April 8, 2024 | Samantha Henman

The Bizarre Origins Of Beloved Foods


I’m Eating WHAT?

Ketchup used to be made of mussels? Hamburgers aren’t American? A lot of the most popular foods that we regularly eat have origins you wouldn’t believe. From the bizarre to the downright disgusting, when it comes to beloved foods, there are a whole lot of surprises.

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Ketchup

For years, ketchup was the most popular condiment in the USA, until it was unseated by salsa, and later, mayonnaise. Maybe that’s because people discovered what it used to be made of. In the 18th century, ketchup could be made from mussels, mushrooms, oysters, or walnuts. And the earliest recipes for tomato ketchup included anchovies.

Close-up Photo of a Bowl with ketchup, fresh tomatoes and basil leaves placed on a wooden plateMarco Verch, Flickr

Pez

While there are probably not that many people who’d name Pez as their favorite candy, nobody can deny the novelty and appeal behind Pez dispensers. But originally, they were just sold like regular candy, and not to children—the creator hoped that people could use Pez candy to help quit smoking or curb overeating.

Close-up Photo of a PEZ Mint candies next to a Pez dispenserGerka, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Cheetos

Cheetos—well, to be more specific, cheese curls, the generic name for any cheese-flavored corn-based snack like Cheetos—were invented as a byproduct of animal feed. Yup. In factories that produced animal feed, when the machine that ground dry corn got jammed up, workers would put in wet corn to dislodge it. When the wet corn got heated up in the machine, it turns into a puff.

Workers tried them—and a star was born.

Close-up Photo of CheetosMr. Brian, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Hamburgers

As iconically American as they now are, hamburgers didn’t originate in the US. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Yeah, they’re from Hamburg, Germany”. Well—yes and no. The consumption of tenderized meat patties goes back to the 13th century, when Genghis Khan and his army ate them on the road and in battle. Later, in Germany, the “Hamburg steak” came along—which was the precursor to the modern hamburger.

Close-up Photo of Hamburg steak served with gravyOiMax, Wikimedia Commons

Caesar Salad

Despite its name, which hearkens back to ancient Rome—and its abiding presence on the menus of Italian restaurants—Caesar salad was actually invented in Tijuana, Mexico, by a chef and restaurateur named Caesar Cardini. In classic Mexican fashion, it originally had lime instead of lemon juice. It also didn’t originally have garlic or anchovies—Cardini considered the Worcestershire to enough umami on its own.

Close-up Photo of a Caesar salad in a white bowl placed on a tableGeoff Peters, Flickr

Nutella

Though it hasn’t had the same impact in North America as it has in Europe, Nutella is a nearly-universally beloved treat for children and adults alike. Though there are no strange surprises in the ingredients here, it’s the texture that’s changed since its inception. The product that eventually became Nutella was originally called Giandujot—and it was a thick paste that was cut into slices, not a smooth spread.

Close-up Photo of Nutella on toast in a white plate placed on a wooden tableJanine, CC BY 2.0Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo Wings

Buffalo wings come, unsurprisingly, from a place called the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York—and have nothing to do with actual buffalo. What’s surprising is that, prior to their invention, when people ate chicken, they either discarded the wings or used them to in stock or stews. When the need for a midnight snack came up at the Anchor Bar, owner Teresa Bellissimo used what she had on hand—whipping up a spicy sauce and pouring it over fried chicken wings.

Really That Stupid factsMax Pixel

…But What About The Blue Cheese And Carrots?

Bellissimo didn’t just change the trajectory of pub food in the US when she invented buffalo wings. The story of that night also includes what she served with them—carrot sticks and blue cheese. They were all that she had in the bar, but luckily enough, it turned out to be a winning combo that’s been part of the buffalo wing experience ever since.

It’s a good thing she didn’t just have strawberries and yogurt on hand—or they might not have become as popular.

Buffalo chicken wings and carrot sticks with blue cheese dressingistetiana, Shutterstock

Fanta

We’ve all heard the one about Coca-Cola’s original recipe having a little Bolivian marching powder in it—but few know about the dark origins of Fanta. When the US joined WWII, Coca-Cola had to stop doing business in Germany, so the local subsidiary came up with a recipe for soda flavored by apple peels and whey…which became the official soda of the Axis forces. Yikes.

Close-up Photo of  Fanta Klassik New 75th anniversary Fanta flavorLike_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr

Cheesecake

Of course, there are plenty of different versions of it, but for many people, cheesecake is one of the most iconic foods associated with New York City—but it’s neither from the Big Apple nor the US at all. Cheesecake comes all the way from Ancient Greece. Athletes at the first Olympics ate mini cheesecakes for energy!

Close-up Photo of a A slice of Strawberry Cheesecake from the Carnegie DeliPilauricey, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Breakfast Sandwiches

Speaking of iconic NYC foods, the egg and cheese is up there—but the invention of the breakfast sandwich can be traced back to 19th century London, where workers would get soft rolls filled with egg and bacon or sausage from street carts before heading into the factory. During the Industrial Revolution, they made their way to the US.

Breakfast sandwich and vegetablesjeffreyw, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Popsicles

Every kid’s favorite summer treat was invented by a kid himself! 11-year-old Frank Epperson of California left out a glass of water and powdered soda overnight with a mixing stick in it. The next morning, he ran the glass under hot water and enjoyed the treat, calling it an Episicle. Later, as a dad, he made them for his kids, changing the name to “Pop’s ‘sicles” before finally patenting the product in 1923.

Close-up photo of a Grape PopsicleWillis Lam, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Chocolate Chip Cookies

In the early 20th century, a woman named Ruth Wakefield was making cookies for the hotel she owned, the Toll House. The recipe was for something called “Butter Drop Do” cookies, which called for chopped nuts. She was out, so instead, Wakefield chopped up a bar of semi-sweet chocolate, expecting it to melt into the batter and turn into something of a chocolate butter cookie. Instead, they remained in shards—and the chocolate chip cookie was born.

Close-up Photo of Chocolate Chip Cookies placed on a metal rackKimberly Vardeman, Flickr

Mozzarella Sticks

Like Caesar salad, mozzarella sticks can be found on the menu of Italian-American restaurants across North America—but the dish is neither Italian, nor American. The first mention of a fried cheese dish goes back to the 14th century and was found in a French cookbook. They do have a way with fromage over there, so it all makes sense.

Close-up Photo of Mozzarella Sticks and ketchup in a white plate placed on a tableMark H. Anbinder, Flickr

Pie

The origins of pie go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, but they weren’t the fruit-filled desserts we all love today. Instead, most pies were savory. The surprising part is that they served a purpose—by sealing in the meat filled with dough, “pye,” as it was known, was a way to make meat last way longer.

Overhead Photo of a Person Slicing Pumpkin PieElement5 Digital, Pexels

Reuben Sandwich

It’s a classic for a reason—but it came about in a haphazard way. One night, a hotel owner in Omaha, Nebraska made a deli platter for his friends, who were playing cards. One of them put corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese on bread. His name? Reuben Kulakofsky.

Close-up Photo of Reuben Sandwich along with a plate of mouthwatering corned beef and cabbageLarry Hoffman, Flickr

Philly Cheesesteak

The famous Philadelphia cheesesteak is kind of an offshoot of another iconic American food—the hot dog. A pair of brothers named Pat and Harry Olivieri were hot dog vendors…except they got tired of hawking dogs, so they began to experiment with beef as a filling for the buns. A taxi driver happened to stop for lunch when they were working on their invention, and ordered one.

Before long, they were opening Pat’s King of Steaks, which is still a popular spot for cheesesteaks today.

Philly cheesesteak in a white platejeffreyw, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Corn Flakes

Kellogg’s founders John and Will Kellogg were attempting to make granola and were making flakes of different grains, including wheat. Eventually, they experimented with flaked corn and Will realized that he was onto something. They boxed and sold it as cereal, and Corn Flakes was born.

Close-up Photo of Kellogg's Corn Flakes with milk in a white bowlTh78blue, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Tabasco

Surprisingly, this spicy sauce has nothing to do with the Mexican state it shares a name with. It was invented in Louisiana in the late 19th century by a man named Edmund McIlhenny, who grew peppers. Once people started using it to season fresh shucked oysters, it grew in popularity and spread across the US.

Close-up Photo of a Original Tabasco red pepper sauce placed on a wooden tableMichael Saechang, Flickr

Eggs Benedict

This luscious and luxurious brunch dish wasn’t invented by a fancy chef—but instead, just a very hungover Wall Street broker who wandered in the Waldorf Hotel one morning and ordered buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and hollandaise sauce. He put it together himself, impressing the hotel’s chef, who put in on the menu with an English muffin and Canadian bacon instead.

Close-up Photo of Eggs Benedict in a white plate placed on a wooden tableJon Mountjoy, Flickr

Pink Lemonade

There are two competing stories about rhe origin of pink lemonade—one claims that a circus promotor accidentally dropped cinnamon candies in a vat of lemonade. The other claims that a circus lemonade vendor ran out of water, so he grabbed a bucket of water that a performer had washed her red tights in. Either way, we’re lucky that dye or berries are now used to color the popular drink.

Overhead Photo of a pink lemonade placed on a wooden tableT.Tseng, Flickr

TV Dinners

There were many attempts by different companies to crack the frozen prepared meals market, but none caught on until Swanson created a turkey dinner…but it came about by accident. They over-ordered turkey by mistake—to the tune of 520,000 lbs of excess meat. When it went unsold by Thanksgiving, executives begged staff to come up with a way to use it. Eventually, salesman Garry Thomas came up with the idea, popularizing not just Swanson’s turket TV dinners, but all kinds of prepared meals.

1960 Swanson TV Dinner Advertisement in Life MagazineSenseiAlan, Flickr

Brownies

Brownies are another food that came about by accident. According to the story, a housewife in Bangor, Maine was baking a chocolate cake, but it fell. Instead of throwing it out, she cut it into bars—and after her guests loved them and raved about them, brownies were born.

Close-up Photo of brownies on a white plateTim Sackton, Flickr

Potato Chips

It may be apocryphal, but the best origin story for potato chips is that they were borne out of spite. When a guest at a restaurant continually sent back French fries for being too thick, an irate chef decided to shave a potato to get thin slices, and then fried them til crisp. The guest actually loved them, and we got potato chips out of the whole ordeal.

Close-up Photo of A pile of potato chipsEvan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons

Coca-Cola

As mentioned earlier, the original versions of Coca-Cola were made with some pretty risqué ingredients, like coca leaf—but that’s because the drink was meant to be a health tonic, thought to help headaches and exhaustion.

Close-up Photo of 1899 Coke Bottles ReplicaBrent Moore, Flickr

German Chocolate Cake

Here’s one with a misleading name. German chocolate cake has very little to do with Bavaria, and was actually invented in Texas. It wasn’t named that for anything having to do with the European country—the name came from Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was used in the original recipe and was named for Samuel German, an English-American chocolatier.

Close-up Photo of A German chocolate cakeTracy Hunter, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Cincinnati Chili

It’s not exactly chili as you imagine it. Cincinnati chili is a spiced meat sauce served with cheese and beans, often piled on top of cooked spaghetti. And while all the ingredients—and the strange combination of them—seems painfully American, it comes from Greek-Macedonian immigrants and is an adaptation of a spiced lamb or goat stew they’d make.

Close-up Photo of a Cincinnati chili in a white plate placed on a wooden tableChiot's Run, Flickr

Rocky Mountain Oysters

Another dish with a strange name, Rocky Mountain oysters aren’t actually made with oysters, but bull testicles. In the Western US, the dish came about because castrating was necessary to subdue aggressive male bulls—and with few resources, ranchers realized that they couldn’t let any animal by-product go to waste. Hence, the invention of the Rocky Mountain oyster.

Close-up Photo of Rocky Mountain Oysters in a white plate placed on a wooden tableVincent Diamante, Flickr

McRib

The McRib sparked a sensation—but it wasn’t just the product of good marketing. It was also the product of desperation at McDonald’s HQ. The McRib was invented during a chicken shortage, when McDonald’s worried that they’d lose customers if nuggets weren’t readily available.

Close-up Photo of Two McDonald's McRib placed on a wooden tableJerry Huddleston, Flickr

Fried Chicken

Despite Colonel Sanders’ best efforts to make it seem that way, fried chicken wasn’t invented in Kentucky—or even in the Southern US. Way back in the medieval era, chicken was consumed by many populations across Europe—but it was in Scotland where they actually preferred to cook the bird in hot oil. Scottish immigrants brought the dish to the American South in the 19th century, where enslaved people from Africa made it into what we know today.

Close Up Food Photo of Fried Chicken Wings with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Lettuce on a White Ceramic PlateMarco Verch, Flickr

Chili

Chili seems like a quintessentially American dish, but it comes from Northern Mexico—and many people believe it has a supernatural origin story. According to a native legend, a Spanish nun went into a trance and spirit-walked across the Atlantic—bringing with her not just the word of God, but also a recipe for chili.

Close Up Top View Food Photo of Chili Con CarneMarco Verch, Flickr

Croissants

There’s a non-zero chance that a French person might try and assassinate us for saying this but…croissants aren’t actually French. The first historical mention of a buttery, flaky crescent-shaped pastry comes from 13th century Vienna. They were known as kipfel, which translates to crescent.

Close-up Photo of two croissants on a white plate placed on a tableKatrinitsa, Flickr

Pancakes

From fluffy American buttermilk pancakes to thin French crepes to a Dutch baby, pancakes are a beloved breakfast food—but they can actually be traced back tens of thousands of years to Ancient Greece. Some historians even believe they go all the way back to the Stone Age.

Close-up Photo of Pancake With Sliced Strawberry on a white plate placed on a tableAsh, Pexels

Pasta

Many of us might have heard the commonly-retold story that pasta isn’t actually Italian, and that Marco Polo brought it back from a trip to China. Actually, it’s far more likely that Arabic people brought it to Italy from the area around Libya in the 5th century.

Close-up Photo of Pasta Crudo on a white bowl placed on a wooden tableRuthie Hansen, flickr

Fortune Cookies

Well, if they’re on this list, then you’re probably anticipating that we’re about to say they’re not actually from China, and that they’re actually the product of Chinese-American restaurants. Close…but not quite. Fortune cookies originated in Japan—a fact that was uncovered after a university student set out to pin down where they came from and eventually found photos taken during the 19th century in Kyoko, Japan which featured the popular cookie.

Close-up Photo of Unopened fortune cookiesKsayer1, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Processed Cheese

Kraft Singles and Velveeta might be two of the most iconic American foods to be found on supermarket shelves—but the concept for processed cheese came from Switzerland, where it was a method of using up cheese scraps.

Close-up Photo of Processed cheese placed on a wooden boardPeRshGo, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Fish And Chips

Though the dish has a strong association with the Brits, fried fish made its way to the UK via Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal, while French fries arrived from Belgium. However, we can always let the Brits get away with taking credit for adding mushy peas as an accompaniment.

Close-up Photo of Fish And Chips and bowl of sauceSmabs Sputzer, Flickr

Danish Pastries

Okay, so, they are technically from Denmark—but we wouldn’t have them without Austrian bakers. During a strike by angry Danish bakers, Austrian bakers came over to fill in, and started whipping up flaky pastries with a variety of fillings. The Danish bakers could’ve been angry, but instead, they embraced the popular pastry and kept on making them. The Danish name for them actually translates to “Viennese bread”.

Close-up Photo of Danish Pastries placed on a bakery rackRalbahitha, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Chicken Tikka Masala

It can be found on the menu of many Indian restaurants across North America, but the dish actually has its origins in Glasgow, Scotland. Chicken tikka, a separate dish, is from Bangladesh and is chicken marinated with yogurt and spices and cooked over hot coals. Chicken tikka masala takes that and then adds a thick sauce made from tomatoes. It was created in the 1970s by an Indian chef living in Glasgow.

Overhead Photo of Chicken Tikka Masala in a metal bowlT.Tseng, Flickr


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