6 Delicious Origin Stories of Kids’ Food Staples

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The scenario is so classic, it’s almost cliche: Parent serves a new dish for dinner, kid refuses to try it, and eventually the parent gives in and makes a box of macaroni and cheese or heats up some chicken nuggets. Below, explore the history of six meals that would become the dinner savior for parents across the country.

1. KRAFT MACARONI AND CHEESE

Cheese was a part of J.L. Kraft’s entire life. After growing up on a dairy farm in Ontario, Kraft headed to the U.S. with $65 and the dream of launching a wholesale cheese business. The issue was how to get the cheese from farm to household without it going bad in between. In 1916, Kraft acquired a patent for his processed cheese, which could travel long distances without spoiling. 

During the Great Depression, an innovative salesman in St. Louis, Mo. wrapped a packet of Kraft shredded cheese around a box of pasta and convinced retailers to sell the two as a unit. Kraft macaroni and cheese as packaged by the Kraft company launched in 1937 (although in a yellow box, that would become the classic blue in 1954). 

Kraft had found a hit. The long shelf life and the fact that a customer could buy two boxes with one food ration stamp helped the dish become a classic. During WWII alone, 50 million boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese were sold. 

2. FISH STICKS

The earliest fish sticks date from the 1920s, when consumers stopped buying whole fish, but those versions were just fillets cut crossways into long strips. During the 1950s, commercial fisherman were having trouble selling off their increasingly larger and larger catches. At the time, the tons of fish that were being harvested from the ocean each year were filleted and then frozen into giant, solid blocks. Trying to separate the fish later resulted in mangled chunks of frozen fillets. Needless to say, customers did not find this sort of packaging appealing. 

Processors then started sawing these blocks into rectangles that were 3 inches long and 1 inch wide, and then breading and deep frying them. Sales exploded: Production of fish sticks jumped from 7.5 million pounds in 1953 to 63 million pounds two years later.  It took the efforts of E. Robert Kinney, fish stick enthusiast and CEO of what was then called Gorton-Pew Fisheries and is now Gorton’s, to turn the hot dog of the ocean into the token vehicle for tartar sauce it is today. 

3. PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY

The staple of kids' lunch boxes everywhere first began as a sandwich for fancy parties and high teas. The first written recipe by Julia Davis Chandler appeared in 1901 in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science & Domestic Economics. “The combination is delicious, and, so far as I know, original,” she wrote

The popularity of peanut butter rose dramatically before and during World War II due to three factors: the product began being commercially manufactured, manufacturers started adding sugar to the nuts, and meat shortages during the war meant Americans on the both the war and home fronts need to find alternative sources of protein. When advertisers lobbied to get the sandwich served in schools, the PB&J’s position in children’s diets was cemented. 

4. CHEF BOYARDEE SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS

One of Chef Ettore “Hector” Boiardi’s first culinary jobs after he immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1914 was catering the wedding of President Woodrow Wilson to his second wife, Edith. One hundred years later, Boiardi is known for being kids’ favorite spaghetti and meatballs chef since 1928

Boiardi opened his first restaurant in Cleveland in 1924. The spaghetti and meatballs proved so popular that he began selling milk bottles full of the sauce to his customers, along with prepackaged packets of dried noodles and Parmesan cheese. In 1928, he and his brothers Mario and Paul launched “Chef Boyardee,” spelling their last name phonetically to help their American customers. At the time, the brothers were the largest importer of Parmesan cheese to the U.S. 

5. CHICKEN NUGGETS

Before McDonald’s, there was Robert C. Baker. Baker, a professor of poultry science at Cornell University, and his graduate students are responsible for all things processed chicken: chicken hot dogs, chicken cold cuts, chicken meatballs and more than 50 other ways to make chicken not look like chicken. In 1963, he proposed the “chicken stick,” a frozen and breaded manipulation of poultry. 

Baker entered into the Frankenstein science of chicken with the best intentions: to persuade people to eat more poultry. At the time, chicken was usually sold whole, which was time-consuming and complicated for home cooks to deal with. Baker worked with graduate student Joseph Marshall to create a method for both grinding the meat and developing the correct breading. In the first market tests for the new, easy-to-cook chicken at five supermarkets, 1200 boxes were sold in the first six weeks.

6. ANTS ON A LOG

The one way you could always count on getting kids at camp to eat their vegetables started, like peanut butter and jelly, with a much fancier background. In the late 19th century, bite-sized stuffed vegetables were the de rigueur appetizer to serve at a dinner party. Vegetables were usually topped with cheese and spices, and peanut butter as a filling rose in popularity in the 1960s. 

How the two became one dish is a little unclear. George Washington Carver included recipes for soups and salads that combined celery and peanuts in his 'How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.' Many attribute the combination, complete with raisin “ants,” to the Girl Scouts, although the first written record of the combination by its rightful name doesn’t appear in scouting cookbooks until 1964. It seems that Ants on a Log, like some things, was just meant to be. 

All images courtesy of iStock

10 Delicious Hot Chocolate Mix-Ins

Lilechka75/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Lilechka75/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It's hot chocolate season—and while there's nothing wrong with plopping in a few marshmallows into your hot cocoa, there are many other ways to spice it up. Whether you're bored or just looking to try something new, these 10 ingredients will take your hot chocolate to the next level.

1. Peanut Butter

A jar of peanut butter in a white bowl with peanuts on a blue table.
Kevin Brine/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you're a fan of the peanut butter and chocolate combination, this recipe from One Ordinary Day is for you. Just add a few dollops of regular, creamy peanut butter right into your saucepan along with the chocolate and enjoy.

2. Nutella

For a hazelnut flavor, mix some nutella into the saucepan. This one goes best with a whipped cream garnish.

3. Maple Syrup

Maple syrup in a glass bottle on a wooden table.
showcake/iStock via Getty Images Plus

For a New England twist on cocoa, add a couple teaspoons of maple syrup. If you need an extra kick, a couple pinches of nutmeg will do.

4. Cinnamon

A mere teaspoon of cinnamon in a saucepan of hot chocolate is all it takes to create a delicious mix of cinnamon hot chocolate.

5. Oreos

sandwich cookies on a blue background
stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images Plus

You’ll need a food processor or blender to chop up around four oreos until they're the texture of sugar. Add it to the hot chocolate mix, then top with whipped cream and more crushed Oreos.

6. Peppermint

For a batch of peppermint hot chocolate, all it takes is three drops of peppermint oil and a pinch of salt.

7. Ginger

fresh ginger on a black background
martinrlee/iStock via Getty Images Plus

To make hot cocoa taste like gingerbread, add one piece of ginger, 10 cloves, and two cinnamon sticks while cooking.

8. Chili Powder

If you really want to spice up the beverage, whip up a batch of Mexican hot chocolate. This includes a little bit of ground cinnamon and a pinch of chili powder.

9. Cherry

Cherries in a jar.
Freila/iStock via Getty Images Plus

For a full batch of hot chocolate to taste like cherry, it takes a few tablespoons of maraschino cherry juice.

10. Booze

There are many types of alcohol that go well in hot chocolate. Some options include brandy, Kahlua, peppermint schnapps, raspberry liqueur, tequila, amaretto, Bailey’s Irish Creme, and even red wine.

101 Years Later: Remembering Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On January 15, 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the city's North End and deposited so much gooey residue that locals claimed they could still smell the molasses on warm days decades later.

While most of us probably think of molasses as a tasty ingredient in treats like gingerbread, the sticky stuff has quite a few other uses. With a little know-how, one can turn molasses into rum or industrial alcohol fairly easily, and the Purity Distilling Company had built the gigantic tank in Boston’s North End in 1915 to supply its booze-making operations.

The steel tank was enormous: 50 feet tall, 90 feet across, and capable of holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses. (Although Prohibition kicked in with Nebraska’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment the very next day after the 1919 disaster, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, Purity Distilling’s parent company, still had a license to distill alcohol for industrial applications.)


By Unknown - Anthony Mitchell Sammarco. Boston's North End. Arcadia Publishing, 2004, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The massive tank was nearly full on January 15, thanks to a recent infusion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico. Just after noon, something went horribly wrong. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. Suddenly, 26 million pounds of molasses were tearing down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave.

A shockingly destructive force

A giant wave of a sticky foodstuff sounds like something from a cartoon, but the surging molasses was a shockingly destructive force. The wave moved at upwards of 35 mph, and the power was sufficient to rip buildings off of their foundations. The molasses snapped the support girders from an elevated train track and smashed multiple houses. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’s website claimed the property damage alone totaled around $100 million in today’s dollars.

The human cost of the disaster was even more grim. The wave of molasses moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was unlucky enough to be in its way didn’t stand much of a chance. They were either knocked over and crushed or drowned in the goo. The flood claimed 21 lives, and another 150 people suffered injuries. Any flood would have been disastrous, but the viscous nature of molasses made rescue attempts even trickier. Medics and police officers arrived on the scene quickly but had to slog through waist-deep goo to reach victims.


Boston Post, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, cleanup crews quickly learned that getting rid of 2 million gallons of molasses is no small task. In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote about one of the chief obstacles to the cleanup: firefighters couldn’t just use their hoses to blast the molasses off of buildings and streets with fresh water. Eventually they realized that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and enable them to hose it down the streets into gutters. Thanks to all the foot traffic of rescue workers, cleanup crews, and rubberneckers, the sticky mess quickly moved around the city via people's shoes. In all, the cleanup effort required over 80,000 man-hours.

The Blame Game

How did this tragedy happen in the first place? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was quick to blame everyone’s favorite early 20th-century scapegoats: anarchists. The company claimed that since its alcohol was an ingredient in government munitions, anarchists must have sabotaged the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory explained that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.

Investigators soon found the real culprit, though: shoddy construction work. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. Modern studies have found that the tank walls were both too thin and made of a steel that was too brittle to withstand the volume of molasses.

The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and as cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable.

The largely working-class North End residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the disaster predictably turned their rage toward the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. USIA soon found itself named as the defendant in 125 lawsuits, which led to a legal battle that nearly matched the flood’s scale.

The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster. It took Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3000 witnesses. When he finally penned his report, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the company’s theory of anarchist saboteurs. Instead, Ogden found that the “factor of safety” in the tank’s construction and inspection had been woefully low. USIA was liable for the damage and paid around $7000 to the family of each victim.

The Great Molasses Flood still seems like a tragedy that could have been averted, but the disaster really drew attention to the potential repercussions of shaky construction. The case helped prompt Massachusetts and many other states to pass laws requiring that engineers and architects inspect and approve plans for major construction projects.

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