I love the idea that when I’m running late, I’ll race through the kitchen, grab a Pop-Tart that’s flying out of the toaster, make it to the office just in time, and NAIL that presentation. Pop-Tarts are, and have always been, shorthand for sweet success on the go. Or toasted triumph under pressure? Whatever, from what I understand, they’re a foundational breakfast snack that pretty much guarantees a positive outcome to any situation. Which is surprising, considering the fact that they started as a rip-off of someone else’s good idea.
In 1964, cereal-giant Post announced to the press that it would be launching a toaster-prepared breakfast pastry. Was the product ready to launch? No. Was it wise to make an announcement so far in advance? Also no.
Upon hearing this exciting news, the devious folks at Kellogg’s sprang into action. They developed their OWN version of the toaster pastry. Did Kellogg’s steal the idea? Yes. Was it an idea worth stealing? Also yes.
Now looking back, I couldn’t tell you which toaster pastry was superior, but I CAN tell you which had the better name.
Post’s invention was called “Country Squares.” The name evokes a rural locale and a geometric shape. Ok, that’s boring, but fine. But in 1964, we called uncool people “square.” Naming your breakfast treat after an unpopular fellow is a bad move. Huey Lewis later said that it was “hip to be square,” but that idea came about 20 years too late to save “Country Squares.”
Kellogg’s, on the other hand, called their pastry “Pop-Tarts.” The name is a play on an art movement (Pop Art) that was currently influencing culture. “Pop” refers to “popular” and also the action of the pastry as it springs out of the toaster. “Tart” calls to mind a delicious fruity treat that people want to eat. “Pop-Tarts” is what we in marketing call, “a very good name” that does a lot of “heavy lifting.”
As you might imagine, Pop-Tarts outsold Country Squares by a large margin, and established dominance in the very competitive breakfast-convenience category. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that a great name can be the difference between a ho-hum product launch and a toaster-propelled success story.
Since the beginning of time, humans have delighted in developing exciting ways to communicate. It began with gestures and grunts. Later, using one’s voice to speak a language was popular. Then came the written word. Folks invented technologies that helped our communications travel faster and farther than ever. Telegrams! Telephone calls! Emails! Texts! Video chats! Today, you can tell anyone almost anything instantly.
But, amidst all of this innovation, one primitive message delivery device continues to surface for just a few weeks each year…the conversation heart.
Conversation hearts, for anyone who’s awfully far out of the loop, are chalky candy hearts stamped with messages ranging from fervent devotion to boredom and disdain. So, you know, the whole spectrum of romanic love. Sweethearts were invented by the New England Confectionary Company in 1902, as a related, but distinct follow-up to the already popular Necco wafer. Original messages included: “WHO ME?” and “LOVE U” and allowed crushes of all ages to communicate with sugar. Finally.
As years passed, the language used to express love changed, and so too, did the the phrases printed on Sweethearts. Mixed in with classics like “BE MINE” were radical gems like “AS IF” and “AWESOME.” The most important for my formative years was 90s favorite “FAX ME.” I spent a lot of time dreaming of the eventual romantic interest who would fax me out on a date. (This technological rendezvous never actually occurred, and I’m still sorta mad at Necco for getting my hopes up in the first place.)
All faxes aside, the idea of updating phrases was a smart one, and, like every good reboot, it allowed each new generation to enjoy a thing that they should have considered completely uncool.
We could speculate on the inclination to share our feelings with a kinda unpleasant candy rather than, say, a well-written poem or a heartfelt ballad, but let’s agree that the humble conversation heart hits the sweet spot (ha!) between over-zealous sentimentality and too-cool indifference. Which, as we all know, is the place where true love grows.
A mascot can make or break a cereal. General Mills obviously knew that, and by choosing famous movie characters for the first two Monster releases, they all but guaranteed their success. Everyone fears Frankenstein! Everyone dreads Dracula! It’s puzzling, then, that two years later, hoping to build upon a successful cereal series, they said, “Hey, why not just use a ghost?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Ghosts are scary. Maybe not “monsters” per se, but frightening just the same. However, they’re kinda generic. OK, Casper is a brand name ghost, but Boo Berry was, as far as I can tell, a run-of-the-mill spectre. If you watch a movie, and it’s called “Ghost” it stars Patrick Swayze, NOT Boo Berry.
These cereal moguls did something smart, though. They chose Paul Frees to voice the character. You’d probably know him as the voice of Boris Badenov in early episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle, or as the Pilsbury Doughboy. The man was a legend. For Boo Berry, Frees did a passable impression of Peter Lorre, and so the character always seemed spooky and also kind of out of it. (Which to be honest, is how I imagine any ghost to be.)
Boo Berry was always the third wheel in the monster cereal tv ads. Chocula and Frankenberry would argue about their cereal’s superiority, and at the last minute, Boo makes an entrance to stump for his. Generally, the other two monsters shove him in a trunk or push him out the door or whatever, but since he’s a damn ghost, that doesn’t even work. Boo Berry is an underdog, even in the spirit world.
Although Boo Berry has its disadvantages, he’s still got a lot of loyal fans. I reached out last week to see if any of you were, and the response though limited, was enthusiastic. Most people were into the mascot, claiming that “The ghost seemed nice.” This niceness was interpreted as intoxication by many of you. I heard a lot of versions of, “That ghost was high AF.” The limited availability of Boo Berry was a saving grace for some, increasing the nostalgia and enthusiasm for the cereal. One of you said that Boo is “clearly into ska, based on that hat.” I’d have to agree.
The lesson we learn from Boo Berry is that we don’t all start out with the same advantages, but with perseverance and an incredibly artificial blueberry flavor, we can still earn a limited, but lasting, success. May we all be a little like Boo Berry. Today, and every day.
General Mills Monster cereals came out in 1971, and at the beginning, there were only two: Count Chocula, and Franken Berry. It makes sense, when you think about it. Dracula and Frankenstein were extremely popular movies and why wouldn’t you want to eat a cereal loosely based on the antagonist of a horror film? “It just makes sense!” I exclaim, as I pour myself a bowl of Krueger-Os.
Count Chocula had a Bela Lugosi-type accent, while Franken Berry was British. The first TV ad showed them arguing about whose cereal was superior, and ended with the monsters being scared by a little kid. This story construct was meant to show that the cereal mascots were not frightening themselves, but served instead to reinforce the fact that most kids are, indeed, terrifying.
By 1972, Franken Berry was causing true terror. Children were being rushed to local hospitals by horrified parents. The chief complaint? Bloody stool. These kids were examined, observed, scoped, and prodded, and the cause, when it came back, was earth-shattering.
The dye used to turn Franken Berry Cereal that delicious shade of strawberry red was also dying the bowel movements of its most enthusiastic fans. No harm, no foul, really, but “Franken Berry Stool” is not the best sales tactic for a cereal. “Turn your poo blood red! Terrify your folks!” (Ok. Actually, maybe it IS a great sales tactic for a Halloween cereal.) Nevertheless, the good folks at General Mills found a new dye, and Franken-Stool was no more.
Over the years, more characters joined the ranks of Monster cereals, some of which we’ll be discussing this month, but I gotta say, this goofy Frankenstein with strawberries for fingernails is a favorite…Franken-poo, or no Franken-poo.
Modern life comes with a lot of perks, not the least of which is a dazzling array of crackers from which to choose. I could wax poetic about the virtues of Cheddar Cheese Goldfish or the intoxicating appeal of Wheat Thins (and someday, I probably will) but our hero for today is the humble Saltine.
This is truly the Swiss Army knife of crackers. Saltines can be used to stretch a meatloaf recipe, top a casserole, make a pie crust, coat fried chicken, sandwich peanut butter, crumble into soup, or even settle an upset stomach. They are the perfect platform for cheeses and spreads. In a pinch, they can even be used to catch minnows or make catfish bait. There are sexier crackers, sure, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one as serviceable.
The history of the Saltine begins in the late 19th century, when innovations in milling and industrial baking had contributed to a cavalcade of crackers. Bakeries across the country were developing new and tasty crackers at every turn. The F. L. Sommer & Company of St. Joseph, Missouri was one such bakery. In 1876, they created a cracker that used baking soda to help leaven a thin white flour cracker. They were called soda crackers or Saltines. And they were a revelation. Business for the company quadrupled!
It wasn’t just F. L. Sommer & Company who was having staggering success with crackers. The sheer amount of cracker currency changing hands across the nation caught the attention of entrepreneurs, and a series of mergers began. On the east coast, several bakeries were joined to create the New York Biscuit Company. In the midwest, 40 more bakeries united to form the American Biscuit Company. Then, in 1898 the whole shebang was smashed together into the National Biscuit Company, which would eventually be known as Nabisco.
This series of mergers allowed for the standardization of the cracker industry. Until then, crackers were a generic product, sold out of barrels in general stores. Folks would often have to take them home and toast them in the oven so they’d be crisp again. Listen, the people wanted crackers, not another chore! The National Biscuit Company solved all that by making big investments in packaging and advertising. These served to protect and promote a cracker’s most important characteristic: TEXTURE! So began decades of ads showing people running sleeves of Saltines under the faucet or dropping them in streams before biting them loudly to demonstrate that they were still crisp. (As someone who isn’t crazy about mouth noises, I find this tactic incredibly annoying.)
Perhaps the best advertisement for Saltines was the Great Depression. Suddenly, people needed a way to stretch their food budgets. They were watering down soups and trying to make one portion of meat feed a family of six. Saltines were the answer. They were a cheap carbohydrate that could stand in for a lot of the average household’s missing ingredients. Those lean years transformed a crunchy snack into a household necessity.
It turns out that those old ads got it all wrong. The texture of Saltines, as pleasant as it is, was never the most attractive thing about them. Their strength lies in their simplicity–their ability to fill a plethora of culinary roles without ever stealing the spotlight. Saltines are cheap as heck and you can eat them 1,000 different ways and to me, that’s a perfect food.
I’m gonna go make a batch of crackerflitter, but I’ll leave you with a wish for the New Year: May you never run into a problem that Saltines can’t solve.
Giving out raisins for Halloween!? Please read this important message:
Listen, there’s nothing wrong with raisins! They can be a pretty pleasant experience in the right context. Nestled in a bowl of oatmeal, perhaps. Or atop a rib of celery with peanut butter. But there are certain places that they Just. Do. Not. Belong. A bag full of candy is one of those places.
Candy is about frivolity. When you eat candy, you’re admitting, momentarily, that you don’t really care what happens next. You’re living fully in the present. I’m pretty sure that’s called mindfulness, and we’re all supposed to be practicing it. A box of raisins is a stark reminder of a reality where we have to make sure we don’t eat too much high fructose corn syrup. That mindset leads to anxiety, and there is no place for it on Halloween!
At this point, you may be protesting: “But I LOVE raisins. They’re nature’s candy! YOU CAN MAKE A KAZOO OUT OF THE BOX!” You can love raisins 364 days of the year. You can add ‘em to your scrambled eggs if you want to, but consider this a lighthearted public-service announcement: Please go buy a mixed bag of Snickers, Twix, and Three Musketeers, (or even Rolos/Milk Duds/Whoppers if you want to celebrate yesteryear) and hand them out to the hopeful children in your neighborhood.
Last year, a great tragedy befell candy fans: the complete absence of Halloween Peeps. Just Born (the company that produces these cuties) suspended production due to the pandemic, and everyone took a moment to mark the NO PEEPS square on their 2020 disasters bingo card.
Granted, you could still get Peeps chicks during the Easter season, but for those of us who wait each year to eat an entire sheet of marshmallow ghosts, it was cold comfort.
This year, we’re rewarded for our patience with 5 great Halloween Peeps varieties: Mild-Mannered Pumpkin, Sneaky-as-Hell Cat, Empathetic Frankenstein’s Monster, Enthusiastic Ghost, and Blankly-Staring Candy Skull. (Descriptors are mine, but swipe for a pic and see if you disagree.)
They’re all great, because they’re all marshmallow snacks coated with granulated sugar. I just found out that their facial features are made of carnauba wax, and that made me like them even more.
Some folks like their Peeps soft and fresh, and some like them on the crunchy side, but I can’t choose, so I’ll continue to buy trays of them, loving the soft ones at the beginning just as much as I love the crunchy ones I get to a few days later.
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. 🧛🍫
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.
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!
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Remember Jiffy Pop? I hadn’t thought of it in years, but a reader suggested looking into it so here we are…
Jiffy Pop was invented in 1958, but I really can’t figure out why. I’ve searched all over the internet, but no one provides a reason to invent an expanding disposable popcorn pan for popping popcorn on the stove. You could ALREADY pop popcorn on the stove. In a regular pan! Jiffy Pop just made it take slightly longer. I’m looking for help here, friends. If you have thoughts, shoot ‘em over. (Was it because the nation was enamored with space travel and shiny aluminum, maybe?)
I know some of you might say, “Dudek! It’s for camping!” And I agree that popping Jiffy Pop over a fire is not to be missed. But the original ads showed a mom making it on a stove. No campfire in sight. I’ve also heard a few suggestions that it is “safer,” but is it? Really?
Why ever it was invented, it was a huge hit. People oohed and ahhed and happily shook that pan for 1000 minutes to see the Jiffy Pop pan expand and accommodate those exploding corn kernels. And then all those families enjoyed popcorn that was a little less good that the kind you pop in oil on the stove. (My bias is showing.)
Microwave popcorn was really a nail in the coffin for the popularity of Jiffy Pop. In 1983, Orville Redenbacher introduced his version. It was fast and easy and safe, and clearly the popcorn of the future. But microwave popcorn is its own story, and one we will get to soon enough.
(A note after the fact… Now that I think about it, Jiffy Pop is a little like space ice cream: A product designed to treat you to an interesting, yet slightly disappointing experience. Sorry, kids.)
People have been stuffing things since the beginning of time. Or, like, early, anyway. Because stuffing something (vegetables, meats) helps it to retain moisture. It also helps the dish to go a little further. Stuffing was so popular it became a side dish in its own right. Even if there was nothing to stuff. But that is the story of real stuffing. Stove Top Stuffing is a science project from start to finish. And an awfully successful one.
In 1970 or thereabouts, the marketing department at General Foods said, “We need an instant stuffing product.” Domestic Scientist Ruth Siems rose to the challenge. And it WAS a challenge. The secret behind Stovetop is the particular size of the bread cubes and the time it sits and absorbs the added water. But Ruth figured it out. And the product was an “instant” success. I know! I’m the worst!
Remember how it was the marketing department who wanted this novel product in the first place? Well, it wasn’t to go with turkey. It was really engineered to replace potatoes in a weekday chicken dinner. (What focus group requested that? Tater haters!) Early ads showed families rejecting mashed potatoes in favor of Stovetop. But for me, Stovetop ads reached their peak when they showed two kids inviting each other over for dinner so that they could eat Stovetop TWICE IN ONE DAY. I never did that even once, but I dreamt of it.
Folks still buy 61 million boxes of Stovetop every year for Thanksgiving. There are a bunch of flavors to choose from. And yes, I watched Dave Chapelle tell his Stovetop joke before writing this article.
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.)
If you say, “Oats are a boring thing to draw!” you should read on…
The man in quaker garb was chosen to denote quality. This was especially important at a time (late 1800’s) when there was no federal regulation on food purity. With adulteration de rigueur, few products were what they claimed to be. Quaker Oats were, like, oats. And they still are. Oats.
For a time, Quaker Oates used the slogan: “It’s the right thing to do.” Which seems more like a commandment than a breakfast option. Also, Quaker hired Wilford Brimley. The ultimate oat-pusher. A million memes were born.
The empty canister is, and always has been, for storing treasures.
Potatoes are a celebration food, and they became popular, in part, because they take so long to go bad. But during WWII, the government was greedy, and they decided to push for an even longer shelf life by dehydrating potatoes into granules. Which were then made into extraordinarily gummy and awful mashed potatoes for the soldiers. Like many wartime innovations, there was in interest in making these reconstituted mashed potatoes into a consumer product. They just had to be a little less terrible.
A major turning point was the realization that “flakes” beat “granules” as far as mashed potato texture went. A government facility in Wyndmore, PA developed a process called “The Philadelphia Cook” This involved precooking potatoes, cooling them, cooking them again, and then drying them. Into flakes. Obviously. These new instant mashed potatoes were less terrible than before and saved the hassle of peeling potatoes forever and boiling a towering cauldron of water. A big win!
I hope you are celebrating this season with special foods. And if Christmas is your kind of holiday, I hope it’s a jolly one.