Take a look at the unusual ways some of your family’s favorite foods made their way to America.
You know your kids love spaghetti and meatballs and PB&J (peanut butter and jelly) sandwiches. And who can resist an gooey slice of pizza? But, have you ever wondered where these foods originated? For instance, are French fries really even French?
We dove into the backstories, histories and origins of several food favorites to find out how these sides and meals found their way to our plates and hearts — and the paths just might surprise you.
As much as the French may not like to admit it, the French fry’s origins are debatable at best. And fry connoisseurs say France isn’t likely the birthplace of this burger and Coca-Cola companion.
The Spanish invaded sections of Columbia in the 1500s and there, discovered spuds, explains Scott Nelowet, founder of French Fry Heaven. “They took potatoes back to the Spanish-controlled areas of Belgium where they caught hold quickly,” he said.
At some point, Belgian fishermen, finding winter fishing impossible, began cutting potatoes into fish shapes and frying them in oil. The Belgians claim at some point the French borrowed the idea and took it home to France--although it’s unclear when this may have transpired. “France had a ban on potatoes until a famine in the late 18th century forced them to accept potatoes,” says Nelowet.
While who invented the fry continues to be the topic of debates, who’s responsible for its U.S. popularity is not. According to Nelowet, Thomas Jefferson was the first to serve "French-style" potatoes in the U.S. in the early 19th Century. Fries soon caught on throughout the U.S. colonies.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
It’s thought of as the quintessential Italian meal, but in reality this popular dish is the brain child of 19th Century U.S.-Italian immigrants. In fact, in Italy, pasta was — and still is — served on its own, without meatballs.
"Meatballs in pasta were served at Italian religious festivals such as Carnival and Christmas. In these early versions the meatballs were no larger than walnuts, similar to their Arbaic/Spanish hazelnut cousin," says Nicolasa Chavez, curator of the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM.
Italian immigrants to the U.S.changed what was served in their home country by concocting meals with larger portions of meat and fewer vegetables.
"At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S., meat was cheap and plentiful," says Chvaez. And since meat was cheap, those Italian immigrants who brought their recipe for polpette (meatballs) to America paired the larger sized meatballs with pasta--most likely because of the U.S. habit of paring starchy foods like potatoes with meat at dinner time.
Ice Cream Sundaes
Michael Turback, author of A Month Of Sundaes and More Than A Month Of Sundaes says ice cream likely originated in Asia.
Thomas Jefferson picked up the cone — so to speak — bringing a recipe for vanilla ice cream to the U.S. with him following his stint as ambassador to France. George Washington was also said to be a fan of the frosty treat.
According to Turback, the ice cream was hand-cranked at Mount Vernon for the founding father. “Jefferson might even be the first Sundae maker since he doused his vanilla in maple syrup,” says Turback.
The Sundae wasn’t officially christened until about 1890 when an Ithaca, NY, pharmacist, whose store had an ice cream counter, put a cherry on top and advertised his new dish: the Sundae.
Foods similar to pizza have been prepared since the 6th Century BC, when it’s said that Persian soldiers baked flat bread covered with cheese and dates on their shields.
"The first New World tomato seeds were brought to Spain on Christopher Columbus’ return voyage in 1693," says Chavez. A century or two later, in Naples, Italians added tomatoes to flat bread that at time only included olive oil, lard cheese and herbs. The dish caught on and became a favorite of visitors to the region, especially in the poorer sections of Naples.
Neapolitan-style pizza expanded beyond the Mediterranean region in the early 1900s. That’s when in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi claims to have opened the first pizzeria in the U.S. in New York City, paving the way to our love affair with tomato pie.
Mac and Cheese
Macaroni (which has roots in medieval Italy) and cheese is another food we can thank Thomas Jefferson for bringing to the States from France. Recipes for pasta and cheese casseroles can be traced back to cookbooks as early as the Liber de Coquina, one of the oldest medieval cookbooks in existence.
Before becoming President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson sampled macaroni in Paris and northern Italy. Fancying the food and in the hopes of recreating the dish back in the U.S., Jefferson sketched the pasta and took detailed notes on the process for shaping it. In 1793, he commissioned American ambassador to Paris William Short to purchase a machine to make it.
The machine failed, so Jefferson imported macaroni and Parmesan cheese to recreate the dish at Monticello. In 1802, Jefferson even served a "macaroni pie" at a state dinner and since that time, the dish has been widely served within the United States.
A Good Housekeeping article published in May 1896 included a recipe that "urged homemakers to use a meat grinder to make peanut butter and spread the result on bread."
Despite being a staple in lunchboxes and thought of as a cheap and easy lunch option today, in the early 1900's peanut butter was considered a delicacy reserved for New York City’s finest tearooms.
There, the spread was paired with pimento cheese, watercress and toasted crackers. The upper crust lost interest in peanut butter by the late 1920's causing its price to decline. As the price dropped, the sandwich moved down the class structure, making it an option to feed children as well as adults.
Today, according to Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food, 75 percent of Americans consume peanut butter.