Where Did Your Favorite Fast Foods Come From?
April 10, 2015
Pizza, burgers, fries… what are their origins?
Where Did Your Favorite Fast Foods Come From?
It’s not too often that we stop and think about the fact that everything on earth, big or small, has its origins somewhere. Every word; every object, natural or manmade; every food. The origins of some foods are common knowledge — the Egg McMuffin was invented at McDonald’s, for example — but the roots of many of the foods we eat remain a mystery to us.
Chicken nuggets were invented in the 1950s by a food science professor at Cornell University named Robert Baker. He published the formula for forming nuggets into any shape as an academic work instead of patenting it, thus spreading the gospel to millions nationwide, free of charge. McDonald’s commissioned Tyson Foods to create Chicken McNuggets for them in 1979, and the chicken processor still makes them for the fast food giant today.
Fish and Chips
Deep-fried fish was brought to England by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain in the 1500s, but two major developments in the second half of the nineteenth century led to the popularization of fish and chips as a fast food there: the increase in trawl fishing in the North Sea and the construction of railways to transport fish from the ports into major cities. The first fish and chip shop (called a “chipper”) opened in London in 1860, soon followed by one in Mossley, in the north of England, in 1863, and the inexpensive dish, wrapped up to go in newspaper, instantly caught on. Its popularity reached new heights during World War II, when it was one of the few dishes that weren’t rationed.
Both France and Belgium vehemently claim that their countrymen were the first to slice potatoes into batons and fry them in boiling oil, and it’s actually a major source of contention between the two nations. Potatoes arrived in the region in 1735, but at that time deep-fat frying was just about unheard of because it required such a high quantity of oil. The term “French fried potatoes” first occurs in print in an 1856 American cookbook, so they had attained a level of popularity by then, at least. Belgians claim that the “French” appellation is the result of the assimilation of cuisine and close geographic proximity of the two countries, while the French insist that the dish was invented by street vendors in Paris in 1789. It’s also worth noting that in both France and Belgium they’re simply referred to as frites.
Chicken fried in oil was a common special occasion dish in many West African countries long before slaves were brought from those countries to the United States. The dish remained a celebratory meal for them, largely because, for the most part, they were allowed to keep chickens and had access to lard and cast-iron pans. The dish also has antecedents in Scotland, so plantation owners with Scottish heritage were aware of it; enslaved people who served as cooks added their traditional seasonings and spices, which improved the dish considerably. By the time the Civil War ended, fried chicken was a popular dish, and because it travels well it was common for African-Americans to take it with them in an era when they were denied access to many restaurants. The dish remained a Southern specialty until Harland Sanders developed a way to fry chicken quickly and inexpensively using a pressure fryer in the 1950s, and soon afterwards the dish became popular across the country.
The burger traces its roots all the way back to the Mongols; these Central Asian marauders passed their tradition of mincing horsemeat along to the Russians, who in turn brought it to the major port of Hamburg, Germany, in the early nineteenth century. The most common destination for ships departing from Hamburg was New York, and by the late nineteenth century restaurants in New York began serving what they called Hamburg steaks — seasoned and cooked patties of ground beef — to German immigrants. According to Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History, the oldest mention of a Hamburg steak on a menu was at New York’s Delmonico’s, in a recipe developed by one of history’s greatest chefs, Charles Ranhofer.
The identity of the creator of the hamburger as we know it today remains a matter of contention. Perhaps the best-known claimant of the honor is Louis Lassen, who introduced a hamburger steak sandwich at his New Haven, Connecticut, restaurant, Louis Lunch, in 1900. Others claim that "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen invented the dish at Wisconsin’s Outagamie County Fair in 1885, and still others contend that the Menches brothers debuted it at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York. Regardless of who first applied ground meat to bread, today the burger is one of the most beloved and comforting foods in existence.
Corn tortillas filled with spiced meat have been eaten in Mexico since before the Europeans arrived, but the most common type of taco, found at fast food chains like Taco Bell, involves hard instead of soft shells. Hard-shell tacos (in which the corn tortilla is placed inside a U-shaped contraption and deep-fried) weren’t invented until after the turn of the twentieth century, and remained a regional specialty in the Southwest until mass production encouraged their proliferation in the 1950s. Even so, most people had never tried a traditional hard-shell taco (usually filled with spiced ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and tomato) until their first visit to Taco Bell, which was founded by restaurateur Glen Bell in 1962 after he noticed lines out the door at a restaurant specializing in them across the street from his burger stand.
The hot dog has its roots in Germany and Austria, where the thin wiener (from Vienna) and fatter frankfurter (from Frankfurt) were popular sausages. Immigrants brought their own recipes when they came to America, and started selling them on the cheap at places like Coney Island’s Nathan's — arguably ground zero for American hot dog consumption. But then something interesting happened. People began developing their own spice mixes and making their own hot dogs, and every region and group of people in the United States put its unique stamp on the snack. The hot dog followed the immigrant diaspora across the country, and soon everybody was snacking on them.
Ice Cream Cone
The first recipes for ice cream appear in cookbooks published in eighteenth century England, and the treat was introduced to the United States by Quaker colonists who brought these recipes with them. Ice cream was sold at confectioner’s shops during the Colonial era, and was served at James Madison’s Inaugural Ball (First Lady Dolly Madison was famously a fan). Ice cream was traditionally served in bowls, however, until a man named Abe Doumar purchased a fresh waffle from a Belgian vendor named Leonidas Kestkides, rolled it up, put a scoop of ice cream on top, and had the proverbial light bulb moment. He sold his creation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and its success led him to buy baking equipment and open Doumar’s Drive-In in Norfolk, Virginia, which is still in operation in the same location today.
The exact origins of the onion ring are a mystery, but the first recipe for them appeared in a 1933 ad for Crisco in the New York Times Magazine. The snack was most likely already being made long before that, however, and the Texas-based Kirbys Pig Stand restaurant chain, which once had more than 100 locations across the United States and also reportedly invented the thick-cut bread known as Texas toast, claimed to have invented them in the early 1920s. Onion rings didn’t become a fast food staple, however, until the chain A&W added them to its menu in the 1960s.
Pizza traces its roots to the ancient Greeks, who topped bread with oils, herbs, and cheese; once the Romans got a hold of it, it never left their cuisine. Flatbreads took hold in Naples in the eighteenth century, and while nobody is sure when tomatoes were first added to the mix, by the time Italian immigrants brought the recipe to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century the dish closely resembled what we still see today in New York. GIs returning home from Italy after World War II brought a taste for "pizza pie" with them, and proved a ready market. Once mass production via a conveyor belt came into vogue in the 1960s, the door was opened for fast food chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s to step in.