Cheetos Bag of Bones

A black and white illustration of Bag of Bones Cheetos, an Indestructible Food.

“An invention for the ages.”

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!

Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins

Illustration of Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins.

“It makes you feel so OLD, doesn’t it?”

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

An illustration of a bag of candy corn in an ornate frame.

“There used to be turnips.”

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

A triptych of Halloween Pez: Skull, Pumpkin and Witch.

“An easier way to eat candy.”

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.

Box of Raisins

A black and white illustration featuring Sun-Maid Raisins.

“Never on Halloween.”

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. 

Those raisins will taste even better in November.

Peeps Ghosts

A black and white illustration of marshmallow peeps.

“The year there were no Peeps.”

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.

Wax Fangs

A pair of wax fangs. on a spooky stage with bats and things.

“There’s nothing you cannot do with paraffin.”

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!

Necco Wafers

Black and white Illustration of Necco Wafers in an ornate frame.

“There are no bad candies.”

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.

Count Chocula

“The name is Alfred.”

Count Chocula lovers and Halloween chums: I have to make Halloween food illustrations, because I can’t help it. They won’t have big long stories, but I’ll throw in a few fun facts for your consideration… The first in our series is Count Chocula.

1) First of all, his name is Alfred. Count Alfred Chocula. So the next time someone asks you if you know any Alfreds, you can say yes! (Finally.)

2) The cereal is 33% sugar by weight, which is just about the same as me. 

3) The summer after my freshman year in college, I lived in someone’s closet, and my fondest memories are of sitting in there upon my air mattress reading books, listening to tunes, and eating Count Chocula by the fistful. (I lived near a corner store that sold delightfully out-of-date merchandise.)

I could go on and on, but these are supposed to be short, and I’d rather hear your thoughts on the Count. Chime in with some Chocula love if you dare. 🧛🍫

Marshmallow Fluff

Black and white illustration of Marshmallow Fluff: and Indestructible Food.

There’s nothing better than a door-to-door Fluff salesman…”

Long before Massachusetts became a launchpad for innovation in biotech, the state’s most creative minds were working on an even more important issue: the overall lack of gaiety in the course of an average American diet. People were eating things like boiled dinners and stew and porridge and however nutritions those things may have been, they didn’t inspire unadulterated joy. 

Luckily, we had just as many wildly intelligent residents then as we do now, and with ingenuity and grit, they made truly staggering progress in the field of novelty foods. Over the years, Massachusetts has been enriched by the invention of Necco Wafers, Toll House Cookies, Hoodsie Cups, Deviled Ham in a can, Cape Cod Chips, and our focus for today, the incredibly cheerful Marshmallow Fluff.

To explore the history of this remarkable confectionery condiment, we’ll travel back in time to ancient Egypt where folks were using the mallow plant for a variety of medicinal purposes. The mallow plant grew in marshes (hence the term “marshmallow”) and had a high mucilage content. This viscous quality made it great for soothing irritations of the mouth, throat, and digestive tract. It also served as an excellent thickener in foods. That meant that when Egyptians mixed decadent confections of nuts and honey, they added mallow sap to help hold the mixture together. The result was so delicious that only pharaohs got to eat it, which is the real reason that pharaohs never had sore throats! 

Fast forward a couple thousand years and marshmallows had arrived in France. Small confectionery shop owners whipped the extract of mallow root with egg whites, sugar and water, cut it into bars, dried it for a few days, and sold it in the form of a lozenge. It was medicinal. It was delicious. It was also an awful lot of work. Something had to change! That change came in the form of the starch mogul.

When I think of a starch mogul, I imagine a potato wearing a monocle, but the starch mogul that makes marshmallows is a little different. It’s a machine in which trays of cornstarch are stamped with shapes to make a mold and then filled with soft candy. Once the mallows set, you dump them out and recycle the starch. Brilliant! Marshmallow shaping made easy.

But there was another problem: that fussy marshmallow sap. It was hard to get and hard to work with. Yeah, I know, it’s the whole reason for the name, but it turned out that you could get a more stable, cheaper, soft, sweet, marshmallow pillow using gelatin. So, goodbye mallow sap! Thanks for the memories!

As marshmallows became easier to make, they spread far and wide. Let’s be real, they were a pillow of sugar. What could be better? By the early 1900’s they had arrived in the United States, converting citizens one by one into screaming marshmallow maniacs. (It was like the Beatlemania, but sweeter.) The atmosphere was ripe for the next logical step in marshmallow metamorphosis.

Up until now, marshmallows were individual treats. Lozenge-shaped or pillow shaped or log-shaped, but by 1910, Paul Revere’s great-great-great grandkids Emma and Amory Curtis were mixing up marshmallow creme in their basement in Melrose. They were offering people the opportunity to spread marshmallow flavor on anything!!! By 1913, they built a factory to produce it. By 1915, Snowflake Marshmallow Creme was a hit nationwide. (At this point, you could rightfully assume that all of that work that went into making the starch mogul was wasted, because people just wanted spreadable marshmallow anyway, but I will set your mind at ease by telling you that the starch mogul could also be used for things like jelly beans and gummy bears.) 

Here’s where the story gets interesting for Somerville residents such as myself: In 1917, a local fellow, Archibald Query, developed his own recipe for a version of marshmallow creme, and began selling it door-to-door. Listen, if you can imagine anything better than opening your door to find a man hawking buckets of Fluff, write to me and let me know. Unfortunately, World War I arrived to rain on his parade, causing sugar shortages that made it impossible to continue his one-man quest for marshmallow creme dominance. He found another occupation, and sold the recipe for $500 to a pair from Lynn, H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower, in 1920.

The pair had a sack of sugar, a great recipe, an old Ford, and a marshmallowy dream. They cooked Fluff at night and sold it door-to-door by day. It was grueling. It was sticky. But it paid off. Soon, Fluff was on local grocery store shelves. By 1927, they were advertising it in Boston newspapers. They opened a new factory. They hired some folks, and they did something really smart. They started paying a lot of attention to marketing.

You see, Marshmallow Fluff is delicious, but it certainly isn’t a necessity. In hard times, you NEED beans. You don’t NEED Fluff. Durkee and Mower recognized this, and began building their marshmallow spread into a fun, relatable brand. Something that brought joy, not just sustenance. 

They bought a radio slot just before the Jack Benny show. This “Fluffarettes” radio show featured music and comedy sketches, as well as some creative reimagining of early American history. At the end of the final program, the show introduced a book of recipes that you could make with Fluff. They earned a ton of fans and sailed through the great Depression unscathed. 

When World War II began, and sugar shortages reared their ugly heads, Durkee-Mower cut production, and their advertising budget went to promoting Victory gardens, and cheerleading for the Navy. Fluff was solidly team USA.

Once the war ended and sugar was plentiful again, our marshmallow pals decided the time was ripe for a new jar design. They sent out a survey, asking customers how a new Fluff jar should look. It turned out that folks wanted a short, wide jar that they could store leftovers in. They also wanted a way to open the jar more easily. (Y’all know that a lid glued down by Fluff is a mighty challenge.) The new design featured a wide mouth, a short profile, and those little bumps around the top and bottom for better grip. Folks were psyched on the redesign and proud that their feedback was listened to.

Fluff was becoming a tradition. Customers associated it with humor and fun: a little something sweet that you could generally afford once in a while, even when times were tough. This teeny New England Brand had grown to dominate the Marshmallow Creme sector. Plus, if you used it to make fudge, it would never fail!

Fluffernutters (sandwiches made from Fluff and Peanut Butter) are their own story that we’ll circle back to in a future article, but I will say here that my public school proudly served them as an alternative to hot lunch. If you wanted to pass on the Salisbury Steak thank-you-very-much, you knew that you wouldn’t go hungry. 

There is justifiable hometown pride for this creamy confection. We love Fluff, or we don’t, but we delight in telling our friends that it was invented here. We feel a sense of ownership over this sticky-sweet invention, and every year, near the end of September, the community gets together and we celebrate the fun of something completely unnecessary that we cannot live without. 

PS: Looking for even more Fluff facts? Check this out!

Rice-A-Roni

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Rice-A-Roni surrounded by floral motif.

“How do you solve a problem like potatoes?”

It’s hard to imagine potatoes as a problem. Have you ever HAD a potato? They’re amazing! Nevertheless, in the United States around 1950, murmurs of discontent began to arise around the humble tuber. Folks were saying that potatoes were boring and that they took too damn long to cook. A revolution was on the horizon, and it looked like nothing could be done to prevent it. The mighty potato would be toppled from its side-dish throne.

Now, none of this is true, but if you spent all your time watching TV ads, you’d almost believe it. A whole bunch of products were being developed with the intention of replacing potatoes at meals. It made sense, in a way. People wanted to spend less time cooking, and a baked potato takes 45 minutes in the oven! Granted, it’s not very hands-on, but still. That’s 3/4 of an hour that you will never see again! And all you get is a potato! Something obviously had to be done.

Enter Rice-A-Roni: a packaged version of the globally beloved rice pilaf. If we’re throwing it way back, we can say that hundreds of years ago, folks were eating a lot of rice, and wanted to pump up the flavor. They developed a method of toasting the grains and then cooking them in broth which was THE BEST IDEA EVER. (Sliced bread hadn’t been invented yet.) The rice came out fluffy and flavorful and the grains were gloriously separate. The method caught on, and soon enough it was hard to find a region that didn’t have its own version. 

America’s take on rice pilaf was born from a chance meeting between an Armenian immigrant and an Italian pasta salesman. This sounds like the set-up to a knock-knock joke, but bear with me. The pasta man, Tom DeDomenico, and his wife Lois were looking for a room to rent in San Francisco. Pailadzo Captanian had such a room for rent. They hit it off. The couple moved in. 

Over the next four months, Pailadzo showed Lois how to make yogurt. And baklava. And an incredible rice pilaf. Tom began bringing vermicelli home from his family’s Golden Grain pasta factory. They’d break it into rice-sized bits, and into the pilaf it would go.

Lois never forgot Pailadzo, or her rice pilaf recipe. She kept on making and serving it until one day, Tom’s brother poked around at his plate and said, “This would be great in a box.” 

The Golden Grain test kitchen got to work. They found a way to recreate the dish using a chicken soup base, rice, and vermicelli. Tom would bring samples home at night for Lois to taste. Eventually, they got it right. They just needed a name.

Here’s where I make a confession: For my whole entire life until researching this article, I believed that the “Roni” in Rice-A Roni was a fun little advertising flourish. Rice-a-Roni is, after all, fun to say and easy to remember. (Exactly what you want in a product name.) Imagine my shame when I discovered that “Roni” stands for…MACARONI!!! Because this rice pilaf has those little bits of vermicelli in it! This is the sort of trivia that either wins you friends or makes you insufferable, and I’ll let you know how it all turns out. 

Anyway, the new product was a hit, first regionally, then nationally. It was delicious. The company had made a pretty good approximation of Pailadzo’s Armenian pilaf recipe. It was fast and easy to make. It came together in 15 minutes, which if you remember, is 1/4 of the time it took to bake a potato. 

As often happens with these Indestructible Foods, the dish was great, but the advertising was even better. 

I could go on and on about the power of jingles. (In fact, I often do!) Something about writing a catchy little song can endear a product to us for life. Rice-A-Roni is no exception. The campaign launched with a theme song declaring that it was the San Francisco Treat, and I’d bet any amount of money that you can hear it in your mind right now.

The tv ads in the 60s were all about replacing the potatoes in your family dinner. By the mid-eighties, they were telling us to make TWO PACKS AT A TIME, so we could replace our hash browns at breakfast. A few years later, they released an ad whose tagline was “Save a Potato, serve Rice-A-Roni.” (If this seems familiar, we should all recognize that Chik-fil-a ripped this concept off hard for their eat more Chikn ads.)

Eventually, you could microwave a baked potato in less time than it took to prepare Rice-A-Roni, thus destroying a major perk of the pilaf. Predictably, a microwave version of Rice-A-Roni was developed and an ad from 2021 shows a whole family in a microwave enjoying something called a “micro-rave.” From what I can gather, a micro-rave is a mild party that takes place in the microwave in which all of the participants state the virtues of Rice-A-Roni while spinning on the turntable. When I throw mine, you’re all invited.)

After decades of advertising, Rice-A-Roni still hasn’t defeated the potato, but why should it? There is room enough in our hearts and on our plates for more than one kind of side dish, and variety never killed anybody. Long Live the Potato! Long Live Rice-A-Roni!

Vegemite

Black and White illustration featuring an IndestructibleFood: Vegemite. Allso pictured is flying toast.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites”

In our last chapter, we talked a bit about how British troops were eating Marmite in the trenches during WWI, but you know who WASN’T enjoying Marmite during WWI? Australians. The War disrupted the supply chain of British goods, and the whole nation was left bereft of yeast-spread. It was a grave emergency, and something had to be done. 

Canned good purveyor Fred Walker stepped up, asking chemist Cyril Callister to make a spread from spent brewer’s yeast. It was certainly meant to take the place of Marmite during the supply chain disruption, but it wasn’t a straight knock-off. Cyril had integrity, and he was determined to create something distinct. First, the texture of his product was different. Instead of being syrupy, Vegemite had a pasty/creamy consistency. The flavor was also unique. Although rich in umami and salty, Vegemite was even more intense than Marmite and had a bitter note that was missing in its predecessor. The product seemed promising.

In 1923, Vegemite hit the shelves. Australia had finally taken its place as a player in the international yeast-spread market! Now they just had to convince people to buy it. The first ad campaign focused on the product’s benefits for children (Vegemite had the same rich B-Vitamin profile as Marmite.) People were not psyched. They loved Marmite. This was not Marmite. As the supply chain opened back up, and Marmite became available in Australia again, people flocked back to it.

The lesson that we learn here is that the health of children was not a good enough reason for people to abandon a much-loved product for an alternate version. Especially if children were just as healthy eating the original. So Vegemite tried something different: a name change. Vegemite became…Parwill. If you think that was a bad idea, listen to this: The new tagline was “If Marmite, Parwill.” Get it? No? Right, no one really did, because it was a belabored and clumsy attempt to say that Vegemite, excuse me, Parwill, was better than Marmite. Literally no one was convinced, and soon, Parwill was Vegemite again. 

At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how in the world Vegemite overcame early resistance to become the cultural phenomenon it is today. What caused Australians to forsake Marmite? The answer, surprisingly, is processed cheese.

In 1925, Fred Walker had started a new venture, the Kraft Walker Cheese Company. (Yes, THAT Kraft cheese!) After buying rights to James L. Kraft’s processed cheese patent, Fred Walker assigned our old chemist pal and Vegemite inventor Cyril to figure out an Australian arm of Kraft cheese production. He did. It was a big success. 

So when Vegemite failed to take off, Fred Walker did the only logical thing: He used his successful product to save his struggling one. Every Australian Kraft cheese purchase came with a coupon for free Vegemite. Even folks who had been resistant were willing to try Vegemite for FREE, especially when it was presented in conjunction with something as cool as processed cheese. Sales began to pick up speed, and by the time Australian troops joined the fight in World War II, they were carrying rations of Vegemite. After the war, they kept buying it. It was at this point that Vegemite finally surpassed Marmite as the most popular yeast-spread in Australia. 

The spread’s success never faltered. Vegemite is now a beloved symbol of Australia. It’s present in 90% of Australian homes. Fans eat it on toast, sure, but they don’t stop there. You’ll find recipes for cheese scrolls, spaghetti, beef pies, gravies, and even brownies. It has woven itself seamlessly through cuisine and culture. It is a product to be proud of.

I’ll leave you with a few entrepreneurial lessons from our friend Fred Walker: 1) Don’t be ashamed to make a new version of a beloved product. A new take on an old favorite can be a hit…eventually! 2) Hire experts. Chemist Cyril Callister figured out the recipe for Vegemite AND the best way to produce Kraft cheese in Australia. Whatever he was paid, it was a deal. 3) If people don’t like your product, try every scheme to change their minds. Name changes! Fancy jars! Medical endorsements! Catchy jingles! Do whatever you need to do, just don’t give up. 4) When nothing works, a free coupon can really make a difference. (When I worked in advertising, I had a boss that would always shoot down ideas by saying “It’s a coupon.” He meant that we had come up with a fancy way to give people a product for free or cheap, which was obviously not creative or interesting. I wish I would have known the story of Vegemite then, because I might have told him to chill about coupons. Sometimes a coupon can turn a struggling product into a national treasure. It doesn’t always have to be “clever” to work.)

A postscript from the author: 

Researching these articles, I’ve become increasingly curious about the lack of small-batch yeast-spread products produced by local breweries. You have spent brewer’s yeast! If y’all made artisanal Marmite/Vegemite would they not be a sensation? I must know someone who’s willing to take this on. Anyway, if you do, write to me, and I’ll illustrate your product for free….to use on your promotional coupons.

Marmite

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Marmite.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites…”

I saw a jar of Marmite at the grocery store, and I was like, “MARMITE! I should look into that!” Then I began to fear the hate mail that would surely follow from Vegemite fans. I decided that the obvious solution was to feature these yeasty buddies in a two-part post, and we’d all be better for it. Buckle up, it’s going to be an exciting ride. 

Part One: Marmite

Marmite, for those of you who don’t know, is a dark, sticky goo made from yeast. It’s generally spread on buttered toast. One reviewer said that “It tastes like salty beefy fermented soy sauce.” So…basically an umami-rich salt spread? Amazing! Other reviewers said it was “fishy” and “doesn’t taste like food,” which is a bit less encouraging. Love it or hate it (that’s the slogan, by the way) Marmite is important to British cuisine…but how’d that happen? 

Justus von Liebig is the man who made Marmite possible. He’s widely considered to be a principal founder of organic chemistry, but he was also wild for nutrition. He developed a healthy baby formula, a meat tea to nourish the poor, and most importantly for this story, he found out that you could concentrate brewer’s yeast, bottle it, and eat it.

A few years after his breakthrough, an international team of enthusiastic fellows got the idea over the finish line. Frederick Wissler, George Huth, and Alexander Vale, found that they could take spent brewer’s yeast from the beer-making process and create a rich, flavorful spread. It was recycling! It was inventive! It was a symbiotic sensation! In 1902, the first Marmite factory opened, sourcing their yeast from the nearby Bass brewery. The spread caught on quickly (probably because it added a lot of flavor to food cheaply) but an even bigger selling point was on the horizon: vitamins! 

By 1912, there were several discoveries involving micronutrients, and the general consensus was that human beings needed some small amount of these to maintain their health. Scientist Casimir Funk (which is an amazing DJ name) called them “vitamines.” And you know what marmite had an awful lot of? You guessed it. Vitamins. B Vitamins, to be exact. Now Marmite could be sold not just for flavor, but also for health. It could be used to treat certain kinds of anemia and malnutrition! Take that, jelly!

In 1914, Great Britain began fighting in World War I, which meant that many British troops were standing around in stinking trenches full of water under heavy bombardment. The circumstances were horrific. To help with morale and to stave off nutritional deficits, Marmite was included in rations for the soldiers. I’ll say here that our brains process emotion pretty close to where they process taste and smell, so memory and food go hand in hand. Giving soldiers something to eat that they loved at home was a very good idea.

It’s a mistake, however, to imply that all British folks love Marmite. (Remember that “Love it or Hate it” slogan?) It actually appears that equal numbers of folks love and hate it. The rest don’t really care. Fair enough. Like most things, it’s pretty easy to tell if you like it: just try it! OR, you could make it much more difficult and newsworthy, which is just what Marmite’s ad agency did in 2017.

For this campaign, Marmite worked with scientists to develop a genetic test that would tell if someone was a “lover” or a “hater.” A quick cheek swab could be analyzed and tell you if you had the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms that predisposed you towards enjoyment of the spread. The research was basically just done for a funny ad campaign, but it also showed that although certain flavors might be pleasant or unpleasant to us (I’m looking at you, cilantro!) our circumstances can overcome our tendencies. It also showed that the British have a great sense of humor about their strange foods.

In closing, always remember that while Britney Spears loves Marmite and Madonna hates it, Men at Work are Vegemite all the way…

Join us next week for the thrilling final installment of the Tale of Two ‘Mites.

 

ak-mak Crackers

A black and white illustration of an indestructible food: ak-mak crackers.

“What kind of cracker is THAT?!”

When I was a kid, my parents went through a fairly extreme health food phase. We’d get in the car maybe once a month and cruise 45 minutes to the nearest natural grocery store. Our fam would get primitive meat replacements (lentil-based veggie burger in a can?!), tofu, bulk grains, wheat germ, almond butter, carob treats, and a couple boxes of ak-mak crackers.

Now, as an adult, I think ak-maks are great. They’re crunchy, kinda wheat-sweet, and covered in sesame seeds. They pair well with cheeses and dips. They’re super nutritious! But, as a kid, I had major problems with them. I craved the buttery flake of a Ritz, the rough elegance of a Triscuit. I wanted to eat crackers shaped like goldfish. Hell, I just wanted crackers that I didn’t have to explain to my friends. 

My childhood turmoil aside, ak-maks are a cool cracker with a neat history (and a local connection!) that we should talk about.

The Soojian family founded a bakery in Lowell, MA (woot!) in 1893. There was an Armenian community there, and making traditional baked goods for fellow immigrants was a great way to make a living. The family produced Peda bread, Dernackly bread, Arabic bread, and the very popular Armenian Cracker bread. 

I know we’re supposed to be talking about ak-maks, but I need your patience for a quick aside: Armenian Cracker bread blows my mind. It’s a giant cracker that you transform into a soft, rollable flatbread! Just wet both sides under running water, then let it sit in a plastic bag until it’s pliable. You can watch a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-r1rCkzUNc This may be one of my (many) culinary blind spots, but I am enchanted with this product nonetheless, and will be eating it as soon as my order arrives.

Alright, back to the ak-mak origin story! In 1936, the Soojian family bakery moved to California, where there was another Armenian community. They kept baking, stayed true to simple ingredients, and continued to grow. Among their traditional offerings, there were also some experiments, and in 1952 they introduced a brand new cracker: the ak-mak.

The ak-mak was and is simple: whole wheat flour, honey, sesame oil, butter, yeast, and salt. That’s it! It had no fancy flavoring. No preservatives. No artificial colors. No advertising. 

In other words…it was revolutionary. This was absolutely NOT what the United States was into at the time. In the 1950s, the market was crowded with crackers like our beloved Ritz, but also “Bacon Thins” and Donald Duck’s “Cheese Quackers.” Folks were not clamoring for whole wheat. The ak-mak zigged where others had zagged.

It paid off. California was a great place to sell healthier foods (even in the 50s) and by the late 60s, there were plenty of hippies to spread the gospel of whole grain. As health food trends have come and gone, the ak-mak has hung on. 

Some products distinguish themselves just by staying the same. You won’t find “flavor-blasted” ak-maks. They aren’t suddenly a different shape. They aren’t trying to be cool! They’re crunchy “whole of the wheat” crackers with sesame seeds on them, and that is all they will ever be. There’s a lesson of self-acceptance somewhere in there: about being proud of what you are even when it’s not popular. And whether you are a person or a food, it’s a pretty great example to follow. 

Sweetened Condensed Milk

Black and white illustration shows a can od sweetened condensed milk: an indestructible food.

“Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow…”

Milk is good for a lot of things: feeding babies, pouring over cereal, giving people mustaches…but it is REALLY good at going bad. Raw milk only keeps for a couple of hours at room temperature before it starts to spoil, and once it takes that turn, drinking it is a very dicey proposition. So for the 6,000+ years that humans have been drinking animal milk, we’ve also been trying to find ways to ingest it before it’s rotten enough to make us sick. 

First came a fermented milk product that was something like yogurt. Later, people figured out how to make cheese (Hurrah!), and after that, butter churns started chugging along. These transformations stabilized some of the nutrients of fresh milk and gave folks more access to dairy, but milk in its original state was still an extremely fragile commodity. 

By 1795, canning maniac Nicolas Appert had developed a technique for preserving milk in its liquid state. This involved boiling the milk, which reduced it to one-third of its original volume, putting it in a glass jar, corking it, and heating it again. This produced milk which tasted terrible, and had few remaining nutrients, but, hey, it lasted quite a while! It was a step in the right direction.

In the mid-19th century, things had reached the curdling point. Raw milk was still a dangerous food that spoiled really quickly. It was hard to transport safely. It turned into a glass of germs within hours, yet people were being told to feed it to the youngest, most vulnerable members of the population. It was a recipe for disaster! Compounding the problem, several distilleries in NYC hatched a money-making scheme by which they fed their spent grain to secret dairy cows kept in nearby barns. So in addition to the regular dangers of raw milk, we add undernourished, diseased cows and unclean, overcrowded conditions. The milk these cows gave was so bad (and blue!) that it had to be disguised with the addition of chalk and sweeteners. 

The milk wasn’t just gross, it was killing people. Especially kids. 

With pasteurization still a few years off, and kids dying by the thousands, the race was on to create a preserved milk that was shelf-stable and pure. That’s where Gail Borden comes in. In 1851, he was coming home to the U.S. on a ship from the London Exhibition, where he had been drumming up enthusiasm for his latest invention “meat biscuits.” (I would never lie to you.) The ship had a couple of cows to make milk for the passengers. The cows got sick. The milk was contaminated. The kids who drank it died. 

That was it for Mr. Borden. Meat biscuits be damned, he had a new problem to solve. He spent the next few years experimenting with condensing milk in a vacuum, removing 60% of the water content, and adding sugar to prolong the shelf-life. He eventually earned the patent for his innovations in 1856. Around this time, he also formally abandoned the meat biscuit…which was about as popular as you might expect. 

Borden’s first two milk factories were a flop, but he did something super important during these early, milk-filled years. He wrote the “Dairyman’s Ten Commandments” which was a set of rules farmers needed to follow if they wanted to sell him their milk. This document was filled with great advice: Always wash udders before milking! Keep barns swept clean! Scald and dry strainers morning and night! It also reads as a love letter to cows, “Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow–thou nor thy maid servant, nor thy dog, nor thy mischievous boy who drives her up, but thou shalt at all times treat her with gentleness and allow no one to molest or make her afraid…” It was widely adopted among dairy farmers, and many of the rules within are followed to this day. 

The milk Commandments were improving safety at dairies, and in 1858, Borden’s third condensed milk factory proved to be the charm. The kinks had been ironed out. He had a great partner/investor. He was now shipping safe, stable milk that needed no refrigeration. (It stayed fresh for over 2 years!!!) Eagle Brand, as his milk was called, was gaining a reputation for being clean and pure. Kids who drank it did not die. 

Then the Civil War began, and keeping the soldiers fed was a nightmare. They were sustaining themselves mainly on hardtack and salt meat. Morale was terrible. The U.S. government placed an enormous order for Borden’s condensed milk, and used it–not as an everyday ration–but as a celebratory treat for the soldiers. The canned milk also got a lot of use in military hospitals, where it was mixed with brandy or whiskey as a tonic for fever. In time, soldiers could buy their own sweetened condensed milk at a cost of 50 to 80 cents per can. That was a lot of money, so many soldiers wrote to relatives, asking them to “send condensed milk!!!”  Eagle Brand milk was such a success that the company could not keep up with demand. 

As sweetened condensed milk made its mark on the US, it was also picking up steam globally. A Swiss company began making it for most of Europe. A Dutch milk company moved into Hong Kong and launched the Longevity brand. Wars and colonialism spread canned milk just about everywhere. It was safe, reliable, and delicious at a time when raw milk was anything but. 

Eventually (although it took WAY too long) pasteurization became the norm, and milk’s safety was less of a concern. For the first time, sweetened condensed milk had to work to stay relevant. “It doesn’t kill kids!” was no longer a unique selling point. Luckily, the product was also completely delicious, so it had a lot of fans. Eagle Brand held recipe contests where they paid $25 for the tasty ideas of homemakers. Ads touted a million ways to use sweetened condensed milk, often with the tag “no added sugar–which is hilarious, because let’s be real: it’s a can of sugar. Around the globe, sweetened condensed milk found its way into drinks and desserts and dinners, much to the delight of pretty much everyone. 

In closing, I’ll just say that if you’re looking to have a sweetened condensed milk revival at your house, here are some bright ideas, brought to you by my insta pals: Key Lime Pie. Fudge. Flan. Vietnamese Iced Coffee. Halo Halo. Fruit Dip. Spanish Lattes. Hot Chocolate. French Toast. Banana Pudding. 7 Layer Bars. Smoothies. Carnitas. Shave Ice… 

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.