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 (I lived near a corner store that sold delightfully out-of-date merchandise.)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. 🧛🍫
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
“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 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.
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.
It’s hard to find a food more ubiquitous than sausage. Every country has their versions, because sausage was developed to do something important: save food from being wasted. Got a pile of tiny trimmings left over from slaughter time? Got a length of spare intestine? You’re in business. Sausages all around! They can be smoked or cured, steamed or grilled, but they always turn a pile of scraps into a meal.
Sausages should have been a low-class food. They are, after all, made from leftovers. Richer folks could afford to eat big pieces of meat like hams and pheasants and roast beef, but they wanted sausage. It’s not hard to understand why. The balance of fat, protein, and salt in a sausage made it a perfect comfort meal. Soon, butchers and delis and families and whole countries were working to make fancier sausages. They experimented with novel spices and processing methods. A pile of scraps no longer, sausages became a source of pride.
Not to be outdone, the United States threw its hat in the ring with a product called Vienna Sausage. Bursting upon the sausage scene in 1903, these short lengths of forcemeat were smoked and canned in aspic or chicken broth. They had almost nothing in common with European vienna sausages which were long, thin hotdog-like creatures. American Vienna Sausages were their own thing, man. Made of beef, pork, and chicken (the turducken of sausage?!) they became a phenomenon.
Advertising did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting these little links. A 1904 Libby’s print ad shares that “Vienna Sausages are served extensively at home and abroad, on transatlantic ships and in dining cars.” In 1954, the ads had shifted tone considerably, now claiming the little sausages to be “a real wife-saver.” By 1990, the ads were talking about ingredients, informing the public that the links were ALL meat. NO filler. So, whether you were a traveler, an overwhelmed housewife or just completely obsessed with meat, Vienna Sausages were for you. Luckily, recipes were everywhere, encouraging creativity and innovation with these canned wieners. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny Corndogs! Wieners with Sauerkraut! Hors d’oeuvres! The possibilities seemed truly endless.
But if canned Vienna Sausages were a uniquely American invention, they certainly did not stay here. We talked about this a bit in relation to Spam, but it is worth repeating here. Vienna Sausages spread as many indestructible foods did: with conquest, colonialism, and war. Elaine Castillo frames this beautifully in her article, Colonialism in a Can. What often started as survival food for interlopers in unfamiliar settings, was enriched and elevated by locals who made it part of their cuisine.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Vienna Sausages are part of the rich tapestry of preserved meats. They might not have the panache of prosciutto, but they have kept folks filled and earned some fans along the way. Not too shabby for a tiny canned sausage.
Fruit has always been beloved. Folks ate it fresh, dried it for later, or put it up in jars to sweeten dull winter dishes. By the late 1800s, California canneries were working to make fresh fruit commercially available year-round. Canned peaches were a favorite, but processing them was a huge pain. Peaches bruised easily and spoiled quickly. That led to a ton of waste.
Food waste at an industrial scale is a tricky thing to deal with. It represents lost profits, but it can also lead to serious environmental issues. It turns out that you can’t pump enormous piles of rotting peach guts into your community without causing major repercussions for wildlife and waterways. The United States government was not going to let a love of canned fruit ruin the countryside. The amount of garbage canneries were allowed to throw out was restricted, and food scientists began working on ways to divert organic waste. Peach pits could be sold to companies that made things like beauty creams or charcoal briquettes. And those little pieces of perfectly good peach between the bruised or rotten parts? Those could be chopped up and combined with other fruits to create an edible and delicious fruit cocktail. It was an incredible way to repurpose what would otherwise be trash. (As a side note, “complying with environmental regulations” is a very cool reason to invent a new product. Way cooler than “making more money” or “reaching new customers.”)
Since consistency was key when it came to mass produced goods, canneries got together to hammer out a recipe they could all agree on. Later, the USDA wrote regulations mandating that anything called fruit cocktail would include peaches, pears, pineapples, grapes, and cherries. Not only was the ingredient list limited, but the proportions were dictated as well. You must have at least a certain amount of each ingredient, but no more than a certain amount. For instance, pears make up between 25-40% of the drained fruit volume of any can labeled “Fruit Cocktail.” You can buy some and check! There are plenty of pears! Cherries, however, are more elusive. They make up just 2-6% of any can. Most reasonable humans agree that it isn’t enough.
In addition to their scarcity, color is the big reason that fruit cocktail cherries are so popular. They are brilliantly red. Unnaturally red. Completely artificially red! And according to the USDA, the cherries are the only thing in a fruit cocktail that is allowed to be red. The syrup cannot be red. The other fruits cannot be red. Only the cherries can be red! Unfortunately, most red food dyes bleed. Touch anything you own with a maraschino cherry (Red Dye No. 40) and you’ll see what I mean. If fruit cocktail cherry dye were to bleed, the fruit cocktail would no longer legally be fruit cocktail. Everything would be red. It would be a nightmare! Luckily, there was a red food dye that stayed exactly where you put it, and that was Red Dye No. 3
Red Dye No. 3 had a problem. It was shown to cause thyroid tumors in lab rats. After that finding, the FDA banned its use in cosmetics and non-ingestible products, but somehow, it was still ok in cough drops, toothpaste, those weird red pistachios, and fruit cocktail cherries. “Why?” you ask. “If we knew that this was a questionable ingredient, why would it still be allowed?” Lobbyists, of course! The Fruit Cocktail Lobby is a surprisingly powerful entity that successfully campaigned to keep Red Dye No. 3 on the table (and in your fruit cocktail) for much longer than it should have been. Industry studies found that without those bright cherries, Fruit Cocktail sales would drop by 40%, which would apparently result in a negative impact on the economy as a whole (if you find this hard to swallow, you aren’t alone). Those lobbyists bought the fruit companies some time, and although some of them still use Red Dye No. 3, many of them are now going with carmine. Carmine is made from beetles, and is not shown to cause tumors at all. It still makes cherries very red. It also makes them much less vegan. You really can’t have it all.
I was incredibly surprised by the importance of the government in the creation and perpetuation of fruit cocktail. Federal regulations led companies to hide their food waste in salable products. The USDA outlined the exact recipe of fruit cocktail so consumers would know what to expect. And finally, the FDA made damn sure that those cherries could stay a shocking red…even if there weren’t enough of them.
Picture this: You’re cooking, and everything is going ok, but the food you’re making just doesn’t seem, well, brown enough. It tastes good. It’s well-prepared. But you worry that your guests will be disappointed at the lack of brown-ness. You are not alone. For nearly 150 years, cooks have been reaching for a preparation whose main purpose is to make food brown. Kitchen Bouquet is a browning sauce made of caramel, vegetables, and spices. It’s vegan. It’s kosher. And somehow, it makes foods seem meatier. Or at least more brown.
We know that our experience of food is largely tied to smell and taste, but color is another important factor. We are conditioned to believe that certain colors will taste certain ways. In nature, super bright colors can mean poison. In the grocery store? They tend to indicate sweets marketed to kids. Green tastes fresh, vegetal, or sometimes bitter. Yellow evokes lemon or banana. And brown? Brown tastes seared. It is rich. It has a savory, umami flavor. Brown is comforting and deeply satisfying. But only if it is brown enough. That can require some assistance.
The practice of adding color to food is an ancient one. Saffron, carrots, beets, berries, and turmeric were all early natural dyes that made food more beautiful. The trouble only began when folks started using lead, arsenic, and mercury to create synthetic food dyes. Not only were the compounds harmful on their own, they were often used to hide spoilage or low quality products. That killed people. It also led to a lot of laws that said you couldn’t put poison in food on purpose. Even if it looked great there. So food manufacturers spent a ton of time and money developing new artificial dyes with their own set of risks. Kitchen Bouquet, you’ll be glad to hear, is more natural and less artificial. Its brown-ness comes from cooked sugar and while there is a preservative added for shelf stability, it seems a heck of a lot safer than some of the foods we discuss in this series. And eateries across the country agree. You will find it by the gallon in restaurant kitchens, just waiting to make your gravy as brown as it can be.
Whether we dine out or at home, we’re more likely than ever to take pictures of impressive meals. It’s not about memory, really. Food does a great job of being memorable without documentation. We take pictures of great food so we can share our experience with friends. But what if the food in your pics doesn’t look as good as it tastes in real life? Food stylists have been grappling with this for as long as there have been photographs of food. You know what they have to say? Kitchen Bouquet! With a few drops, a chicken appears perfectly roasted. That grayish burger can become invitingly seared in seconds! And hey, what’s in that coffee cup? Why, it’s Kitchen Bouquet mixed with water, of course! Great coffee appearance without the oily surface! This product is an endless font of brown!
Your food being insufficiently brown may seem like an insignificant problem. It absolutely is. But insignificant problems with easy solutions are my favorite things right now, so I may just pick up some Kitchen Bouquet.
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.
You can feel however you want about love and sex (“Yes, please!” “No, thanks!”) but the relationship between food and desire is pretty interesting. Since the beginning of civilization, folks have been looking for ways to have more sex. Foods, rituals, love potions… anything to grease the wheels of love. In the second century AD, the Roman physician Galen wrote that certain “warm and moist” foods had an aphrodisiac effect. Which kinda makes sense, I guess. But he also thought that foods that caused gas were good because somehow that’s how erections worked. (This hypothesis slays me, and I could make a ton of sexy fart jokes but I will not.)
The list of foods thought to be aphrodisiac is long: Chocolate, asparagus, figs, caviar, carrots, chiles, honey, onions, okra, sausages, and yes, oysters. Oysters fall squarely into the group of foods thought to be desire-inducing because they resemble genitals. They are wet and foldy and salty, and we’ll leave it at that. In an earlier post, we talked about how Italians eat lentils at New Year’s because they “look like coins” and will make them rich. The lesson to learn here is that eating foods that look like the things you want will maybe help you get the things you want.
It used to be a fortunate few living near the coast that had access to oysters for sexy reasons or otherwise. But in the 1820’s factories started canning them. Over the next several decades, oysters became a huge fad, were over-harvested, caused environmental destruction, and there is no evidence that anyone’s sex life improved. In fact, there has never been any scientific evidence that aphrodisiacs work at all. Which is kind of a bummer because food superstitions are way cool.
If you want to have better/more sex, communication is good. Consent is key. Self-esteem is rad. And hey, a can of oysters can’t hurt. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.
Cucumber pickles have been around for a really long time. Like, they’re mentioned in the Bible. Twice. And they gained global popularity for good reason. Pickling preserves foods. Cucumbers are great, but they have a very short growing season and they spoil really fast. So if you wanted to save the million pickles from your garden for later, throwing them in salt water brine was a great way to go. And it worked out well, because if you were poor, and had to eat bread and potatoes for every meal during the long winter months (I’m looking at you, Eastern Europe) a pickle would provide a much-needed bit of variety to your everyday fare. If you were rich, chances are you still wanted delicious, piquant side-dishes. Pickles are for everyone.
While pickles were and are an egalitarian snack, in the USA, pickle prevalence really picked up speed with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th through early 20th-centuries. They introduced the dill pickle, which was a sensation. Soon, NYC became a pickle hot spot. Vendors appeared on every corner selling pickles for a penny a pop. Anyone with a barrel on wheels could become a businessman! Elsewhere in New York, (Niagara Falls to be exact) people were putting pickles to use in a different way, launching themselves over the falls in pickle barrels to varying results.
People were eating more pickles because they liked them. But also because a tradition had begun whereby if you ordered a sandwich in a deli or restaurant, the default side dish was a pickle spear. You might get chips or fries, but you would definitely get a pickle. Which made sense, because when you are eating something fatty and delicious (say, a pastrami sandwich…. or even a grilled cheese) cleansing your palate with a bite of something acidic as you go makes it all the more enjoyable. This tradition upped pickle consumption, and gave us a new way to classify our friends. Those who leave their complimentary pickle spear behind and those who eat every unwanted pickle at the table.
Nowadays you can eat fresh cukes year round. And you get a big fine if you go over Niagara Falls in any kind of barrel. But pickles persist. That is, after all, what they were invented to do.
Go west, young man, and eat deviled ham: A story of innovation, war, and spicy meat.
The Underwood brand began selling preserved foods in 1822. Ketchup, Mustard, Cranberries… You know, the basics. As time went on, the offerings expanded to include seafood. This was important for all those folks in the USA moving west in the 1840s-1860’s. Because no matter how inspired you were by Horace Greeley, you still had to eat. And a lot of these settlers had very little experience with farming/food production. So a can of oysters would come in handy.
As the United States government was giving away land that didn’t belong to it, another storm was brewing, the Civil War. And as always, the problem of getting food to soldiers was a pressing one. The Underwood company stepped in and sold its canned goods to Union and Confederate soldiers alike. (Capitalism!) And as those soldiers were eating cans of mackerel, so were the Southern folks at home. Their food supplies had been choked by blockades, and canned fish became a staple.
Deviled Ham surfaced after the war, in 1868. It was a spicy ground ham spread, and folks loved it. (Deviling, by the way, is just making foods spicier. And the logo for Deviled Ham is the devil. Because hell is hot. Obviously.) Deviled Ham was a huge success because it was delicious, they spent a ton of money on advertising, and it could be used in a boatload of ways. Keep in mind that canned foods were special. They were not second best to fresh foods, but a novel invention that let people enjoy foods that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
Speaking of inventions, the canned good was not without its flaws. Often the cans would bulge and explode, resulting in a tremendous amount of food waste. And injuries, I assume. So in 1895, the grandson of old Underwood went to the biology department of MIT and was like, “Let’s get to the bottom of this.” The worked on it every afternoon, and eventually discovered a time/temperature formula that would work to stabilize foods.
Sometimes a canned good takes us from the American West, to the halls of MIT. From a wartime encampment, to a suburban sandwich. It is a messy history that is bigger even than Deviled Ham.
Breadcrumbs are a way of using up old bread that would otherwise be a punishment to eat. And as old bread is a worldwide concern, most every culture has breadcrumbs. Crackers, Tortillas, Pumpernickel, Rusk, French bread, Pita… Any bread-like thing can become a breadcrumb. They can be used to thicken soups or top deserts or bake onto casseroles. OR they can be used to coat foods before frying.
Enter Shake ’n Bake. If there is a better example of a product existing purely because of marketing, I wanna know what it is. The folks at General Foods started selling Shake ’n Bake in 1965. And you know what it was? A box of bread crumbs. People already HAD bread crumbs. They used them all the time! But THESE breadcrumbs were different. Because you put them in a plastic bag and shook it real hard to coat your meat. There was no startling new technology. It was breadcrumbs in a bag. A little bit of built-in seasoning. But it was a phenomenon. And frying?! Why fry things when you could bake them and they would still be breaded? We don’t want food. We want breading!
Anyway, chefs talk all the time about elevating simple ingredients. And although this isn’t quite that they mean, Shake ’n Bake did it admirably. (I had to look up if they still make this. They do. And now you can get Pretzel Flavored?! You’re welcome.)
Spam was invented in 1937 as a way to use pork shoulder, a cut of meat no one wanted at the time. It had some popularity in the US, but it spread widely during WWII. Getting fresh meat to soldiers was near impossible, but Spam was shelf-stable and lasted forever. Problem solved! And as soldiers were eating their Spam (Hormel kept a file of military complaints about it) so were an awful lot of civilians. WWII brought Spam to the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Japan, Great Britain… and the list goes on.
In the coming years, Spam would continue its march around the planet (aided by American colonialism and various wars). And an interesting divergence occurred. In some places, Spam was a temporary food staple. It surfaced in response to an urgent need, and receded when the need was gone. But in other places, Spam was more tenacious. People experimented with it and came up with smart ways to use it. They made the product an ingredient. Spam wove itself into these cuisines.
You may ask “What caused the difference in Spam uptake? Why is Spam popular in some places and ridiculed in others?” Good questions. And complicated ones. One answer I’ve seen is rooted in economic circumstance. In places where economic hardship was widespread for a short time, Spam was tolerated. It was a food of necessity, and folks tended to want to (and be able to) distance themselves from it as soon as possible. In places where economic recovery came slower, cooks found ways to use the ingredient to its best advantage. It was around long enough not to be associated with any particular economic trauma. It was food. And if you prepared it well, it was remarkably good.
Each country has its own story when it comes to Spam. You’ll see stories about hardship. And war. And colonialism. And family meals. And silly merchandise. And comfort foods. This post is not long enough, nor am I knowledgable enough to cover all of the complexities of Spam. There is a whole lot to learn.