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.
When we last saw him, Momofuku Ando had just invented an incredibly popular instant ramen product, which was selling like hotcakes. (It’s a food simile!) His noodles were a huge hit, but Ando had big dreams. He wanted the whole damn world to eat them, so traveling to different countries and doing promotion became an important part of his job.
Legend has it that on a visit to the United States to promote Chikin Ramen, Ando saw supermarket workers breaking bricks of the product in half, dropping them into styrofoam coffee cups, then adding boiling water. When the soup had cooked, it was eaten…with a fork?!
Now, instant ramen was designed to be cooked in a pot, and eaten in a bowl with chopsticks. That’s the way you eat ramen! But did Ando scold these silly ramen newbies for “doing it wrong”? NO! Did he add more instructions to the package so folks would quit doing ridiculous things to his noodles? NO! Our brilliant inventor recognized that people were using the tools they had to enjoy his product in the most convenient way. He saw an opportunity to make it even easier for them.
Over the next few years, Ando oversaw the development of a brand new product called Cup Noodles. The inventive design allowed one vessel to be used as packaging, cooking pot, and serving dish. The “cup” included noodles, soup base powder, and toppings. The consumer could peel back the lid, add boiling water, replace the lid, wait three minutes, and enjoy a complete meal, even if they were on-the-go. Oh, and it came with a fork.
When you’re attempting to create a product with global appeal, it’s pretty important to focus on the ways we’re the same. It’s hard to find a place on the planet where there aren’t workers who need a meal away from home. Who don’t have access to a kitchen, or much money, or much time. If you can give them a way to eat something warm and filling, and, let’s be honest, fun, you’re onto something. Momofuku Ando had done it again.
If we’ve learned anything by delving into the history of shelf-stable food, it’s that the United States has a looooong history of inventing convenience meals and exporting them all over the world. Thanks, USA! It’s with joy, therefore, that we take a moment to talk about a product that came from Japan, and found a home here (and just about everywhere else.) I’m speaking, of course, of Instant Ramen Noodles.
For any ramen novices out there, here’s a little background. Ramen is a Japanese dish with roots in China. It consists of long wheat noodles, often served in a savory broth and garnished with goodies like soft boiled egg, various meats, and veggies. In terms of fast food, you’d be hard-pressed to find a meal more complex, satisfying, or slurp-ful.
So why INSTANT ramen? Was it just an example of taking a popular restaurant dish, and giving folks a way to make it at home? The answer is a compelling mix of post-war occupation, international trade, and economic depression. Let’s dig in…
The year is 1945. World War II is over. Japan has suffered devastating losses, and its economy is in ruins. To further complicate matters, a series of poor rice harvests and a government-run food distribution system is making it hard for folks to get enough to eat. In this post-war disaster zone, hungry workers line up in the cold to buy bowls of hot ramen from black market noodle stands.
But soon, and Japan is awash in wheat. “How!?” you might ask. “Good question!” I’d reply. The USA has been hanging around Japan since the war, and is fully aware of the food shortages. Back home, the wheat harvest is abundant, leading to a historic surplus of the grain. Much of this is styled as aid for countries facing hunger. Like Japan.
At this point, the Ministry of Health was like, “Ok, we’ve got all this this American wheat. I guess we’ll make a ton of bread and everyone can eat!” A businessman named Momofuku Ando was aghast. Bread eating wasn’t really a big thing in Japan, but noodles were. Why disrupt cultural tradition? Why not use the imported wheat for ramen? “Too risky!” said the Ministry. “Noodle companies are small, and unstable, and hard to control. We can’t run a government food program through them!” (I’m paraphrasing, for anyone still paying attention.) The Ministry suggested that if Ando was so passionate about his noodle idea, he should find a way to do it himself.
From that day forward, Ando was obsessed with finding a way to make a ramen product that folks could enjoy at home, and that would ALSO help end world hunger. This guy had goals, folks. He knew he had to find a way to dehydrate fresh noodles, so they could be rehydrated quickly and easily. Did he have any food science experience? Certainly not! Was there any reason to believe that he would achieve his goal? Not really! But he did, and the answer lie in flash frying.
After nearly a year of trying various forms of dehydration, a frustrated Ando flung a batch of ramen noodles into his wife’s tempura oil. (I like to imagine that she was annoyed by this interruption to her meal prep, but history does not record this detail.) The noodles emerged completely dehydrated, and with a rough, perforated texture that made for remarkably easy rehydration. Finally! A breakthrough! Things moved quickly from there, and instant ramen hit store shelves in 1958.
The initial flavor was “Chikin,” which was delicious and surprisingly expensive. I saw one breakdown that said the cost was about 6 times that of fresh noodles. But remember, it’s 1958! Japan is doing MUCH better economically by now, and folks are ready to try new things and save time at home. Instant Ramen, however expensive, is a spectacular success. Over the next decades, it marches steadily across the globe, finding enthusiastic fans wherever it goes. The cost comes down as production kinks are ironed out.
Instant ramen is a commercial success! But what about Ando’s big goal of ending world hunger? I’m happy to report that in 1997, he founded the World Instant Noodle Association with the aim of strengthening the instant noodle industry, but ALSO to provide global food aid. Between 1997 and 2021, the organization donated almost 7 million servings of noodles to folks in need. Not too shabby.
I’ll close this out by saying that instant ramen is one of my all-time favorite Indestructible Foods. It was invented to bring sustenance to as many folks as possible, and 65 years later it still is. If you’ve got 3 minutes and 35 cents, you’ve got a hot meal. And in times of trouble, there’s just nothing more important.
There are certain foods that remind you of who you are. Flavors you grew up with, and couldn’t live without. You share them with friends and acquaintances so that they can understand you a little better. These foods provide a link between past and future in an incredibly powerful way.
Old Bay is one of these foods. Ok, it’s technically a seasoning, not a food, but it’s edible, so it counts. (Right?) I casually mentioned my interest in Old Bay to a friend, and he excitedly rattled off 145 things I had to try it on. He was insistent. I LOVE that. And I’m going try all of those things. But first, let’s talk about the origin of this incredible product.
The story of Old Bay begins in Germany, where inventor Gustav Brunn was running a successful business making spice blends for sausages. It was 1938. Hitler was in power. Brunn was Jewish. Things got bad, then worse. Brunn was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he spent two weeks before his lawyer was able to secure his release (with a 10,000 mark bribe to the Gestapo.) His head had been shaved and he had pneumonia, but he was free. Within weeks, Brunn and his family were on a ship sailing to the United States, with an electric spice grinder in tow.
They settled in Baltimore, where they had family, but earning a living in their new country was a challenge. Brunn was hired by McCormick and Company, a spice brand you might recognize as the current manufacturer of Old Bay. But we’re not there yet! Hold your horses, kiddos.
Gustav Brunn was fired from McCormick after just three days. I’ve read accounts that attribute this to his poor English language skills, while other articles say he was fired for being a Jew and told to “Go see the Jewish charities.” Either way, it was enormous, discriminatory mistake that McCormick would come to regret. (Note: The official word from McCormick is that they have no record of ever having employed Brunn. However, his family’s word, and the fact that he was so resistant to ever sell to them lead me to believe this part of the story.)
Brunn decided to start his own business: The Baltimore Spice Company. His shop was right across from a bustling fish market, and as time went on, Brunn noticed that fish peddlers would often stop in to buy spices for seafood blends. Pepper, salt, mustard, and a few other ingredients here and there. Soon, Brunn began working on his own spice blend, a complex mix of 18 different spices that added up to something savory and a little sweet and a little hot and incredibly delicious. Old Bay was officially on the scene. The only problem was…no one really wanted it!
As we mentioned, each fish peddler made his own spice blends, and was reluctant to try anything else. There was ego involved here, folks. But Brunn was generous with samples, and when the fish guys offered Brunn’s invention to their customers, the customers wanted more.
The spice blend began to catch on, but it needed a cooler name. Brunn had originally called it “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,” which certainly explains what it is, but the name lacks pizazz. Luckily, Brunn had “a friend in advertising” (which is something everyone needs) and that friend suggested “Old Bay Seafood Seasoning.” This tied the product to Baltimore and the Old Bay steamship line, and established a “local” identity that would bind generations of Marylanders together forever and ever.
Anyway. Brunn was again a successful businessman. His spice blend was gaining popularity rapidly, and you know who noticed? McCormick. Yup. The same McCormick who had fired him. Over the years, they would try to buy his recipe, or copy it, or make something better, but it was impossible.
For 44 years, Gustav Brunn made Old Bay and sold it to a public who used it to flavor their seafood, but didn’t stop there. Old Bay became a popular topping for French fries, (they’re called crab fries, obviously) deviled eggs, popcorn, poultry, corn on the cob, Bloody Mary’s, roasted nuts, cornbread, and even melon. There was almost nothing that this spice blend couldn’t improve. (Or at least nothing its fans weren’t willing to try.)
When Brunn was 92, he finally sold the company. NOT to McCormick, but to Smith Corona Machines who were most famous for making typewriters. The brand switched hands a few times over the coming years, but in 1990, McCormick finally got their hands on it. (For an estimated 11-14 million dollars.)
This origin story is incredible. That a man who was meant to be executed in Nazi Germany escaped and went on to create one of the most popular spice blends in the United States is surprising enough, but when you add in the fact that McCormick FIRED this spice genius and then spent the next several decades pursuing him and his creation…its hard to fully comprehend.
Today, Old Bay is more popular than ever, and you can buy Old Bay beer, Old Bay ice cream, Old Bay Goldfish crackers, Old Bay hot sauce, and even Old Bay vodka. You can wear an Old Bay t-shirt while you air your grievances about the recent change in Old Bay packaging . (They went from a metal tin to plastic, and people are losing their MINDS.) You can get an Old Bay tattoo. You can pepper the internet with hundreds of Old Bay recipes, and send all of your friends Old Bay gift baskets. And at the end of the day, you can sit down to a pile of blue crabs and lick the Old Bay off of your fingers and say a little thank you to Gustav Brunn.
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.
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.
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.