5 Meals That Changed History

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American food in the late 19th century was not very safe for eating. Syrups contained morphine. Canned peas glowed neon green. Chemical additives like borax (now ant bait) and copper sulfate (now a pesticide) were common. Dr. Harvey Wiley wanted them off America’s tables, but every bill he introduced was killed by powerful food lobbies. So in 1902, Wiley hired 12 volunteers to eat meals laced with common additives. Called “the Poison Squad,” the men were paid with three doctored meals a day. The results spurred the country’s first food-regulation laws in 1906. As for Wiley? He became the father of the FDA.


In June 1790, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton bumped into each other outside of George Washington’s New York City home. The two chatted and decided to have dinner sometime. But Jefferson had an agenda, extending an invitation to one of Hamilton’s rivals, James Madison. Madison had been fighting to relocate America’s capital to the Potomac River. Meanwhile, Hamilton wanted to transfer state debts into federal hands—a move that would establish America’s credit. The dinner triggered a historic compromise: The federal government assumed the state debts, and Washington, D.C., became America’s capital.


Don’t tell mom, but sometimes forgetting to wash your hands before a meal is a good thing. In 1879, Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, chemists at a Johns Hopkins lab, took a break to eat. Fahlberg had been researching coal tar derivatives and, eager to catch a bite, forgot to wash his hands. Midway through his meal, Fahlberg noticed that his food was unusually sweet. Returning to the lab, he realized the taste was produced by an oxidized chemical, an artificial sweetener he later named saccharin. The sweet stuff boomed as sugar supplies dried up during both world wars. Today, artificial sweeteners are a $2 billion industry.


Oscar the Grouch might seem out of place at a posh Manhattan dinner party, but that’s where his home, Sesame Street, got its start. In 1966, television producer Joan Cooney hosted a dinner party at her New York apartment and invited Lloyd Morrisett, a well-connected exec at the Carnegie Foundation. Morrisett talked about all the junk his three-year-old daughter watched on TV. She was so addicted, she’d wake up early just to tune in to the morning test patterns! The dinner party brainstormed, wondering how to use TV’s addicting qualities for good. Within three years, that grouchy green monster was changing the way kids learn.


In 1994, Pixar was not the beloved animation studio it is today. Their first film, Toy Story, wasn’t even out yet, but the studio’s team was already wondering what it should do next. During a lunch meeting at the Hidden City Café in Richmond, California, Pixar’s animators and directors brainstormed ideas and scribbled character designs onto napkins. The doodles would bloom into four beloved features: A Bug’s Life; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and WALL-E. A decade of projects was set after just one lunch meeting!

This story appeared in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss. To subscribe, click here.