Sweetened Condensed Milk

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

“Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Dansk Butter Cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit Cocktail

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

The snack that started as trash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jello

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

From royal banquets to hospital rooms…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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