Everyone has their own favorite foods to choose from, but how many of our beloved foods do we know the history of? Who has sat down with their burger at a fast food chain and asked themselves ‘Where did the idea of burgers come from?’ Probably nobody, as their mouth would be full of burger before the thought would even occur to them. Some of the foods we eat day-in, day-out, however, can have surprisingly long histories behind them.
In this list, we’ll be exploring the origin stories behind ten commonplace foods from around the world. Try not to get too hungry.
A lot of people reckon that the burger was an American invention, but they were by no means the first country to think it up. The humble burger, like many other foods, actually has quite a long history attached to it. Perhaps it did not have cheese, onions, and buns to go with it, but it was definitely there.
The full name, ’hamburger’, originates from 1880, when German immigrants created the meal within Hamburg, Germany. In order to make a beef steak, they would grind up the meat and create a steak from what remained, calling it a ‘Hamburg steak’. This steak would eventually have its name shortened to ‘hamburger’.
What must be noted, however, was that this was the origin of the steak itself – nobody quite knows where the idea of sticking a hamburger between two buns came from. As for the steak itself, we have our German friends to thank for that. Big Macs would not be the same without you.
There is a little bit of history that states that the Romans created the ‘Isicia Omentata’, regarded as the first burger. However, this appears to be a recipe for a sausage, rather than an actual burger. More on sausages later.
9. French Fries
Of all the foods to have an origin story, this one seems to be the most clear cut as to where it came from. Unfortunately, there’s an ongoing dispute between France and Belgium as to who really made it.
The Belgian side of the story is that the 17th Century residents of the Meuse Valley in Belgium were not shy of frying things. They had a tendency to fry any fish that they caught, which made up the majority of what they ate. When winter came and the rivers froze over, the Belgians turned to the ever-reliable spud, preparing them in battered slices, the same way they prepared fish.
The French side states that, in the late 17th Century, potatoes were regarded unfit for human consumption, and only for pigs to eat. When a famine struck in 1785, this mind-set changed, and the French gave the potato another chance. It caught on so well, by 1795 they were grown everywhere, with even some royal gardens being converted to help grow the friendly spud. During this boom, someone had the smart idea of frying the slices and selling them as ‘frites’. Thus, the French fry was born.
Whichever side you take, just remember that asking for ‘Belgian fries’ at a drive-thru will get you funny looks.
The exact origin of the sausage is unclear, with reports ranging around 50,000BC. There is an agreement, however, that the sausages, frankfurters, and hot dogs that people eat on a daily basis originated from a desire to preserve meat.
Ever wonder why sausages are wrapped in some form of casing? The reason is that, before refrigeration, butchers would want to preserve meat during transit. They took the meat, organs, and blood of a slaughtered animal, sprinkled it with salt to preserve it, then wrapped the gristly results in the animal’s intestine or stomach to stop it going off before it could be eaten.
This is why some sausages contain a large amount of blood in their recipes; the origin of this practice was to help use up any blood that was left over after slaughtering an animal.
We have no real use for salting today, given how good fridges can be with preserving meat. The tradition of meat in casing, however, still goes strong to this day.
Any time anyone mentions the dish, the image of black-haired, rotund Italian chefs kissing their fingers comes to mind. The ‘traditional’ image of the dish consisting of bread, tomatoes and cheese did, in fact, originate from Naples. The food was easy to make with little cost, and was regarded as something that the poor could eat to keep themselves going. It contained cheese, tomatoes and basil – very similar to the kind we consume today. The idea of placing food on top of flatbread, however, dates before the Italian invention.
A lot of cultures – including the Romans and the Egyptians – came up with the concept of meal on top of flatbread, but the Persians were the first recorded case. When King Darius the Great ruled the Persian Empire, it is thought that his soldiers baked flatbreads on their shields, and added cheese and dates for flavouring. Ordering Dominos while in enemy territory just isn’t ideal.
6. Tomato Ketchup
Everyone would probably think that tomato ketchup would originate from the US, and they’d be right. The first recipe popped up in 1801 in the ‘Sugar House Book’, an American publication. What’s interesting about our favourite condiment, however, is that ketchup was based on an older recipe.
Its original name is ‘kê-tsiap’ and it started in 17th Century China. While it has a name similar to the bottle of red stuff we shamelessly apply to everything, the actual sauce itself was made up of fish brine and spices. The Dutch and English would end up taking a few bottles back home with them, well-loved due to its ability to keep for large amounts of time, a key trait that sailors and travelers appreciated when stocking their larders. The sauce saw a lot of remixes on the original recipe – including a moment in time where mushrooms where a primary ingredient — before the tomato variation was devised.
When you take a bite out of a well-made chocolate bar, it feels like you’re eating the food of the gods. And, well, you’d be exactly right.
The story begins as far back as 1500BC, when the Olmec managed to find and utilize cocoa beans. Of course, it was not called ‘cocoa’ then, but ‘kakawa’ – where we get the name from. They managed to turn it into a drink, but historians are hard-pressed to find any evidence that the Olmec did much else with it.
The Mayans, however, loved the stuff. They identified it as a food of Kon, the god of rain and wind. They drank it, used the mixture as a substitute for blood in rituals, and even used the beans as currency. That’s right; once upon a time, you could buy things with chocolate.
As for the solid bars we all know and love? They didn’t pop up until around 1850AD. Even after all of these years, however, we still love to offer chocolate to people we praise highly.
4. Worcestershire Sauce
While relatively unknown to most of the world, this foodstuff gets a spot on this list because it was made entirely by accident.
It began its life as an Indian sauce. The recipe made its way over to Worcester, England (see where this is going?), where two chemists, John Wheeley Lea and William Perrins, got their hands on it. They marketed this new exotic sauce, claiming all sorts of healing properties to cure common problems. When they actually made the stuff, however, it tasted awful. The pair stuffed the rest in a barrel and left it in a cellar, presumably to use again some day. That day didn’t come until two years later.
The pair, rediscovering their old invention, decided to give it a second shot. What should have probably murdered them (the sauce did have fish in it, after all), actually tasted very good. The pair decided to sell the sauce under the name ‘Lea and Perrins,’ a brand name that is strong to this day. Who knows how many other food inventions we’ve missed, due to people not willing to eat vastly out-of–date food?
Milkshakes are a lovely treat for the young, but you definitely would not want to give the original recipe to a child.
The first time the world saw the word ‘milkshake’ was in 1885, in a British newspaper. The article did not go on to talk about if people preferred strawberry or banana flavour; in fact, what the article did say was that milkshake was a “sturdy, healthful eggnog type of drink, with eggs, whiskey, etc., served as a tonic as well as a treat.” Yes, that’s right; the original milkshake contained alcohol.
The actual milkshake we know and love came a little later in the 1900s. In 1922, a man called Ivan “Pop” Coulson wanted to make a remix on the recipe. Ever an experimenter, he added the one ingredient that made a huge impact on the recipe of milkshake forever; ice cream. Since then, the version with whiskey in it has fallen out of public knowledge; unfortunately, alcoholic milkshakes are not an item on the ‘hidden menu’ in fast food places.
2. Graham Crackers
Do you feel less lust after eating a graham cracker? You should do – or, at least, the inventor of it hopes you do.
In the 1830s, reverend Sylvester Graham decided that America had become too lust-filled. In order to curb the problem and help people across the nation get back onto a good God-fearing path, he created the ‘Graham diet.’ The diet consisted of wheat, fruit and vegetables, but absolutely no meat; eating meat and fatty foods was, Graham claimed, a way to invoke sexual thoughts in the mind. Sylvester Graham invented the graham cracker as a part of his newfound diet.
He wasn’t alone in his mind-set; someone else who shared this was John Harvey Kellogg. Does the name seem familiar? That’s right – Kellogg’s corn flakes. The beloved breakfast cereal was Kellogg’s way to save the souls of the American people, but ended up being a delicious breakfast rather than a cure for the wandering eye.
Next time you need to calm down, try stuffing graham crackers into your mouth. If the wheat doesn’t do the trick, the dry mouth certainly will.
To better understand where the marshmallow came from, you must first understand that the name ‘marshmallow’ is a combination of ‘marsh’ and ‘mallow’. It refers to the Mallow plants that grew around marshes; hence the name.
This specific plant was harvested in Egyptian times. They did not merely eat it for its sweet flavour, however. Back then, Egyptian doctors were convinced that marshmallow was an effective way of curing a sore throat in children, which sounds like a medication a child would never reject. In fact, it’s thought that this miracle medicine was eaten by richer kids as a treat, rather than a cure.
As for the marshmallow as we know of it today, the root goes back to 1800s France, where it was pushed as a treat for kids and adults alike. Then, in 1948, Alex Doumak created a way to make the little delights in a way that was completely automated, allowing the sweet treat to be produced efficiently.
While the marshmallow is treated as a candy rather than medicine, it wouldn’t hurt to buy a big bag and ‘experiment’ for yourself next time you catch a cold.
S.E. Batt is a humour writer. He writes freelance non-fiction for various websites, and moonlights as a fiction writer when he finds the space to do so. He enjoys cats, keyboards, and tea, but not all at the same time.