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The Bizarre Origins of Popular Foods

We spend a lot of time dealing with the history of culture and language, war and art, and for good reason. But one section of history that is often overlooked is food history. The things we eat often have fascinating and unexpected origins. It may not make the food taste any better or worse, but it can add a new dimension to it once you understand how and why someone created that delicious snack you’re eating. So grab some Cheetos and a McRib, and let’s dig in…

10. Lucky Charms Owe Their Existence to Cheerios and Circus Peanuts

Everyone knows Lucky Charms because, whether you eat them or not, they’re magically delicious and have been that way since they were first introduced in 1964. For nearly 60 years, Lucky the Leprechaun has been telling kids to eat their oat bits mixed with magical marshmallow shapes. In 2018, they sold $283.4 million worth of them, so things seem to be doing well. So where did the brilliant idea to add weirdly crunchy marshmallows to cereal come from?

Lucky Charms can thank two things for their existence – Cheerios and circus peanuts. Product developer John Holahan was a big fan of circus peanuts in the 1960s. If you’re not familiar, these are marshmallows shaped like peanuts that are somewhere between the crunchy marshmallow you get in a box of Lucky Charms and a soft marshmallow you’d use for S’mores. 

Back in 1963, Holahan was working on some new cereal ideas and chopped up circus peanuts in a bowl of Cheerios. He was so impressed by what he’d made he presented it to the powers that be and within the year Lucky Charms were on store shelves. 

9. Velveeta Was Invented So To Salvage Imperfect Cheese 

If you’re not seriously into food, you may not be aware that there is a degree of snobbery around certain foods. Things like caviar and lobster carry with them a certain mystique or reputation, sure. But food like cheese is much more nuanced. There are people who take cheese very seriously and opine about it the same way people do about wine. Cheese can be serious business. Pule donkey cheese, for instance, costs about $600 a pound

Because cheese is taken so seriously, you’ll find people who deride cheaper cheeses. They may even claim that something like cheese slices you find at the grocery store is not cheese at all. This isn’t exactly true, but it also overlooks the interesting history of these cheeses. 

Velveeta cheese, famed for its ability to melt easily and make creamy sauces, is a processed cheese. In the beginning of the 1900s, cheese companies lost a lot of money when blocks of cheese broke and pieces fell off. Those scraps were essentially useless, so Emily Frey found a way to combine them with whey and make a creamy, cheesy product. Is it “real” cheese?  Yes, and no. In the way a hamburger isn’t a steak, processed cheese isn’t real cheese. But the basic ingredients are mostly the same. 

8. Chicken Nuggets Were Born From War Time Rationing 

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In 2018, Americans went out to order 2.3 billion orders of chicken nuggets. That doesn’t include nuggets people bought at grocery stores or nuggets consumed in any of the other 194 countries of the world. So there are a lot of nuggets being eaten in the world. If you’re a fan, thank a man named Robert C. Baker.

Baker taught food science at Cornell University, and after WWII, the food landscape of America changed. During the war, food was rationed and the one protein that was not rationed was chicken. So Americans were up to their wings in chicken for years. When the rationing stopped, chicken sales plummeted. People were sick of it. They’d eaten it for years and preparing it was a hassle. It was typically sold as a whole bird, so butchering or preparing it was time-consuming. 

Baker came up with a number of ways to prepare and treat chicken to make it new and interesting. Nuggets were one of those ideas. They used meat that was often wasted anyway and could stand up to freezing and frying. It was a huge money saver and time saver, and reinvigorated the poultry industry. 

For his part, Baker didn’t patent the idea. He wanted it shared. This let other companies make their own and when the push against red meat hit in the 1970s, chicken nuggets had their big moment. 

7. Pez Was Meant to Prevent Smoking

Arguably the most famous candy in the world, Pez dates back to 1927. It was invented by Edward Haas III and it used a new process to compress peppermint flavor into the candy that saved money and preserved flavor at the same time. The invention of the Pez dispenser was still some years away, so they were just packaged like any normal candy. 

Haas had inherited the company from his father and arguably didn’t need to invent any new candy to keep the business running. But he was inspired to make Pez not just as another treat, but with a purpose. He was an anti-smoking advocate and thought that his new candy could help stave off the cravings of smokers. It was his minty alternative to smoking, which he also felt might prevent overeating.  

These days, the company sells billions of Pez every year in over 90 countries. No word on whether it’s effective at stopping people from smoking, however. 

6. Dippin’ Dots Came From an Experiment to Make Livestock Feed

They call Dippin’ Dots the ice cream of the future. The product hit the market in 1988 and it’s been a kind of niche treat ever since, available in places like amusement parks and movie theaters because you can’t actually store it properly in most commercial settings.

Dippin’ Dots is the result of a flash freezing process in which the liquid ice cream mixture is flash frozen with liquid nitrogen. That gives it the signature shape of tiny little beads. It needs to be stored at super cold temperatures of -40 to maintain its integrity and places like grocery stores and your home freezer can’t manage that.

When the product was invented, ice cream was not on the menu. Microbiologist Curt Jones was trying to perfect cattle feed. The same process that makes tiny beads of ice cream makes tiny beads of all kinds of things. Jones just thought that doing the same thing to ice cream might be cool. Though the product lacks commercial viability on a grand scale, it found a home at venues capable of maintaining temperatures to hold it. 

5. Ploughman’s Lunch Was Invented to Sell Cheese

Ever had a ploughman’s lunch? It’s a very British thing, as you can tell by the spelling, but it’s definitely something Americans could get behind. It’s very similar to a charcuterie tray with some emphasis on cheese and bread. It can also include a variety of meats, maybe hard boiled eggs, salad, fruit, condiments and so on. It’s served cold, and it’s pretty easy to assemble. Most pubs that offer food will give you a solid ploughman’s for under ten pounds.  

Despite the rustic nature of both the food and the name which suggests it was a staple of a farmer’s diet for years, the actual reason for the ploughman’s lunch is marketing. Back in the 1960s, the Milk Marketing Board of the UK teamed up with the BBC to help promote cheese. This is where the ploughman’s lunch was first mentioned in an effort to boost sales of cheese, particularly in pubs.

Obviously, people have eaten bread and cheese together for ages, but the idea of trying to sell it as a specific thing with this specific name is only about 60 years old. 

4. Fruit Punch was Invented by Sailors Because Beer Kept Going Bad

Fruit punch is a staple beverage of many childhoods. That super red, super sugary concoction that maybe has all the fruits mixed together in it. Its origins are quite swarthy, however, and not as wholesome as you may think. 

Once upon a time, being a sailor was a remarkably stressful job. In the 1600s, you had to worry about pirates, storms, scurvy, and bad beer. The longer you were at sea, the worse your beer got. If you’ve ever had skunky beer, you know it’s not pleasant. So sailors need an alternative drink. Fruit punch was the answer.

The first recipe for punch dates back to 1638 and consisted of “aqua vitae (basically strong booze), rose water, citrus juice, and sugar.” Because alcohol back then,especially rum, was extremely harsh to drink straight, punch made it more palatable. They were basically taking very harsh and powerful spirits and trying to mix them into a more mild sort of wine. 

At sea, the citrus helped prevent scurvy. Back home, it became the fashionable drink, and the rich showed off their massive punch bowls at social events. Versions without alcohol that used more juices were soon made to spread the appeal and modern fruit punch was born.

3. The McRib was Invented Because McDonalds Didn’t have Enough Chickens

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McDonald’s McRib is one of the most unique fast food items in history. It’s become like the Bigfoot of fast food, appearing randomly and only for a short time, inviting fans to track it down while they can before it vanishes again. 

The McRib is made to look like ribs, though there is no bone anywhere in the patty. It is pork, however, and its scarcity has made it a cult favorite. The Simpsons even made an episode parodying its appeal. Ironically, it only exists because of a chicken shortage

As mentioned earlier, Americans love nuggets. When they hit the market in the late 70s, it led to a chicken shortage. So the McRib was invented as a chicken alternative to keep customers satisfied. It was never really that popular, but its pattern of disappearing and reappearing made it desirable, and the legend grew from there.

2. Pink Lemonade was a Circus Accident 

Has anything bad ever come from the circus? Besides clowns, animal abuse and the exploitation of people with disabilities, that is. The circus can also lay claim to pink lemonade, that summertime staple that is almost exactly the same as normal lemonade just, you know, pink.

Normal lemonade has a very long history. You can find sweetened lemon drinks dating back centuries. A more simple, modern lemonade of just lemon, water, and honey was found in Paris in 1630. Pink lemonade’s first mention in print comes from 1879, where the beverage is linked to the circus, the place where it was first introduced. 

Weirdly enough, there are two stories to explain the origin of pink lemonade. Both are accidents, but one is more off-putting than the other. In one version, circus worker Henry Allott accidentally dropped red cinnamon candies in a vat of lemonade and sold it, anyway. 

In the second version, circus worker Pete Conklin rat out of water while making lemonade. He grabbed a nearby washtub that had been used to wash pink tights and used the stained wash water instead.

1. Cheetos Were a Byproduct of Cleaning an Animal Feed Mill 

Cheetos had over $1 billion in sales back in 2017, so it’s safe to say it’s a popular snack. But the history of the cheese curl, the generic term for any of those puffy, Cheetos-like snacks, is a curious one. These were never technically meant to be human food. Barely food at all, really.

Cheese curls came from an animal feed company called Flakall Corporation. The factory making animal feed ground up corn and sometimes the machine got jammed up. To clean it, workers would run wet corn through. When the wet corn heated up inside, it cooked into a puff. 

Remember, this was never human food. But some industrious workers thought the puffs looked tasty, so they tried them. Edward Wilson, an employee at the factory, took some home and added seasoning. Thus the cheese curl was born.

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