A Brief History of Sushi in the United States

A plate of sushi in the 1970s, via Getty Images
A plate of sushi in the 1970s, via Getty Images

Although Japan’s cuisine is complex and diverse, for most Americans, Japanese food is synonymous with sushi. There are nearly 4000 sushi restaurants across the United States today, grossing over $2 billion annually. But 50 years ago, most Americans had never heard of sushi; if they ate Japanese food at all, it was more likely to be sukiyaki (beef and vegetables cooked hot-pot style in a soy-based broth) or tempura. If fact, many Americans would have thought the idea of consuming raw fish appalling. It took a smash-hit TV show and a boom in immigration from Japan to turn sushi into an everyday “American” food.

In the 1950s many Americans were somewhat resistant to Japanese food and culture, in part because they had lived through World War II and still perceived Japan as “the enemy.” But by the 1960s, the tide had started to turn: Food journalist and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, writing for The New York Times dining section during that decade, was excited by international dining and kept tabs on the city’s numerous Japanese restaurants. He declared Japanese food a trend in New York after two establishments opened in 1963, noting that “New Yorkers seem to take to the raw fish dishes, sashimi and sushi, with almost the same enthusiasm they display for tempura and sukiyaki.” However, he admitted, “sushi may seem a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates" [PDF].

According to The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice by Trevor Corson, Los Angeles was the first American home of authentic Japanese sushi. In 1966, a Japanese businessman named Noritoshi Kanai brought a sushi chef and his wife from Japan, and opened a nigiri sushi bar with them inside a Japanese restaurant known as Kawafuku in LA's Little Tokyo. The restaurant was popular, but only with Japanese immigrants, not with American clientele. However, as more sushi spots opened in Little Tokyo, word got back to Japan that there was money to be made in America. Young chefs, tired of the rigorous and restrictive traditional culture of sushi making in Japan, struck out on their own in LA.


A sushi restaurant in LA's Little Tokyo. Image credit: Elliot Trinidad via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The first sushi bar outside of the Little Tokyo neighborhood popped up in 1970, next to the 20th Century Fox studio. Named Osho, it began attracting a fashionable, celebrity clientele—including Yul Brynner, a lunchtime regular. As Hollywood began to embrace sushi throughout the 1970s, the food also got a boost as Americans were encouraged to eat more fish for better health. According to Corson, “In 1977, the U.S. Senate issued a report called Dietary Goals for the United States, that blamed fatty, high-cholesterol foods for the increasing incidence of disease. The report recommended greater consumption of fish and grains. Around the same time, health experts also began to promote the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish. Many Americans discovered sushi as a healthful alternative.”

And then came Shōgun, an epic television event that would change America’s cultural relationship with Japan. Based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, Shōgun is a work of historical fiction depicting the story of a British sailor’s rise as a political player in 17th century Japan. The Shōgun miniseries, which aired over five evenings in mid-September 1980, was a smash hit—watched by more than 30 percent of American households and earning three Golden Globes and three Emmys. The show was also notable because it was filmed entirely in Japan and all the Japanese roles were actually played by Japanese actors. (Previously in American films and television, Asian roles were often played by American actors in yellowface—think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Shōgun depicted Japanese dress, culture, and food with a level of authenticity that was previously unparalleled on the American screen. A surprising amount of academic research has since been done of Shōgun and its cultural influence, and the series was required viewing in many high school history curriculums throughout the 1980s. Corson credits the show with sparking “a nationwide interest in all things Japanese, including sushi.”

The launch of the Shōgun series coincided with an economic boom in Japan that brought many Japanese businesses to the United States in the late ’70’s and early ’80s. This, in turn, encouraged a new wave of Japanese immigration. The combination of gastronomically homesick Japanese and Americans enraptured by Japanese culture created a wave of interest in Japanese food, particularly sushi.


Richard Chamberlain, Yoko Shimada, and Toshiro Mifune on the set of Shōgun. Image credit: Getty Images

In 1984, what is probably the oldest continually operating sushi restaurant in New York, Hasaki, opened. The eatery was founded on East 9th Street in the Little Tokyo section of the East Village by a Japanese immigrant named Bon Yagi, who wanted to avoid the unfocused, pan-Japanese restaurants that had been more common in America’s past. Hasaki was the result of the boom in Japanese immigration—it provided a comforting dose of home for expats. But it survived and thrived because of the growing American interest in Japanese cuisine.

Yagi capitalized on Hasaki’s success by opening over a dozen other restaurants within a few blocks, all focusing on Japanese specialties—including a soba noodle restaurant with soy-soaked dashi broths, a ramen joint, a casual curry place, and a small shop for takoyaki fried octopus balls, among others. His restaurants became the heart of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, which still attracts Japanese immigrants as well as curious Americans with roots in other cultures.

Outside of New York, it can be hard to find the varied Japanese specialties Yagi has brought to the East Village—but it’s very easy to find a sushi restaurant. Sushi has become as ubiquitous in America as Chinese take-out, and has experienced much of the same transformative evolution as Chinese-American food. It’s changed as a result of being made by Americans without Japanese heritage, and also while its creators focused on local, American ingredients.


iStock

Corson credits the invention of the California roll with making sushi accessible to Americans. The roll evolved in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and used local avocados paired with crab meat to replace hard-to-find fresh, fatty tuna. But its real innovation came many years later, when a chef decided to make the roll “inside out”—with the seaweed hidden in the middle. (The first genius to make an inside-out roll is unknown.) The California roll used ingredients familiar to Americans and hid the seaweed, which was seen as foreign and challenging.

Another classic example, the spicy tuna roll, was invented in Los Angeles in the early 1980s by mixing tuna scraps with chili sauce and rolling the result with seaweed and rice. Today, the tuna roll is usually sauced with sriracha, which is produced in the nearby suburb of Irwindale, California. The result is a mix of Japanese and “American” flavors.


Genji Sushi New York in Tokyo. Image credit: s.yume via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the past half-century, it’s not just Americans who have become fascinated with Japanese culture; the feeling is often mutual. As a result, American-style sushi has begun to make its way back to Japan. According to an article in The Asia-Pacific Journal, “The sushi that is served in these new-wave American sushi restaurants (mostly roll sushi with ingredients other than raw fish) is both similar to, and distinctively different from most sushi available in Japan.” In one restaurant in Tokyo, Genji Sushi New York, the signage and menu are partly in English and they serve California rolls; Philadelphia rolls with salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber; and Rainbow rolls, a variation on a California roll that is wrapped in multicolored sashimi. All are American creations. The Journal explains the Japanese consumption of these hybrid-sushi rolls is both playful and ironic, and seen as something cool and hip.

Today, meeting friends for sushi is almost as American as going out for a beer and a pizza. It’s proof positive that when we leave our hearts—and plates—open to other cultures, good things often come of it.

Graham Crackers Were Invented to Combat the Evils of Coffee, Alcohol, and Masturbation

tatniz/iStock via Getty Images
tatniz/iStock via Getty Images

Long before they were used to make s’mores or the tasty crust of a Key lime pie, graham crackers served a more puritanical purpose in 19th-century America. The cookies were invented by Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister whose views on food, sex, alcohol, and nutrition would seem a bit extreme to today's cracker-snackers. Much like the mayor in the movie Chocolat, Graham and his thousands of followers—dubbed Grahamites—believed it was sinful to eat decadent foods. To combat this moral decay, Graham started a diet regimen of his own.

Graham ran health retreats in the 1830s that promoted a bland diet that banned sugar and meat. According to Refinery29, Graham's views ultimately inspired veganism in America as well as the “first anti-sugar crusade.” He condemned alcohol, tobacco, spices, seasoning, butter, and "tortured" refined flour. Caffeine was also a no-no. In fact, Graham believed that coffee and tea were just as bad as tobacco, opium, or alcohol because they created a “demand for stimulation.” However, the worst vice, in Graham's opinion, was overeating. “A drunkard sometimes reaches old age; a glutton never,” he once wrote.

Graham’s austere philosophy was informed by the underlying belief that eating habits affect people’s behaviors, and vice versa. He thought certain foods were "overstimulating" and led to impure thoughts and passions, including masturbation—or “self-pollution,” as he called it—which he believed to be an epidemic that caused both blindness and insanity.

Illustration of Sylvester Graham
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Graham's views directly influenced Victorian-era corn flake inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who was born a year after Graham died. Like his predecessor, Kellogg also believed that meat and some flavorful foods led to sexual impulses, so he advocated for the consumption of plain foods, like cereals and nuts, instead. (Unsurprisingly, the original recipes for both corn flakes and graham crackers were free of sinful sugar.)

In one lecture, Graham told young men they could stop their minds from wandering to forbidden places if they avoided “undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines.” This meant swearing off improper foods and substances like tobacco, caffeine, pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and peppermint. Even milk was banned because it was “too exciting and too oppressive.”

So what could Graham's followers eat? The core component of Graham’s diet was bread made of coarsely ground wheat or rye, unlike the refined white flour loaves that were sold in bakeries at that time. From this same flour emerged Graham's crackers and muffins, both of which were common breakfast foods. John Harvey Kellogg was known to have eaten the crackers and apples for breakfast, and one of his first attempts at making cereal involved soaking twice-baked cracker bits in milk overnight.

Slices of rye bread, a jug of milk, apples and ears of corn on sackcloth, wooden table
SomeMeans/iStock via Getty Images

However, Kellogg was one of the few remaining fans of Graham’s diet, which began to fall out of favor in the 1840s. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, a Grahamite was hired in 1840 to strictly enforce the school’s meal plans. One professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and the hunger-stricken students organized a protest the following year, arguing that the Graham diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system as at present developed.” Ultimately, the Grahamite and his tyrannical nutrition plan were kicked out.

Much like Kellogg’s corn flakes, someone else stepped in and corrupted Graham’s crackers, molding them into the edible form we now know—and, yes, love—today. In Graham’s case, it was the National Biscuit Company, which eventually became Nabisco; the company started manufacturing graham crackers in the 1880s. But Graham would likely be rolling in his grave if he knew they contained sugar and white flour—and that they're often topped with marshmallows and chocolate for a truly decadent treat.

7 Tasty Facts About Tater Tots

bhofack2, iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2, iStock via Getty Images

Whether you associate them with your school cafeteria, your childhood home, or your local dive bar, tater tots are ubiquitous. Creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside, the bite-sized pellets rival French fries for the title of most delicious potato product. But they’re more than just a tasty side dish—they’re also an upcycling success story, a casserole ingredient, and one of the few foods that’s more popular frozen than fresh. Here are some more facts about tater tots you should know.

1. The first Tater Tots were made from French fry scraps.

Brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg founded the Oregon Frozen Foods Company, later known as Ore-Ida, in Ontario, Oregon, in 1952. One of their first items was frozen French fries, and after seeing all the potato scraps they had leftover, they came up with an idea. By chopping up the potato parts, seasoning them, and molding them into pellets, they were able to create a new product. With help from a thesaurus, they landed on the name tater tot and debuted their creation in 1954.

2. Tater Tots are the main ingredient in Hotdish casserole.

Hotdish casserole with tater tots.
ALLEKO, iStock via Getty Images

Tater tots are typically served as an appetizer or a side dish, but in certain states, they’re part of the main course. Hotdish follows the long Midwestern tradition of tossing whatever’s in the kitchen into a casserole. It’s made by mixing together ground beef and frozen vegetables and topping it with a layer of tater tots before baking the whole dish in the oven. It’s a hearty match for Midwestern winters, plus, it’s a way to sneak more tots into your diet.

3. The name Tater Tot is trademarked.

If the golden nugget of potato-y goodness you’re eating is not Ore-Ida brand, it’s not really a tater tot. The Grigg brothers trademarked the catchy name shortly after developing the product, and Ore-Ida still holds its trademark on tater tots today. This doesn’t stop people using it as a catch-all term for the generic version of the food. Ore-Ida tried to combat this in 2014 by running an ad campaign warning customers not to “be fooled by Imi-taters.”

4. Tater Tots have different names around the world.

The all-American tater tot has spread around the globe, but it’s usually sold under a different name abroad. Tot-lovers in New Zealand and Australia may refer to them as potato gems, potato royals, potato pom-poms, or hash bites. The food is so popular in New Zealand that Pizza Hut launched a pie with a hash bite crust there in 2016. In Canada, they’re called tasti taters or spud puppies, and they’ve been labeled oven crunchies in the UK.

5. Homemade tater tot recipes may not be worth it.

Tater tots on a plate served with ketchup.
MSPhotographic, iStock via Getty Images

Tater tots are the ultimate convenience food—unless you try making them from scratch at home. Recipes online involve peeling and grating pounds of potatoes, frying them once, chilling them overnight, and then shaping them into tots and frying them a second time. Without the streamlined method and equipment of a factory, the process can take 12 hours. Even fine restaurants that feature tater tots on their menus often prefer the taste (and convenience) of the frozen stuff.

6. Idaho praised Napoleon Dynamite for featuring Tater Tots.

Napoleon Dynamite takes place in Idaho, and one of the ways the 2004 film pays tribute to the state is by prominently featuring the tot. The State of Idaho passed a resolution in 2005 commending the makers of the film, specifically thanking them for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.”

7. The birthplace of the Tater Tot is hosting a Tater Tot festival.

Nearly 70 years after tater tots were invented there, Ontario, Oregon, is honoring its patron potato product by dedicating an entire festival to it in August 2020. The Tater Tot Festival will feature games, food vendors, and a Ferris wheel, plus special events like a tater tot-eating contest and a tater tot-themed play. The fair will end with the crowning of the tater tot festival king and queen.

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