6 Delicious Origin Stories of Kids’ Food Staples
By Emily Becker
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.
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