one to rest on his war-time laurels, Kraft continued his experimentation, eventually developing a powdered cheese product. By 1937, the company launched its shelf-stable macaroni & cheese. In one box, you got plenty of macaroni noodles, a pouch of powdered cheese-food, and instructions for making the fastest mac & cheese ever. It was a major achievement that came at the perfect time. The Great Depression was still weighing on the country, folks didn’t have much money, and a meal that could feed a family for 19 cents was pretty irresistible. 

In a few short years, WWII began, and with it came new challenges. First, meat and dairy were rationed. That meant that you probably weren’t gonna have what you wanted for dinner. And by the way…who was going to cook that dinner? Many women homemakers had joined the war effort and were working long hours. That meant that quick and easy meals (without meat and dairy) were essential. You could get 2 boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese for one ration stamp, and it took just 10 minutes to prepare. Life just kept throwing us problems and Kraft Mac & Cheese just kept solving them.

You can follow the story of this handy mac & cheese up through the present day just by looking at the taglines of their ads. They tell of financial hardship (“Eat well in spite of it all.”), a crunch on time (“You are a cool 10 minutes away from a hot meal.”), and picky children (“You know they’re going to like it.”) These issues resurface again and again, meaning that there is always a good reason to buy a box of mac & cheese. 

It turns out that if you develop a food that lasts forever, is super cheap, and tastes pretty good, you can earn a spot in the hearts and shopping carts of pretty much everybody…even if they CAN make a much better version from scratch.

Royal Dansk Butter Cookies

Black and white illustration of Royal Dansk Butter Cookies, an Indestructible Food.

“Which came first? The cookie or the tin?”

Royal Dansk butter cookies are iconic. They’re a perfect cookie and the internet is full of memes and reddit threads and think pieces about all the things that folks store in their Royal Dansk tins. If you’re looking to unite humanity around a common treat, these would have to be a contender. So how did these cookies come about, and why do we all love them so much?

Denmark is famous for a lot of things. They invented Legos! They ride bikes all the time! They eat a ton of hot dogs! There’s a lot to love, but the best thing about Denmark is the Danish Butter Cookie. They are a traditional treat made from flour, butter, and sugar–but make no mistake: butter is the star. They aren’t called flour cookies, after all. Or even sugar cookies. They’re BUTTER COOKIES and I think we ought to address how butter became so important to Denmark.

Denmark used to grow and export a ton of grain, but in the late 19th century, Poland, Ukraine, and the Unites States began to flood the market with inventory, and grain prices plummeted. The Danish farmers had to feed the grain they couldn’t sell to their animals. This lead to a great idea: What if Denmark leaned into meat and dairy production instead of growing grain? The land was suited to it. Farmers were willing to give it a try. There was only one problem…

Grain farms don’t magically turn themselves into meat farms. Or dairies. The tools and machinery needed to make this conversion were expensive. So, the farmers formed cooperatives, teaming up to share the financial risks and divide the financial rewards. Soon, Denmark was exporting meat, milk, and butter. The farmers were making money, and high-quality Danish butter was on the map.

Speaking of exports, by 1966, a new cooperative called Royal Dansk was ready to take the international cookie market by storm. They made Danish Butter cookies in five varieties loosely based on traditional favorites:  Finnish Bread, Vanilla Wreaths, Danish Pretzels, Country Style Cookies, and Coconut Rounds. The assortment was novel, but the packaging was revolutionary.

The cookies came IN A TIN. (That’s all caps because it’s so important.) In the 1960s, cookies came in paperboard boxes that were sometimes lined with a waxed paper bag. Then, along comes Royal Dansk selling cookies in a tin?! It was night and day! This was an absolute game-changer!

Not only did the tin elevate the perception of the cookies, it kept the Royal Dansk brand in consumer’s houses, and minds, forever. People had a hard time getting rid of that tin! It was way too nice to throw away! It became home to countless sewing kits. It lived on garage shelves filled with tangles of wire and screws. With a slit cut in the lid, it became a de facto piggy bank. It was advertising that payed off for generations.

Today, for about $4, you can get an assortment of authentic Danish butter cookies, a beautiful tin, and the incredible feeling of well-being that comes with repurposing that tin as a storage container. I really can’t think of a better deal. 

Taco Dinner Kit

Black and. white illustration of  and indestructible food: Taco Dinner Kit

“From silver mine to supermarket.”

Picture it. You arrive home after a hard day at school expecting something boring for dinner. Maybe it’ll be a casserole, or meatloaf, or spaghetti and meat sauce. But no…not today. Some cool adult in your house has procured a Taco Dinner Kit, and your family’s ground meat is about to get rad. Just grab a crunchy yellow shell and start building the dinner of your dreams…

The taco kit enriched many a childhood, but we can’t talk about the kit until we talk about the taco. So let’s tacobout it. (I hate this joke. I just couldn’t avoid it.) Anyway, wrapping something delicious in a tortilla is an ancient idea, but calling it a “taco” probably originated in Mexico’s silver mines. “Taco” was the name given to a small explosive charge made of gunpowder wrapped in paper. In the slang-filled world of mining, workers’ lunches (the aforementioned “something delicious wrapped in a tortilla”) became known as tacos. Voila!

Tacos were a great food for workers because they were so portable, and in the 1880s, Mexican workers were on the move. Jobs were opening up in the United States in agriculture, construction, and on the railroad. As workers came from Mexico to fill those jobs, their tacos came with them. Street carts selling Mexican food popped up in cities like LA and San Antonio, and they were drawing crowds. Then, in 1910, the very first taco recipe appeared in an American cookbook. Enterprising cooks could now make tacos at home.

It was a great time to be cooking Mexican food in the US, because the ingredients you needed were suddenly much easier to find. In 1896, a Texan named William Gebhardt bought a bunch of dried chiles and ran them through a meat grinder, thus inventing Chili Powder. Around that same time, canneries in El Paso started churning out tomatoes, green chiles, and pinto beans. A few decades later, canned enchilada sauce and even canned tortillas arrived on the scene. By the 1930s, the very first taco kits began to appear. Americans rejoiced.

The next era in the history of American tacos comes on the heels of Taco Bell. The founder, Glen Bell, was running a hot dog stand in San Bernardino when he noticed that his neighbor’s business had much longer lines than he did. That neighbor was the Mitla Cafe, and they were serving fried tacos. He started eating there every day and trying to reverse engineer their recipe. In the end, they took pity on him and showed him how to make them. He, predictably, turned around and opened his own taco restaurant in 1951. There was some tweaking and experimenting, and then he opened the first Taco Bell in 1962. By 1967, there were 100 of them. Tacos were now on the menu for everyone. (Side note: That original restaurant he learned fried tacos from? It’s still there! Still run by the same family! That makes me happy.)

A lot of Bell’s success stemmed from the fact that he was pre-making hard taco shells. Corn tortillas are delicious, IF you eat them fresh. They are much less delicious if they’ve been sitting around. However, the crunchy fried corn tortilla shell is very shelf-stable. It was easy to warm and fill. It was fun–if messy to eat. And it paved the way for the modern taco kit, one which did not include canned tortillas.

Those stylish new taco kits were in grocery stores around the country by the 70s. In addition to crunchy taco shells, kits included a packet of spices (heavy on the chili powder) and a pouch of sauce. You could add your own protein, veggies and–shoot, this is sort of where our story began…the taco party of your childhood dreams.

A taco dinner kit is about as far from authentic Mexican food as you can get, but it gets folks cooking and eating together, which is awesome. It also does what all indestructible foods do: grants access to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have it, one crunchy yellow shell at a time.

Manischewitz Matzo

A box of Manischewitz Matzo. This is a kosher Indestructible Food.

“A truly modern matzo.”

Matzo is an unleavened bread with a long Jewish history. In the thirteenth century BCE, as Israelites fled slavery in Egypt, they left in such a hurry that they couldn’t wait for their bread dough to rise. When the dough was baked, it was a simple flatbread: matzo. During the Passover holiday each year, matzo is an important symbol of freedom and a reminder to be humble. With just two ingredients, flour and water, it’s just about as humble as you can get. 

Up until the mid 1800’s, matzo was made by local bakeries or synagogues adhering to rigid rules of production. The entire process could not take longer than 18 minutes. There was a strict division of labor, with apprentices measuring flour, women kneading the dough, and men baking it. Any dough that did not make it into the oven within the dedicated timeframe would be discarded. The whole process was supervised by rabbis, and if word got out that any shortcuts had been taken, the community would shun the bakery. (Which, quite frankly, is what you get if you don’t follow the damn rules.) Matzo baking was a very regimented operation long before it made the leap to mass production.

So, when did matzo go industrial? In 1838, a machine was invented to roll out matzo dough. That was the first step towards a mechanized process that would turn out a more uniform product. Everyone could have the same matzo! The machine elicited the first debates about if matzo was really matzo if it wasn’t made by hand. There was also an interesting ethical question: whether the downside of depriving low-paid women of their kneading jobs was offset by producing a product that was cheap enough for everyone to afford. It was a matter of spirited discussion, and would continue to be for decades. 

In 1888, a man named Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz opened a matzo factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. From the start, he was determined to subdue any doubts about mass-produced matzo. As a shohet ubodek (a butcher and inspector with many years of study under his belt) he was an accomplished and respected professional, well-versed in Jewish dietary law. He would not allow his facility to cut any corners. His machinery turned out a consistent, quality product in a factory filled with fresh air and sunlight. 

A clean factory that followed all the rules was great, but Manischewitz knew that he needed street cred. If he did not have influential rabbis on his side, he would miss out on a lot of sales. He began conducting tours of his factory for visiting rabbis and community leaders. He sent his sons to study in Jerusalem. After his passing, those sons established a religious school, ensuring that generations of rabbis would be associated with the Manischewitz name. 

In advertising, we talk a lot about finding your target market. The Jewish community was not and is not a monolith, and different folks had different concerns about modern matzo. Manischewitz ad campaigns used a two-pronged approach: In English publications, where less traditional and younger Jewish readers were likely to see the message, the ads focused on hygiene and cleanliness in the factories. They emphasized that the product was very pure and wholesome. In Yiddish or Hebrew papers, the ads spoke about dietary law, and the importance of history and tradition, hoping to sway more conservative Jews into thinking that this new matzo was progress and not a deterioration of standards. 

As you may notice if you ever hang out in the grocery store, all of these efforts paid off. Manischewitz is a leading brand in Kosher food. For generations, families have relied on them for their holiday matzo needs. Today, there are a whole bunch of new products to choose from: People are buying matzo as a snack for kids, using matzo meal cake mixes, and cooking with matzo all year long. (A friend told me to look into matzo brei and suddenly I know what I’m eating every day from now on.) Matzos’ simple ingredients of flour and water even lend themselves to a lot of modern, sparkly product claims : Low carb! Fat Free! Vegan! There is nothing a matzo can’t do!

I keep learning that very basic foods often have the most interesting stories. If you want even more info about the Manischewitz company and modern matzo, you can check out this lecture by Jonathan B. Sarna for Touro College. As for me, I’ve got to go pick up a box of matzo.

Vienna Sausages

Can of Vienna Sausage in from of a mountain range flanked by two Austrian buildings. This is another indestructible food.

The littlest link…

It’s hard to find a food more ubiquitous than sausage. Every country has their versions, because sausage was developed to do something important: save food from being wasted. Got a pile of tiny trimmings left over from slaughter time? Got a length of spare intestine? You’re in business. Sausages all around! They can be smoked or cured, steamed or grilled, but they always turn a pile of scraps into a meal.

Sausages should have been a low-class food. They are, after all, made from leftovers. Richer folks could afford to eat big pieces of meat like hams and pheasants and roast beef, but they wanted sausage. It’s not hard to understand why. The balance of fat, protein, and salt in a sausage made it a perfect comfort meal. Soon, butchers and delis and families and whole countries were working to make fancier sausages. They experimented with novel spices and processing methods. A pile of scraps no longer, sausages became a source of pride. 

Not to be outdone, the United States threw its hat in the ring with a product called Vienna Sausage. Bursting upon the sausage scene in 1903, these short lengths of forcemeat were smoked and canned in aspic or chicken broth. They had almost nothing in common with European vienna sausages which were long, thin hotdog-like creatures. American Vienna Sausages were their own thing, man. Made of beef, pork, and chicken (the turducken of sausage?!) they became a phenomenon. 

Advertising did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting these little links. A 1904 Libby’s print ad shares that “Vienna Sausages are served extensively at home and abroad, on transatlantic ships and in dining cars.” In 1954, the ads had shifted tone considerably, now claiming the little sausages to be “a real wife-saver.” By 1990, the ads were talking about ingredients, informing the public that the links were ALL meat. NO filler. So, whether you were a traveler, an overwhelmed housewife or just completely obsessed with meat, Vienna Sausages were for you. Luckily, recipes were everywhere, encouraging creativity and innovation with these canned wieners. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny Corndogs! Wieners with Sauerkraut! Hors d’oeuvres! The possibilities seemed truly endless.

But if canned Vienna Sausages were a uniquely American invention, they certainly did not stay here. We talked about this a bit in relation to Spam, but it is worth repeating here. Vienna Sausages spread as many indestructible foods did: with conquest, colonialism, and war. Elaine Castillo frames this beautifully in her article, Colonialism in a Can. What often started as survival food for interlopers in unfamiliar settings, was enriched and elevated by locals who made it part of their cuisine. 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Vienna Sausages are part of the rich tapestry of preserved meats. They might not have the panache of prosciutto, but they have kept folks filled and earned some fans along the way. Not too shabby for a tiny canned sausage. 

Fruit Cocktail

This Indestructible Food illustration shows a can of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail within a decorative border. The image is black and white.

The snack that started as trash.

Fruit has always been beloved. Folks ate it fresh, dried it for later, or put it up in jars to sweeten dull winter dishes. By the late 1800s, California canneries were working to make fresh fruit commercially available year-round. Canned peaches were a favorite, but processing them was a huge pain. Peaches bruised easily and spoiled quickly. That led to a ton of waste.

Food waste at an industrial scale is a tricky thing to deal with. It represents lost profits, but it can also lead to serious environmental issues. It turns out that you can’t pump enormous piles of rotting peach guts into your community without causing major repercussions for wildlife and waterways. The United States government was not going to let a love of canned fruit ruin the countryside. The amount of garbage canneries were allowed to throw out was restricted, and food scientists began working on ways to divert organic waste. Peach pits could be sold to companies that made things like beauty creams or charcoal briquettes. And those little pieces of perfectly good peach between the bruised or rotten parts? Those could be chopped up and combined with other fruits to create an edible and delicious fruit cocktail. It was an incredible way to repurpose what would otherwise be trash. (As a side note, “complying with environmental regulations” is a very cool reason to invent a new product. Way cooler than “making more money” or “reaching new customers.”)

Since consistency was key when it came to mass produced goods, canneries got together to hammer out a recipe they could all agree on. Later, the USDA wrote regulations mandating that anything called fruit cocktail would include peaches, pears, pineapples, grapes, and cherries. Not only was the ingredient list limited, but the proportions were dictated as well. You must have at least a certain amount of each ingredient, but no more than a certain amount. For instance, pears make up between 25-40% of the drained fruit volume of any can labeled “Fruit Cocktail.” You can buy some and check! There are plenty of pears! Cherries, however, are more elusive. They make up just 2-6% of any can. Most reasonable humans agree that it isn’t enough. 

In addition to their scarcity, color is the big reason that fruit cocktail cherries are so popular. They are brilliantly red. Unnaturally red. Completely artificially red! And according to the USDA, the cherries are the only thing in a fruit cocktail that is allowed to be red. The syrup cannot be red. The other fruits cannot be red. Only the cherries can be red! Unfortunately, most red food dyes bleed. Touch anything you own with a maraschino cherry (Red Dye No. 40) and you’ll see what I mean. If fruit cocktail cherry dye were to bleed, the fruit cocktail would no longer legally be fruit cocktail. Everything would be red. It would be a nightmare! Luckily, there was a red food dye that stayed exactly where you put it, and that was Red Dye No. 3

Red Dye No. 3 had a problem. It was shown to cause thyroid tumors in lab rats. After that finding, the FDA banned its use in cosmetics and non-ingestible products, but somehow, it was still ok in cough drops, toothpaste, those weird red pistachios, and fruit cocktail cherries. “Why?” you ask. “If we knew that this was a questionable ingredient, why would it still be allowed?” Lobbyists, of course! The Fruit Cocktail Lobby is a surprisingly powerful entity that successfully campaigned to keep Red Dye No. 3 on the table (and in your fruit cocktail) for much longer than it should have been. Industry studies found that without those bright cherries, Fruit Cocktail sales would drop by 40%, which would apparently result in a negative impact on the economy as a whole (if you find this hard to swallow, you aren’t alone). Those lobbyists bought the fruit companies some time, and although some of them still use Red Dye No. 3, many of them are now going with carmine. Carmine is made from beetles, and is not shown to cause tumors at all. It still makes cherries very red. It also makes them much less vegan. You really can’t have it all. 

I was incredibly surprised by the importance of the government in the creation and perpetuation of fruit cocktail. Federal regulations led companies to hide their food waste in salable products. The USDA outlined the exact recipe of fruit cocktail so consumers would know what to expect. And finally, the FDA made damn sure that those cherries could stay a shocking red…even if there weren’t enough of them. 

Kitchen Bouquet

Indestructible Food Kitchen Bouquet sits between two floral bouquets in a black and white illustration.

The elusive glamour of brown…

Picture this: You’re cooking, and everything is going ok, but the food you’re making just doesn’t seem, well, brown enough. It tastes good. It’s well-prepared. But you worry that your guests will be disappointed at the lack of brown-ness. You are not alone. For nearly 150 years, cooks have been reaching for a preparation whose main purpose is to make food brown. Kitchen Bouquet is a browning sauce made of caramel, vegetables, and spices. It’s vegan. It’s kosher. And somehow, it makes foods seem meatier. Or at least more brown.

We know that our experience of food is largely tied to smell and taste, but color is another important factor. We are conditioned to believe that certain colors will taste certain ways. In nature, super bright colors can mean poison. In the grocery store? They tend to indicate sweets marketed to kids. Green tastes fresh, vegetal, or sometimes bitter. Yellow evokes lemon or banana. And brown? Brown tastes seared. It is rich. It has a savory, umami flavor. Brown is comforting and deeply satisfying. But only if it is brown enough. That can require some assistance. 

The practice of adding color to food is an ancient one. Saffron, carrots, beets, berries, and turmeric were all early natural dyes that made food more beautiful. The trouble only began when folks started using lead, arsenic, and mercury to create synthetic food dyes. Not only were the compounds harmful on their own, they were often used to hide spoilage or low quality products. That killed people. It also led to a lot of laws that said you couldn’t put poison in food on purpose. Even if it looked great there. So food manufacturers spent a ton of time and money developing new artificial dyes with their own set of risks. Kitchen Bouquet, you’ll be glad to hear, is more natural and less artificial. Its brown-ness comes from cooked sugar and while there is a preservative added for shelf stability, it seems a heck of a lot safer than some of the foods we discuss in this series. And eateries across the country agree. You will find it by the gallon in restaurant kitchens, just waiting to make your gravy as brown as it can be.

Whether we dine out or at home, we’re more likely than ever to take pictures of impressive meals. It’s not about memory, really. Food does a great job of being memorable without documentation. We take pictures of great food so we can share our experience with friends. But what if the food in your pics doesn’t look as good as it tastes in real life? Food stylists have been grappling with this for as long as there have been photographs of food. You know what they have to say? Kitchen Bouquet! With a few drops, a chicken appears perfectly roasted. That grayish burger can become invitingly seared in seconds! And hey, what’s in that coffee cup? Why, it’s Kitchen Bouquet mixed with water, of course! Great coffee appearance without the oily surface! This product is an endless font of brown! 

Your food being insufficiently brown may seem like an insignificant problem. It absolutely is. But insignificant problems with easy solutions are my favorite things right now, so I may just pick up some Kitchen Bouquet.


Jello

Indestructible food: A box of Jello stands on a cake tray above two fancy jello molds.

From royal banquets to hospital rooms…

People have been eating gelatin for ages. Foods suspended in gel were hallmarks of elite dining as far back as the 15th century. One of the reasons these dishes inspired such awe was that if they were on your table, it probably meant that you had a kitchen staff. Not just a someone-cooks-my-meals kitchen staff, but a I-have-enough-folks-working-for-me-that-I-can-spare-someone-for-hours-and-hours-to-boil-carcasses sort of kitchen staff. Gelatin jells due to collagen obtained from skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals. And obtaining that collagen took some serious time.

Over the centuries, gelatin dishes remained popular with wealthy folks. In 1845, a carpenter named Pearle in Leroy, NY was using some time-saving powdered gelatin to mix up cough medicine (as a carpenter generally does) and stumbled upon something closer to a dessert. His wife, May, was like, “That’s a dessert! Let’s call it Jell-O!” -because adding an -O to the end of words was really popular at the time, and May was brilliant. Anyway, Pearle didn’t have the money or experience to successfully market this new dessert, so he sold it. It changed hands a couple times because it wasn’t immediately popular.

“But why?” you may ask. “If people loved gelatin desserts, why weren’t they enraptured with an easy-to-make, beautiful, fruity invention such as Jell-O?” Because new stuff is easier to love if you know why you’re gonna love it. Jell-O’s new owners had a plan. They sent an army of salespeople out into the world to hand out samples. They brought Jell-O desserts to church picnics and town gatherings. They took out ads claiming that it was “America’s Favorite Dessert.” (It wasn’t.) And they thought of something new. They printed and distributed cookbooks filled with Jell-O-centric recipes. People could actually see all of the possibilities for the product in their everyday lives. It suddenly seemed incredible that they had been without this miracle food for so long!

Jell-O gained popularity throughout the early 1900s, allowing women to create “dainty” dishes cheaply and quickly. It also gave them a way to hide leftovers in something a little more refined than a goulash or a hash. That old tuna fish took on a new life when viewed through the lens of lemon Jell-O. This economy and the ability to stretch a food supply came in pretty handy during the Great Depression. When World War II hit and brought its attendant food rationing, Jell-O let families have something sweet without using up the precious household sugar supply. During hard times, the jelly really earned its place in the American kitchen.

The convenience and utility was super, but there was a problem. In the 1950’s, women were valued as homemakers. And making a home just kept getting easier. Appliances made chores quicker. Processed foods cut down on prep time and the skill required to make something tasty. Some women started avoiding (or feeling guilty) about buying convenience foods. Luckily, the big food brands had a solution: View our products as a shortcut, but always add your own spin! Only you can create something unique and beautiful! Your family and friends will be stunned! 

And so a classic era of foods that should never have been suspended in Jell-o was born. Hard boiled eggs, olives, ham, celery, shrimp, PIECES OF HOT DOG?!… Nothing escaped the enterprising homemakers. A select few were rewarded for their gelatin-powered prowess when their recipes were published on packages and in cookbooks. In the 60s, Jell-O even released a line of savory gelatins for use with meats and vegetables (it didn’t last very long).

By the 1970s, Jell-O sales were falling. Folks were no longer all that enamored with jellied salads. They were eating plain vegetables again. While the company tried to reinvigorate the brand (Jell-O pudding pops! Bill Cosby! Jell-O Jigglers!), it was never really the same. 

But if it isn’t the sweeping success story it once was, Jell-O certainly hasn’t vanished from the national plate. In hospitals, prisons, and school cafeterias it is standard fare. It’s Utah’s state snack. Jell-O shots are a rite of passage for countless teens and young adults. Today, surveys suggest that 1 in 4 Americans still has a box of Jell-O in their pantry, which means that the next round of gelatinous culinary innovation could be just around the corner. 

Canned Oysters

A can of oysters sits in a decorative ocean teeming with schools of fish. They are truly an indestructible food.

A Valentine’s post about oysters and sex…

You can feel however you want about love and sex (“Yes, please!” “No, thanks!”) but the relationship between food and desire is pretty interesting. Since the beginning of civilization, folks have been looking for ways to have more sex. Foods, rituals, love potions… anything to grease the wheels of love. In the second century AD, the Roman physician Galen wrote that certain “warm and moist” foods had an aphrodisiac effect. Which kinda makes sense, I guess. But he also thought that foods that caused gas were good because somehow that’s how erections worked. (This hypothesis slays me, and I could make a ton of sexy fart jokes but I will not.)

The list of foods thought to be aphrodisiac is long: Chocolate, asparagus, figs, caviar, carrots, chiles, honey, onions, okra, sausages, and yes, oysters. Oysters fall squarely into the group of foods thought to be desire-inducing because they resemble genitals. They are wet and foldy and salty, and we’ll leave it at that. In an earlier post, we talked about how Italians eat lentils at New Year’s because they “look like coins” and will make them rich. The lesson to learn here is that eating foods that look like the things you want will maybe help you get the things you want.

It used to be a fortunate few living near the coast that had access to oysters for sexy reasons or otherwise. But in the 1820’s factories started canning them. Over the next several decades, oysters became a huge fad, were over-harvested, caused environmental destruction, and there is no evidence that anyone’s sex life improved. In fact, there has never been any scientific evidence that aphrodisiacs work at all. Which is kind of a bummer because food superstitions are way cool. 

If you want to have better/more sex, communication is good. Consent is key. Self-esteem is rad. And hey, a can of oysters can’t hurt. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. 

Cucumber Pickles

A giant jar of pickles sits next to niagara falls. Two folks go over the falls in barrels. This Indestructible food is at home anywhere!

“Are you gonna eat that pickle?”

Cucumber pickles have been around for a really long time. Like, they’re mentioned in the Bible. Twice. And they gained global popularity for good reason. Pickling preserves foods. Cucumbers are great, but they have a very short growing season and they spoil really fast. So if you wanted to save the million pickles from your garden for later, throwing them in salt water brine was a great way to go. And it worked out well, because if you were poor, and had to eat bread and potatoes for every meal during the long winter months (I’m looking at you, Eastern Europe) a pickle would provide a much-needed bit of variety to your everyday fare. If you were rich, chances are you still wanted delicious, piquant side-dishes. Pickles are for everyone.

While pickles were and are an egalitarian snack, in the USA, pickle prevalence really picked up speed with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th through early 20th-centuries. They introduced the dill pickle, which was a sensation. Soon, NYC became a pickle hot spot. Vendors appeared on every corner selling pickles for a penny a pop. Anyone with a barrel on wheels could become a businessman! Elsewhere in New York, (Niagara Falls to be exact) people were putting pickles to use in a different way, launching themselves over the falls in pickle barrels to varying results.

People were eating more pickles because they liked them. But also because a tradition had begun whereby if you ordered a sandwich in a deli or restaurant, the default side dish was a pickle spear. You might get chips or fries, but you would definitely get a pickle. Which made sense, because when you are eating something fatty and delicious (say, a pastrami sandwich…. or even a grilled cheese) cleansing your palate with a bite of something acidic as you go makes it all the more enjoyable. This tradition upped pickle consumption, and gave us a new way to classify our friends. Those who leave their complimentary pickle spear behind and those who eat every unwanted pickle at the table.

Nowadays you can eat fresh cukes year round. And you get a big fine if you go over Niagara Falls in any kind of barrel. But pickles persist. That is, after all, what they were invented to do. 

Deviled Ham

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.

Shake n’ Bake

A box of Shake 'n Bake breadcrumbs sit in a tableau surrounded by tomatoes, onions and herbs.

When breadcrumbs took over the world...

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

A can of Span sits surrounded by flowers and decorative elements.

In which Spam becomes a global phenomenon.

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. 

Jiffy Pop

A pan of Jiffy Pop sits next to a campfire in a decorative frame. Popcorn swirls around it.

Popcorn becomes a fad…

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.)

Stove Top Stuffing

How the side dish became the star…

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

There’s nothing like leftovers for breakfast…

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!

Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix

The great cornbread debate…

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.)

Lentils

May you acquire a plentitude of coins…

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. 

Sauerkraut

A “moist cabbage side dish” for a modern lifestyle…

It’s New Year’s Eve. And we need to talk about Sauerkraut. Because apparently it’s good luck to eat it today. Cabbage is green and that means money. (You will be rich!) The long strands mean your life will be long. (You will be old!) It is a perfect New Year’s Eve food. A note: Kimchi brings this luck, too! But that post is coming soon, so…

Sauerkraut is a German word, but rumor has it that China was making suan cai a LONG time before Europe was making sauerkraut. The idea was that if you took cabbage and layered it with salt and let it ferment, you could have nutrients when you had no fresh food on hand. (Bye, scurvy!) During WWII, American Sauerkraut makers renamed their product “Liberty Cabbage,” to avoid any associations with Germany. (Take a seat, “Freedom Fries.” Americans are old-school uncool.)

These days, sauerkraut is known as a popular “moist cabbage side dish” worldwide. You can find it atop pastrami sandwiches and hotdogs, inside pierogi, or dunked in soups. It’s even served with Thanksgiving turkey. What people used to eat out of necessity, they are now consuming on purpose. Brilliant.

The only real downside to sauerkraut is flatulence, and even that will not offset the good luck you’ve accumulated by eating it. So Happy New Year, friends. I wish the best for you. 

Pickled Eggs

A big jar of pickled eggs is flanked by two happy chickens.

When an egg is a snack food…

Eggs were not always a year-round food. It used to be that you had eggs when your chickens were laying. Which was generally when the weather was warm or mild. When you had eggs, you probably had a LOT of eggs. And when you didn’t, you might have wished you did. Pickling was the solution to all of that. (That was a pickling pun, albeit a weak one.)

As far as history, some people say that there were pickled eggs on the Mayflower. Some say that they originated in Germany in the 1700’s. They were certainly around England by the 1830’s. But everyone agrees that pickled eggs were a great idea and a useful snack in saloons and taverns. And that makes sense, because eggs contain an essential amino acid that promotes liver function. Which you’ll need if you’ve been drinking enough to think that fishing an egg out of that giant jar is a good idea.