We all know the story of John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, and his propensity to eat with his hands while gambling. Grab a pile of meat, use some bread instead of a plate, and instantly a phenomenon is born. While he wasn’t the first person in the world to the have the idea, the Earl and his parish became part of history, and the way we eat was changed forever. This story is well known, and the Earl even has a restaurant and island chain named after him. Coincidentally, the other historic impact John Montagu made was financing a British explorer you may have heard of whose last name was Cook.
All foods have origins, and some times, the creation of these culinary treats, whether through hard work or simple dumb luck can be as intriguing as the product itself. Let’s look at the origins of 10 foods, drinks, and candies that you may find yourself enjoying on a regular basis.
Some of these foods were designed in a lab by diligent scientists, some were created by crafty entrepreneurs, and some were created by accident or necessity. What they have in common is they have satisfied more people young and old, and made more money for their creators then anyone could have predicted.
10. Onion Rings – A Happy Accident?
Another happy restaurant accident happened a little further north in Dallas, Texas. In the 1920s, the landscape of Dallas was dotted with a restaurant franchise called Kirby’s Pig Stand. The original Kirby’s Pig Stand was the first drive-through restaurant in the United States, and according to their spokespeople, they also created the onion ring. Following their story, the onion ring was the product of a simple mistake: the chef accidentally dropped an onion into the breading used for other restaurant products and decided to fry it just to see what happens. What happened was the creation of an extremely popular appetizer which can now be found in almost every restaurant. According to Kirby’s Pig Stand publicists, they also innovated Texas Toast and Chicken Fried Steak – this time it was on purpose. The chain is no longer in business, having officially closed in 2006.
9. Pop Rocks – Instant Soda In A Bag
William A. Mitchell not only created Tang, but also the recipe that allows Jell-o to form from water almost instantly, whip cream, and powdered egg whites. One of his stranger contributions to our global food culture, though, is a candy loved by children everywhere: Pop Rocks. Pop Rocks was the product of a plan by Mitchell to instantly carbonate water. The idea was to dump the contents of the packet into a glass to create instant soda, without the need for a carbon dioxide air pump. Needless to say, this didn’t work.
However, General Foods was not ready to give up, and Mitchell realized the crystals he had created were still edible and would carbonate in one’s mouth. This fulfilled a deep desire by children everywhere, who immediately embraced the treat. The rumor that combining Pop Rocks with already carbonated soda (especially Coca Cola) would create an explosion is entirely unfounded. An urban legend with no historic evidence.
8. Nachos – It Doesn’t Always Take A Chef
Across the southern border of the United States, in the small Mexican town of Piedras Negras we explore our next food origin, a food which is a seeming staple of every sports stadium and movie theater in the United States – the Nacho. What is most surprising about nachos is they were created by accident. In 1943, a large party of Americans coming from the Fort Duncan airbase, just to the north in southern Texas, arrived at the Victory Club restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, the business had been so slow that day the cook had already gone home. This left the poor Maitre d’, a man name Ignacio Anaya, with a huge problem. Not wanting to lose the business from Fort Duncan, but not having experience making food himself, he decided to serve the only thing he was qualified to make, an impromptu plate of Corn Chips covered in cheese and diced Jalepeno peppers. Trying to impress the guests, he declared the plate Nacho’s Special and was then amazed when the hungry Americans became enamored by it. Nacho’s Special quickly became a menu item all through northern Mexico and later the world.
7. Blue Raspberry Frozen Treats – A Real Fruit?
Walking down the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store, one encounters a wide array of ice cream and frozen treats perfect for the summer months or, if one has children, all months. When browsing through the myriad options of Popsicles, frozen fruit bars, frozen ice pops, and etc., the flavors found over and over are usually cherry, grape, orange, banana, and blue raspberry. Bright and varied, these colors appeal to children and certain grown ups, but what in the world is a blue raspberry?
There is no such fruit (blueberries are much different from raspberries after all), so what are we actually tasting? First, the flavor is Whitebark Raspberry, which some people call blue raspberries even though the berry itself is generally black when ripe. The color of the dye used to make the treat is the real crux of the story. Lots of tasty fruit are already colored red, but none are colored blue, so the makers of these frozen treats decided to use blue dye to differentiate the raspberry flavor from other red flavors, such as cherry. This brilliant use of resources led to the full rainbow being available to melt down your arm on a hot July weekend.
6. The Boysenberry – Creation Of A Theme Park
Speaking of berries that aren’t real, here is a berry that wasn’t real until, that is, it was found in the neglected fields of Rudolph Boysen. It is a bit of a mystery if Boysen cross-pollinated the berries himself or purchased them from another source, but their first appearance in the United States, recognized by the USDA at least, was on the abandoned farm of the California local.
A cross breed of Loganberries, Black Berries, and Raspberries, the most interesting fact about the Boysenberry is not its origin, but its ramifications to Southern California. Since Boysen himself had parted ways with his property, the berry was cataloged by the USDA with the help of Californian local Walter Knott, who then began selling it (he called it the Boysenberry) in jam and pie form, from his berry farm roadway stand. Knott’s Berry Farm continued to grow, sparked by the success of the Boysenberry, and is now one of the most popular theme parks in Southern California. The park hosts a Boysenberry festival every year to honor its heritage.
5. Doritos – A Disneyland Original
Any fan of Disneyland knows that when you are at the “happiest place on Earth,” the place to be if you love Mexican food is Frontierland. Frontierland is the location of Disneyland’s main Mexican restaurant, Rancho del Zocalo. But before that restaurant was taking care of guests’ gustatory needs, Frontierland hosted Casa de Fritos. Casa de Fritos was operated by the Frito Lay chip company, part of some corporate synergy which used to dominate the landscape of Disneyland. One of Casa de Fritos’ special appetizers was a seasoned corn chip that the staff was inspired to make by one of the delivery men that stocked the restaurant. When Frito Lay realized, in the 1960s, that the chip was so popular with park guests, they decided to mass market it and called it the Dorito. Dorito chips are now one of the most popular snack foods in the United States, but it all started in Frontierland.
4. Coca Cola – Civil War Era Pain Killer
Some of our favorite foods were conceived for medical purposes, rather than pleasuring our taste buds. One medicine that transcended to the masses was Coca Cola. The popular soft drink was created in Columbus, Ohio by local pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton. Pemberton had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the Civil War, fighting alongside the Confederate Army. After being injured in battle, Pemberton became addicted to Morphine, so he decided to create a pain medication that would be less addictive and more effective than that drug. He created a non-alcoholic beverage he called French wine coca, which he believed successfully could replace morphine as well as cure other ailments.
People didn’t care so much about using it as a medicine though, and Pemberton changed the name and began selling his product as a libation. Now Coca Cola products are sold throughout most countries, with no connotations of being medication. Pemberton’s original recipe is still held by the company as a closely guarded secret.
3. Corn Flakes – They’re Not Grrrrreat! (On Purpose)
The Kellogg’s company produces so many varieties of cereal and snack products that its founder, Will Keith Kellogg, has made his last name synonymous with breakfast. However, it was Kellogg’s brother, John Harvey Kellogg, who created one of the company’s earliest money makers, the corn flake, and he didn’t do it to make money. John Harvey Kellogg was an innovative medical doctor, who dedicated his life to curing people of what he felt were negative mental and physical ailments. John Harvey wanted to create a breakfast food so incredibly boring that it would not agitate or excite the patients he treated at his health sanitarium.
His experiments led to the corn flake (he called it granola, but was unable to patent it as such due to the word already being copyrighted), which he hoped his brother would mass produce for him. But Will Keith, realizing that the market for cereal designed to be bland would not sustain a business model, covered the flakes in sugar. The regular and frosted versions of the corn flake made the Kellogg’s company a lot of money, but John Harvey was so upset with his brother’s “perversion” of his plans, that the two of them regarded each other with enmity for the rest of John Harvey’s life.
2. Tang – Not Just For Astronauts
Tang is included on this list because the common legend is the orange juice-like concentrate was created for NASA astronauts before becoming a simple beverage for us terrestrials. But really, Tang has very little to do with NASA. Tang was created by William A. Mitchell, a brilliant chemist employed by General Foods. Mitchell passed away in 2004, but during his life he created a number of memorable snacks many of us use in our kitchens. His mission was to create faster, easier cooking options for the general, working class public of the United States. Tang was Mitchell’s attempt to create orange juice without needing oranges, which could be difficult to come by in the off season. The result was not a very big success for General Foods until it was selected by NASA to be one of many foods eaten in space.
The actual first food eaten in space was apple sauce, consumed by John Glen in 1962. For some reason though, the thought of Glen and his heroic companions drinking Tang caught the imagination of the United States population, leading the product to become commercially viable. It seems the people of the 1960s felt powder that turns into “orange juice” was more indicative of the future than apple sauce. But as mentioned earlier, Tang was not Mitchell’s only creation, as we will see in the next entry.
1. Corn Dogs – Who Stuffed Them First?
Corn Dogs are a menu item synonymous with fairs and carnivals, and there probably aren’t many fairs that sell less than three or four varieties. The corn dog had its origins in the early 1900s, when German immigrants in the United States realized there wasn’t much of a market for the sausages they were trying to sell. Germans love sausage, but to move the product to other American citizens, the idea was developed to coat the sausage in a pancake or waffle-like dough, a form that was easier to sell and created more of a market. The real question is who first decided to put a stick in the thing and make the food mobile?
This question is almost impossible to narrow down, because two credible claims have been made for the distinction. At the Texas state fair, Carl and Neil Fletcher opened a food booth selling what they called Fletcher’s Corny Dogs in 1942, The Fletcher’s claim they first had the inspiration to “stick” the food, making it more feasible for people at the fair to move around while eating. The Corny Dogs were so popular, the Fletcher’s booth still exists, selling corn dogs every year during the fair, using almost the same recipe as in ’42. The company is now run by Carl and Neil’s children. However, also in 1942, George and Versa Boyington, restaurant owners in Oregon, created a product called the Pronto Pup. Though the batter surrounding the dog was different from the Texas Corny Dog, the Boyington’s food on a stick idea was wildly popular with the locals, and Pronto Pup markets itself as being the innovator of the stick. So who really made the corn dog walk? Maybe this is a case of a good idea whose time had come.