Depression Era Foods – Origin of Snacks

It is the aisle in your grocery store across from the soda aisle. The one that sells the crunchy fried food in sealed plastic bags. The snack aisle. You have bought snacks before, but what do you know about them?
Let’s take that bag they came in. The one that has 50 percent air in it when you break it open. That is the store’s way of ripping you off, selling you a bag deliberately sealed so that most of it is air, leaving you with only a few actual chips. Well, would it help to know that it is not air in those bags of chips but nitrogen gas? The trouble with crisp fried foods is that they quickly turn stale. So quick that by the time they are shipped to your local store they would taste like they were sitting around in a bowl for weeks.

One of the things that causes fried snacks to go stale is simple chemistry, their reaction to the oxygen. However, put the snacks into a bag that is pumped with nitrogen, a gas that does not chemically react with the food, then have that bag sealed, the chips remain, well, factory-fresh until the point you break the bag open. From there the chips slowly go stale, which is why they never taste as good as the day you open them.

Unfortunately the only way to properly seal enough nitrogen in the bag to keep the snacks fresh is to leave a lot of empty space in the bag. And you thought they were ripping you off. Snacks are usually sold by the ounce. The bag and nitrogen are not part of the weight.

What we think of snacks today were either invented or first mass produced during the Great Depression of the 1930s by companies looking to sell affordable food that was made from cheap materials. While their affordability made them a popular food (or food substitute ) during the Depression, by the 1940s they were reduced to side dish and inevitably as snacks.


Great fuel, but too bad it explodes

Popcorn is America’s oldest snack food, going back thousands of years when Native Americans discovered that the inedible kernels of corn popped when thrown into a fire. Poor popcorn plant. While other corn was eaten as food by humans and other animals, popcorn evolved to have extremely hard kernels that animals could not eat easily. Then humans came along and thought “We can’t eat it, then maybe we can use it for fuel.” And, yes, popcorn did make good fuel, aside from it’s kernels exploding out of the fire. And if you had a way of capturing some of those exploding kernels they turned out to be soft, edible, and a very tasty food.

popcorn-historyThe mechanism that was making the kernels explode into popped corn was a combination of a hard husk and moisture trapped within the kernel. When placed near fire the kernel overheated causing the moisture inside to become steam. The more the kernel heats up the more steam pressure builds up until finally the husk ruptures. The inside of the popcorn has literally liquefied into a foam, which after the explosion quickly solidifies. When white men came to America they brought cooking pots along with them which turned out to be the perfect vessel to cook popcorn in, especially after oil was introduced to the pot.

@#* You! Here’s Your Thin French Fries!

According to the legend, in 1853 multimillionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt was acting like a jerk while staying at a resort in Saratoga Springs. After ordering french fries Cornelius had them sent back saying that the chef had cut them too thick. More French fries were prepared and once again Vanderbilt sent them back complaining that the chef, who obviously had no idea how to cook food, had not only cut the fries too thick again but that they were soggy instead of crisp like they should be. Standing in the kitchen was the resort’s chef George Crum who was by now so outraged by Vanderbilt’s insults of his cooking skills and his insistence that somehow Crum was cooking French fries wrong that he nearly charged into the dining room to slam the rude millionaire in the face.

The staff tried to calm him down. After all Crum was half African American and half Native American. Certainly if he had assaulted a white man he would have been hung, definitely if that white man was rich. But Crum was not just going to let this go. “So, Vanderbilt says my fries are not thin and crisp enough!” said Crum, “Then thin and crisp is what the @#$% will get!”. Taking a potato peeler out of the draw Crum proceeded to slice paper thin strips of a potato, then filling a pan with boiling oil proceeded to stir-fry the potato strips until they were extremely crisp. Not stopping there Crum over salted the fried strips and sent the plate out. Vanderbilt was shocked at the insolence of the chef, but proceeded to taste the butchered fries anyway. And to Crum’s surprise the millionaire loved the fries and complemented the chef, even ordering additional helpings. Realizing that he must have created something Crum continued to cook the delicacy, calling it Saratoga Chips. Well, at least that was the legend. There is no real proof that Cornelius Vanderbilt was ever at Crum’s resort, or even that he had made the chips to retaliate against a belligerent customer. But there is little doubt that Crum did invent the chip. It remained a delicacy available only in upstate New York until the 1930’s when salesman Herman Lay brought it to Georgia and sold it as potato chips, eventually expanding his company to distribute potato chips throughout the Southeast. Other companies copied Lays and soon potato chips were sold all over the United States

A Gift From The Easter Bunny

No one is really sure who invented the pretzel or how old it really is. Some say it goes back as far as 610 AD and had been invented by monks. There actually was some sort of religious significance to the shape of the pretzel which three holes was suppose to signify the Holy Trinity. It became the original food left behind by the Easter Bunny, this long before the discovery of Chocolate and invention of the jelly bean, and long before cheap pigmentation made it possible for the common man to be able to afford to paint or dye Easter eggs. No exact explanation as to why the pretzel fell out of favor with the Catholics, but it was Protestant Germany that continued to cook the food. German immigrants brought pretzels with them to the United States where they began mass producing them in Pennsylvania.

Brought to You From Mexico by a Bandit

The origins of corn chips go back about 12,000 years to when the Mayans invented the tortilla. The grain that Mayan culture grew as a food source was corn from which they made their bread. They remained a popular food in Mexico well after the fall of the Mayans, and were eventually renamed Tortilla’s by the Spanish invaders in the 1600’s ( A word originally meaning round cake ). Some time in the 1930’s a Mexican cook in Texas began frying small tortillas and selling them as chips at his roadside stand under the name fritos.* In 1932 Charles Elmer Doolin ordered those chips with his lunch and finding them delicious bought the recipe from the Mexican cook then and there. Back at his home Doolin perfected the recipe and then began manufacturing and selling them under the company name Fritos. While the Frito company manufactured and distributed Fritos in California they sold the franchise rights in the Southeast to Herman Lay in 1945. Lay was already successful with potato chips and was interested in expanding to more snacks. After Doolin’s death in 1959 his family sold the company to Lay who merged the two into a new company called Frito-Lay. In 1967 Frito-Lay created the now infamous ad campaign with the Frito Bandito, a negative stereotypical Mexican bandit who went around robbing Fritos. The character was finally removed from the airwaves in 1971 after numerous complaints by an organization called the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee. Meanwhile other companies began mass producing their own versions of Fritos under the generic name Corn Chip.

*The name of this cook is apparently lost to history, as is his reason for frying small bits of tortillas. The name he gave them, fritos, is Spanish for fries, suggesting that he was selling them as a substitute for fried potatoes.

Chickens seem to hate it, but maybe people will eat it

The least natural of all the snack foods has to be the cheese puff, best known under the brand names Cheeze Doodles and Cheetos. Cheese puffs are created by turning corn meal into a dough, then cooking it in a pressure cooker, then while still in the pressure cooker allowing the dough to squeeze out a valve where once out in normal pressure the steam trapped inside the dough causes it to turn into foam. As the foam rapidly cools off cheese is added which partially melts in giving it both color and flavor. There are two competing versions as to how cheese puffs were invented. One is that in the mid 30’s the Elmer Candy Corporation invented them as a new snack food under the name CheeWees. The other is that the Flakaal Corporation invented them in the mid 30’s as cheap animal feed, inevitably adding the cheese and selling them as snacks called Korn Kurls. Either way the snack came to the attention of Charles Elmer Doolin who after having success selling Fritos was interested in branching out into another corn based snack. Calling them Cheetos Doolin distributed them along with his successful Fritos, and of course you know Fritos eventually became Frito-Lay allowing Herman Lay to mass distribute the product.

Yesterday’s waste product, today’s snack

One of the latest snacks to make it to your grocery shelf and the most unhealthy was also first mass produced during the depression. Pork Rinds were the waste product created when pork fat was rendered into lard. The process of cooking the pig skin until all the fat turned into oil and dripped out left behind the dried out rind. These were usually thrown away by the butcher while the oil was turned into lard and sold. But during the 1930’s butchers began selling their rinds as a cheap food. From there it became a snack where the rids were created by deliberately frying them. Traditionally sold in butcher shops and delicatessens, in recent years snack companies have attempted to market pork rinds in the snack food aisles.

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