Surprising Trivia Behind America’s Most Iconic Foods
Separating myth from history: how Buffalo wings, hot dog buns, nachos, and more classic American foods came to be.
Buffalo wings: Late night concoction
On a Friday night in late October 1964, six friends in Buffalo, New York, got out of a Paul Newman movie and headed over to the Anchor Bar for food and booze. Their buddy, Dominic Bellissimo, was the son of Anchor owners Frank and Teressa.
The problem: It was late and Teressa didn’t really have anything going. Surveying the kitchen, she noticed some small chicken wings, which were headed to a stock pot to become part of a soup or stew. But Teressa instead broiled (some say deep-fried) the little wings. She then added some margarine and threw on some Frank’s Original Red Hot Sauce that happened to be in the kitchen.
Upon seeing the plates of basted wings, one of the buddies, Don Zanghi, asked, “What are these?” Another friend replied: “I don’t know, but we better eat.” Zanghi wasn’t sure how to attack the small-but-meaty morsels. He looked at Anchor owner Frank Bellissimo and said, “Frank, there’s no silverware.” Maybe Frank was a trailblazer—or more likely he was tired and wanted to end the conversation—but his terse answer set sail the how-to etiquette for Buffalo wings. He said, “Keep quiet and use your fingers!”
The dish became the toast of Buffalo and beyond. In 1977 the city proclaimed July 29 Chicken Wing Day. There’s even a National Buffalo Wing Festival, complete with a Hall of Flame honoring Buffalo Wing greats. Teressa and Frank were inaugural inductees in 2006. Teressa is so revered that the following year one Buffalo man carved an oak statue in her likeness.
Although Frank and Teressa have long since passed on, the Anchor continues to profit from their creation. In 2009 the bar was selling 2,000 pounds of chicken wings a day.
Reprinted with permission from How the Hot Dog Found Its Bun: Accidental Discoveries and Unexpected Inspirations That Shape What We Eat and Drink, by Josh Chetwynd. Published by Lyons Press, 2012.
Hot dog buns: From New York (or St. Louis?)
While frankfurters—introduced to America by Germans in the 1800s—were very popular on their own, what turned them into American icons was the bun. Many credit a Coney Island man named Charles Feltman in 1871 for the innovation. Feltman’s customers wanted hot sandwiches, but the New York butcher’s pie cart was too small to pack a variety of options. So he thought of turning his slim sausages into sandwiches by using an elongated roll. New York was a hub for hot dogs and along with Feltman, a baker by the name of Ignatz Frischmann, who was a Feltman contemporary, has also been floated as the bun inventor by at least one scholar.
That said, the New Yorkers aren’t the only people to stake a claim to the indispensible bun’s marriage to the hot dog. In 1883, Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a German-American vendor in St. Louis, recognized the difficulty of eating the tube meat by hand. His solution: providing his customers with white gloves to wear while enjoying his goods. They keep patrons’ hands clean, help avoid scalding from the sizzling sausage, and add a little class to the affair. But a frustrated Feuchtwanger discovered some buyers were walking off with the gloves and it was expensive to replace them. So the vendor went to a local baker (some say it was his brother-in-law) and the result was an inexpensive soft bun.
Cookies ’n cream ice cream: Snack for an Edy’s tester
As the official taste tester for Edy’s Grand Ice Cream, John Harrison has checked approximately 200 million gallons of the sweet delicacy. The fourth generation ice-cream man also dabbles in creation, having developed more than seventy new flavors.
His biggest discovery—Cookies ’n Cream—came from a need to snack quickly before getting back on the job. In 1982, while taking a break from the lab, he wanted a simple scoop of his favorite, vanilla. He went to the company ice-cream parlor and alongside his bowl were a few chocolate cookies. He didn’t have a lot of time to eat his ice cream because he needed to get back to tasting ice cream. To speed up the process, he broke up the cookies and tossed them in with his snack. Harrison, who reportedly has his nine thousand taste buds insured for one million dollars, immediately knew he was savoring something special.
As simple as the cookies-plus-vanilla-ice-cream-combo might seem, nobody had mass-produced the product. At least two others in the 1970s—a South Dakota State University dairy plant manager named Shirley W. Seas and Massachusetts ice-cream parlor owner Steve Herrell—have claimed to have been first with the idea. But nothing had hit the worldwide market until Harrison threw together the mixture.
When Harrison first went to his bosses with his new flavor, they believed it was too much of a kids’ flavor and worried it wouldn’t have mass appeal. But their plans to roll out a new Perfectly Peach flavor were thwarted by rough weather in the winter of 1982. Huge hail storms decimated the crop, which left Edy’s in a dilemma. They weren’t going to have enough fruit to produce Perfectly Peach.Harrison suggested that the company use his cookie-and-cream ice-cream concoction as a replacement. Executives said they’d give the flavor ninety days and then reassess. Within no time, Cookies ’n Cream was a hit, becoming the fifth-highest selling flavor in the world.
Nachos: Ravenous Army wives
It all happened in 1943 in Piedras Negras, Mexico. The border town was across the Rio Grande River from Eagle Pass, Texas, which during World War II was home to Eagle Pass Army Airfield. For the married women on this US Army Air Force base, crossing the border to shop was a popular diversion.
One day a gaggle of the ladies moseyed over to a Piedras Negras restaurant called the Victory Club. The establishment’s maitre d’—Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya—couldn’t locate the cook. Not wanting to turn away the patrons, he put on his chef’s hat. He threw together what he had, which according to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink “consisted of neat canapes of tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeno peppers.” In the years that followed Anaya became the restaurant’s head chef—after all, how could you not give that job to the man who created nachos? The dish took on Anaya’s nickname and was advertised as “Nacho Specials” on both sides of the border.
The combo of chips and melted cheese spread rapidly. But its place as a global phenomenon owes some tribute to Frank Liberto, who turned nachos into stadium food. In 1977 Liberto unveiled a new nacho concession at Arlington Stadium, home of baseball’s Texas Rangers at the time. Because real cheese didn’t have a great shelf life (and melting it would require an oven or broiler), Liberto devised a fast food form of Anaya’s masterpiece that was part cheese and part secret ingredients. The new sauce didn’t need to be heated and, when it came to shelf life, it could likely survive a nuclear blast. Its formula was so hush hush that a 29-year-old man was arrested in 1983 for trying to buy trade secrets divulging Liberto’s formula.
As for Anaya, his son tried to help him trademark the nacho name years after it became a phenomenon but had no luck. Anaya would go on to run his own restaurant, but he never made big money off his crowd-pleasing creation.
Filet-O-Fish: What the market wanted
The Filet-O-Fish was the brainchild of one of McDonald’s early franchisees, Lou Groen. Although Groen would own 43 McDonald’s in the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati area by the end of his career, the early days were tough going. In particular, all-beef patties were surprisingly unpopular on Fridays.
In the days before market research, Groen had the bright idea to go to the closest restaurant doing excellent Friday business to figure out what he was missing. So he headed over to Frisch’s, which was the local Big Boy chain and immediately noticed a trend. Instead of burgers or steak or chicken, patrons were buying fish dishes.
He now understood: His area of Cincinnati was about 87 percent Catholic and many devotees avoided meat on Fridays. Groen came up with a special batter and a tartar sauce condiment and went to the company’s famed owner, Ray Kroc, to get sign-off.
Kroc wasn’t sold. He told Groen he had a nonmeat idea of his own: the Hula Burger, which was simply a cold bun with a pineapple in the middle. Groen knew better than to argue with the boss. Still, he was able to get one concession.
“Ray said to me, ‘Well, Lou, I’m going to put your fish sandwich on [a menu] for a Friday. But I’m going to put my special sandwich on too—whichever sells most, that’s the one we’ll go with,’ ” Groen told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2007. “Friday came and the word came out. I won hands down. I sold 350 fish sandwiches that day. Ray never did tell me how his sandwich did.”
“My fish sandwich was the first addition ever to McDonald’s original menu,” Groen continued. “It saved my franchise.”
It also went on to be a popular choice for all types of patrons, including Jews and Muslims who face dietary restrictions of their own. Still, Catholics remain a key reason for its success. One survey found that even today 23 percent of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are sold during Lent.
Cobb salad: Celebrity restaurateur
During the golden age of Hollywood, The Brown Derby restaurants were the movie industry’s unofficial canteens. As famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille put it in a 1943 telegram: The Derby was “the most famous restaurant in the world.”
At the center of this starry constellation of celebrities was Bob Cobb. Originally hired in 1926 to run the first Derby, Cobb would go on to own the restaurant’s four star-studded locations throughout L.A. Cobb was more than just a restaurateur—he was also a close friend to practically every mover and shaker in town.
In the late 1920s, Cobb wearily entered the kitchen in the wee hours one night. He pulled out whatever leftovers he could find to avoid the same-old, same-old menu choices. He chopped up some lettuce, chicken, and a few other ingredients and started munching when four Hollywood bigwigs, including studio mogul Jack Warner (of Warner Bros. fame) and Sid Grauman (founder of Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre), checked in on their buddy after seeing a film preview. The men liked the look of Cobb’s meal and asked for their own plates. Those in the know began ordering the off-menu salad almost immediately.
Cobb waited to add it to the menu until he’d perfected his unplanned masterpiece. The final dish featured finely chopped chicken breast, iceberg lettuce, romaine, watercress, chicory, chives, tomatoes, avocados, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, Roquefort cheese, and french dressing.
Although The Brown Derby restaurants no longer exist in Los Angeles, the Cobb Salad remains a worldwide star.
More fascinating food tales
Get more inside stories and secrets about America’s favorite foods in How the Hot Dog Found Its Bun: Accidental Discoveries and Unexpected Inspirations That Shape What We Eat and Drink.