9 American Food Legends
‘We need a bottle which a person will recognize as a Coca-Cola bottle even when he feels it in the dark! The Coca-Cola bottle should be so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.’ This challenge, offered by the Coca-Cola Company in 1913, was met by the glassmakers at the Root Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. Inspired by the plump and rippled cocoa bean pod, the Root team came up with the unmistakable silhouette in pale green glass that has meant ‘Coke’ to generations of thirsty folks since 1916.
On March 6, 1912, New Jersey grocer S. C. Thuesen made history when he purchased a 9 1/4-pound tin of chocolate-sandwich cookies. Little did Thuesen know he was the first person ever to buy what would become the best-selling cookie ever: Oreos, which now sell at a rate of billions upon billions a year. It has been posited that if all the Oreos produced since Thuesen’s purchase could be stacked atop one another they would reach the moon four times.
Conceived as one of a trio of English-style tea cookies (the others were Veronese and Mother Goose biscuits), Oreos are the only one of the three brands still produced. Since the beginning, their design has been round and flat, with embossed decoration and a creamy filling. But the size has varied considerably. The familiar 1 3/4 inch two-bite size produced today is about halfway between the large chocolate sandwich of 1912 and the later tiny, pop-in-the-mouth version. Curiously, while many of the facts and figures connected with the cookies’ past are a matter of record, no one remembers how or why Oreos got their name.
‘Innovate, don’t imitate.’ That was Minnesota meat packer George Hormel’s advice to his employees. So when the company that bears his name found itself with several thousand pounds of leftover pork shoulder, they transformed some of it into a unique product — a canned minced pork and ham loaf requiring no refrigeration. To market it, Hormel offered a $100 prize for a catchy name, and the winning entry — SPAM — has since become a household name and a slice of American folklore.
Introduced in 1937, SPAM was shipped abroad during World War II by the tens of millions of pounds. Many GIs remember it as the ‘ham that didn’t pass its physical.’ No less a figure than General Dwight D. Eisenhower, European commander-in-chief, ate his share of it, too. ‘I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it,’ he joked some 20 years later, adding that of course they were ‘uttered during the strain of battle.’ By the mid 1990s, Hormel boasted that Americans use nearly four cans of SPAM a second. But not all of that was for eating. Austin, Texas, hosted an annual ‘Spamarama’ that included a SPAM toss — pairs of contestants tossing a greased can between them until someone fumbled. At a 50th birthday party Hormel gave for itself in 1987, one celebrant carved a SPAM model of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. And entries in a SPAM sculpture contest in Seattle, Washington, included replicas of Uncle SPAM, FrankenSPAM, and a model of England’s famous circle of Druidic stones — SPAMhenge.
American ingenuity, it seems, has known no bounds when it has come to finding uses for SPAM. One wag even dared to suggest ‘SPAM-on-a-Rope’ for people who get hungry in the shower.
When Sylvester Graham, a frail and disgruntled early nineteenth-century Connecticut cleric, went searching for the root of all evil, he came up with a long list of possibilities. Topping the list was the American diet. Embracing his new calling as a nutritional moralist, Graham traveled the country inveighing against red meat, fats, alcohol, salt, sweets, condiments, tobacco, and white bread. Graham alleged that these substances were not merely unhealthful, but downright immoral. Among their ill effects, he contended, were sexual excesses, family conflict, disease, and insanity.
Graham’s recommendations were a mixture of asceticism and practicality. He advocated tooth brushing, frequent bathing, looser clothing, exercise, a vegetarian diet, clean air and pure drinking water, laughter as a digestive aid, and temperance in everything — all radical ideas in his day.
Fortunately, his zealotry contained several kernels of sound, albeit intuitive, advice. Graham’s ‘Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making,’ written in 1837, made a persuasive case for what is now known as a high-fiber diet. And his assertion that whole-grain dark bread was preferable to bread made from refined white flour was later borne out by the twentieth-century discovery of vitamins.
Even so, dissenters and even rioters often dogged Graham’s lecture tours. His reformist arguments attracted considerable ridicule and violent protests — especially from professional bakers and butchers.
Graham’s bran crusade influenced many — including such prominent individuals as Horace Greeley and Mother Ellen Harmon White, spiritual leader of the new (and growing) Seventh-Day Adventist church — and sparked sweeping changes in America’s eating habits. In a time when many started the day with heaping platters of meat and potatoes, he ate a daily ration of dry, crumbled whole wheat biscuits: the original Graham crackers.
Ironically, all-around health ‘expert’ Graham never attained the vigor he promised others. He took his last righteous meal in the fall of 1851 and died at the early age of 57 — but the cracker that bears his name lives on around the world.
When successful Maryland-born businessman Edmund McIlhenny saw his millions of Confederate dollars rendered worthless by the outcome of the Civil War, he returned with his wife, Mary, to her family’s home on Avery Island, Louisiana. To his surprise, the red peppers the amateur gardener had planted a few years earlier were thriving. McIlhenny chopped up the pepper pods, mixed them with Avery Island salt, and then set the mash to age. When it had ripened to his liking, he added vinegar, decanted the brew into an assortment of old cologne bottles, and gave samples to friends. McIlhenny’s fiery red sauce — which he called Tabasco after the Mexican river and state — was an immediate success. In 1872 he patented the process for his tongue-searing condiment and shortly afterward opened a London office to handle the swelling tide of foreign business. Today the family-owned company McIlhenny founded carries on the tradition on Avery Island, manufacturing a product that has become one of the most familiar in the world.
A prize in every box! That’s what generations of kids have looked forward to whenever they asked for Cracker Jack. But even before the popcorn, peanut, and molasses treat became identified with hidden treasure, it was one of America’s favorite snacks. First finding popularity in 1871 when Frederick Rueckheim concocted the confection and sold it from his Chicago popcorn stand, it met with even wider acclaim when Rueckheim and his brother introduced it at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. By 1899 Cracker Jack was distributed in snack-size boxes, and in 1908 it was immortalized in the song ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’ When prizes were tucked into every package in 1912, Cracker Jack’s success was assured.
From the beginning, the prizes were remarkably inventive. Nestled in the mix were whistles, watches, watch fobs, and even Cracker Jack piggybanks that held five pennies — just enough to buy the next box. With prizes numbering in the thousands, a child could expect a new surprise with each new box.
Before plastic arrived in the 1940s, the most durable prizes were molded from tin — but some of the most interesting were made of paper. Sports fans could collect several series of baseball cards, including one for the short-lived Federal League. Elaborate paper cutouts included an ‘Indian’ headdress that was almost two feet long when unfolded. Other prizes bore the likenesses of Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo, the snack’s mascots. Modeled after Rueckheim’s grandson, Jack debuted on the logo in 1918, and he and Bingo appear to this day on every box of Cracker Jack.
One morning in 1892, a Nebraska hotel was serving breakfast when lawyer Henry Perky noticed a man eating a bowlful of boiled wheat and milk. ‘Helps my indigestion,’ the stranger explained. A fellow sufferer, Perky tried some himself — and so, legend has it, a cereal was born.
Back in his hometown of Denver, Perky built a machine that could shred moist wheat and fold the filaments into spongy, pillow-shaped biscuits. The biscuits tended to spoil quickly, but Perky found that baking preserved them. Believing the invention would make his fortune, Perky tried selling his machine but soon discovered that no one wanted equipment for an unknown product. Undaunted, he decided to sell the cereal itself, peddling the biscuits door-to-door from a wagon.
Searching for a national market, Perky traveled east with his cereal, and in 1901 built a bakery at Niagara Falls. The move was a marketing triumph. Thousands of tourists, still damp from the falls, visited the sparkling new plant and took home free samples. Before long, Shredded Wheat was a breakfast standard.
‘If the kids can’t go to the circus, bring the circus to the kids’ seems to have been the idea behind the introduction of animal crackers in 1902. Although animal-shaped cookies had been around for a long time, it was the National Biscuit Company that took them out of bins and tins and put them into compact, colorful boxes. The string handle on each box was originally meant for hanging on a Christmas tree, but the crackers gained year-round popularity and have taken the form of 37 animals over the years. Up to 18 different beasts — produced at a rate of over half a million per hour — may inhabit each box, including the ever-popular lions, tigers, and bears, as well as crunchy hyenas, camels, and seals.
Charles W. Post, a traveling salesman and sometime venture capitalist, was among the many philosophical heirs of Sylvester Graham. Bedeviled by chronic digestive disorders and other health problems, Post tried a number of ‘cures’ with little success. In 1884 he found his way to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a widely touted health spa directed by John Harvey Kellogg, MD.
Patient Post endured a variety of treatments and some curious regimens at Kellogg’s ‘San,’ including the Grahamite diet and instruction in the ‘Chewing Song,’ a ditty Kellogg had composed to encourage thorough mastication. But Post came away after nine months no stronger than when he had gone in. ‘Given up on by the doctors,’ as he would later claim, he took his troubles to a Battle Creek Christian Science practitioner. Within two days his appetite and strength returned.
Post was convinced he owed his recovery to a combination of natural foods and positive mental suggestion, and that there were untold marketing opportunities in such an approach. He opened his own spa and began experimenting with ways to prepare more palatable health foods. In 1895 he launched a bran, wheat, and molasses-based no-caffeine coffee substitute called Postum. Grape-Nuts, a gritty ‘scientific’ formulation that had neither grapes nor nuts in its cereal mix, appeared in 1898. These were followed in 1906 by ‘Elijah’s Manna,’ an earnest entry in the cornflakes sweepstakes, later rechristened Post Toasties.
Post’s new products, marketed with some of the most persuasive advertising ever devised, brought him great wealth. But he never lost his conviction that ‘Sickness is man-made’ and that people would choose a healthier way if only shown how. To this end he published The Road to Wellville, a prescriptive pamphlet that explained how to maximize health by consuming Post products — and thoughtfully enclosed a copy in every package.