Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The history of some of our favorite foods

I’ve been thinking the history of our favorite foods especially the food which sounds ethnic and international in origin but, in fact, are not. I’ve picked five foods which everyone is familiar with and possibly eat on a regular basis: French fries, pizza, and fortune cookies.

First, French fries, the delicious fried potato which is a part of many Americans’ diet. Here in America, they are served with hamburgers. In the United Kingdom, they are served with fried fish and are known as chips. In France, they are served with grilled steak and in Belgium, they are served with cooked mussels, a fried egg on top or a mayo sauce. While many debate who fried the potato first, the French or the Belgians, the census is the Belgians were in the first in the late 1600s. According to local legend, the poor villagers in the Meuse Valley had a terrible winter where the local river froze leaving them without their main food stable. They then took the potato, sliced and fried it. Why are they called french fries? One explanation I’ve heard is because the official language of Belgium is French and American soldiers of WWI called the fried potatoes “french fries” and the name stuck.

Second, the wonderful pizza. The first people to bake a flatbread was the Greeks but it was the citizens of Naples in the 1700s/early 1800s who developed the beginnings of the pizza. The story is that the citizens needed a food that could be consumed quickly and street vendors began serving flatbread with various toppings: tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies and garlic. It is still served like this in Italy today. A popular pizza, the Margherita, is reportedly named after Queen Margherita whose favorite toppings were sliced mozzarella, red tomatoes and green basil. Italian immigrants in New York City began developing the pizza that we recognize today. The first American pizzeria was G. Lombardi’s in Manhattan in 1905. The popularity of pizza boomed after WWII and travel across the country to Chicago, where the deep dish pizza was developed.

Third, the fortune cookie. The sweet after dinner snack is fact NOT Chinese. It originated in California but the actual inventor and city of invention is a topic of great debate. The first story is David Juna, a Chinese immigrant in Los Angeles and founder of the Hong Kong Food Company, in 1918 passed fortune cookies out to the poor who wandered around his shop and inside he placed inspirational Biblical scriptures. The second story is Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant in San Francisco, created the cookie in 1914 with a thank you note inside and passed them out at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, after he was fired and later reinstated as gardener and designer of the garden. Whatever the origins, the cookies become a common addition to Chinese restaurants by WWII and contained clever and often vague “words of wisdom.”

There are hundreds of other foods that have ethnic sounding names but were actually invented somewhere. So remember next time you’re eating French fries or a slice of pizza or reading that fortune from the cookie, remember the humble origins of our favorite foods.