Cracked's Eatin' Weird - 5 Oddball Ways Food Influenced History
History is primarily driven by war, greed, incest, and ideology, the latter being a mix of the previous three with some cool art thrown on top for the illiterate. Same goes for food history, which is defined by its most impactful innovations.
First, fire. Later, cultivation and domestication. Then, the commercial era of transforming bulk chemicals, often toxic, into tasty treats. Finally, a cultural zenith: the introduction of the $1.50 Costco hot dog. Yet these momentous periods are interspersed with unexpectedly goofy episodes of culinary craziness.
Ancient Garbage Shaped The Everglades
Human waste habits have had predominantly adverse effects throughout history. And pollution is increasing at alarming rates: seagulls are full of TJ Maxx bags, and every can of tuna contains at least one discarded intrauterine birth control device, while fatbergs besiege our sewers and seep from our driveway channel drains when we host Great Gatsby dinner parties.
But one historical example proves contrary to these destructive trends: the ancient tree islands of the Everglades. Florida’s Everglades ecosystem is basically one giant swamp, with scattered patches of higher ground that serve as dry, wildlife havens and insurance deductibles for doofus airboat derbies.
Tree islands were assumed to be natural features. But researchers believe that at least some of these formed on top of 5,000-year-old middens – trash heaps of bones, food refuse, shells, charcoal – and “it only costs a dime a day to support these orphaned armadillos” letters.
These mounds of mineralized land rise up to six feet or so above the surrounding marshlands. As elevated areas, they’re sanctuaries for biodiversity, containing two-to-three times as many organisms as the encircling, encompassing marshiness.
This phosphorus-enriched elevation also allows the growth of trees and provides an irreplaceable refugium for animals like gators, birds, and panthers during the ephemeral floods of the wet season—in the human kingdom, Ruby Tuesday supplies an equivalent refugium to displaced patrons while local IHOPs are fumigated during lice-season.
The First Ice Creams Led To Cholera And Tuberculosis Outbreaks
Ice cream is among the most beloved foods because it’s more than food—it’s a friend. Whether you’ve dumped, been dumped, scored a job, or used all your Bitcoin to buy 3 grams of heroin 13 years ago, ice cream is there for you. Be it chunky, smooth, spangled with chocolate chips, studded with brownie bits, or, mmmmm, drizzled with luscious meandering streams of caramel or fudge… what was the point again? Oh yeah, ice cream is great.
Thanks to the wonders of manufacturing, we can purchase it in many formats. Such as in a carton, affixed to a handle of reconstituted wood pulp, sandwiched (if you will) between two cookies, or scooped into cones of what is today known as waffled dough.
But in the 19th century, when newfangled iced cream was the cool cold treat of the day in England, it was mostly available in “penny licks.” Penny signified the price, a penny, which back then was the highest monetary denomination and composed of 1,000 milli-pennies. Lick signified that you licked it off one of these things:
The iced cream originated with the influx of Italian immigrants. The newly arrived Italian gelato-makers benefited from the burgeoning import of ice from North America and sold their lovely frozen concoction from push-carts and barrows. But with no cones or disposable cups, the first ice creams were served on reusable penny lick glasses.
These “licks” had a large base and a shallow cup made of thick glass to conceal how little product one was getting. Even for a penny, it was a rip-off; especially during an era where 10% of a family’s wheat was tithed to a fat, lecherous cardinal.
This period also pre-dated the food safety legislation that now mandates “not suitable for human consumption” stickers on the bottom of KFC buckets. So shopkeepers in each village, hamlet, outpost, or encampment could create their own sweets.
Bunch of suffocated squirrels stuck in the churner? Fire it up, Giuseppe, there’s gelato to be made! Luckily for us, the modern Food Defect Levels Handbook sets boundaries on such contaminants, limiting incidental vermin content to no more than 65% of a food item’s total mass or volume.
And in this pre-germ era when diseases were caused by “miasma” or Godly wrath against masturbators, the penny licks were not cleaned after each use. Vendors may have wiped them off, or maybe not. Conscientious vendors stowed the glasses on a “soiled barrow top” after dipping them in dirty water with the “mouth secretions of previous buyers.”
The “poisonous Italian ice-cream” and “filthy glasses” led to the banning of penny licks in 1899 for potentially causing cholera outbreaks and spreading tuberculosis. Fortunately, within the next few years, multiple inventors created various types of cones, putting us back on track for 100% national obesity by 2034, baby!
The Biggest Food Preservation Advance Came Courtesy Of War
The only thing that’s gotten better about war is the nutrition. War nutrition condenses Banquet’s worst-selling TV dinners into powder format, but this advance is recent. During past campaigns, starvation could kill as many soldiers as enemy muskets or incompetent generalcy—sex with the right cousin, many times your own, was a surefire way to command scores of men throughout history. Most often to their deaths.
Yet leaders long ago realized that cannon fodder is useless when it starves before reaching the range of actual cannons. Still, famine remained a shameful problem, even for notorious outfits like Napoleon and La Grande Armée.
They and other old armies occasionally went without comestible resources. This wasn’t so bad during the Italian campaign, when soldiers “foraged” the countryside and villages for supplies, benefitting from an agricultural Willy Wonka Factory replete with luscious grapes for the picking, farmhouses for the looting, and farmhands for the target-practicin’ and impregnating.
But in Russia in 1812, the sub-zero weather and Russian scorched-earth strategies offered no chance for foraging. Raggedly, dyingly, men fought over horse livers from their sometimes-not-quite-dead beasts of burden. Or gnawed madly at the gunpowder-seasoned meat of their former equine companions. The buzzards circled above and swooped upon the piling French corpses. Granted, this must have been a very successful campaign for the buzzards.
Too bad the army didn’t have, for example, preserved foodstuffs that were, let’s venture, invented recently and specifically for the French Grand Army. Rewind 17 years to 1795, when the thin-mustached fat cats of the French Directory lamented that their soldiers kept dying before doing any meaningful soldiering. So 12,000 francs were offered to anyone who could improve food preservation methods.
Meet that person: Nicolas Appert, an innovative French chef and confectioner with a Ghost-of-Christmas-Past aesthetic:
Appert spent the following 15 years developing the world-changing technique that’s become the basis of all canning operations. He filled jars with food and boiled them. This killed germs, while the airtight seal kept out contaminants and pathogens.
Appert was awarded the 12,000-franc prize circa 1810 when he published The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years. Very anticlimactic for a revolution… maybe it’s no surprise that he died poor. It also didn’t help that the fat cats failed to remunerate him for supplying the army with homicide-fueling yum-yums.
Despite him doing the preserving, he didn’t know precisely how it worked—nobody did, since Louis Pasteur’s whole germ thingy was half a century away. The only equation that mattered was: Peas + Hot water = Genocide. Still, Appert teaches us all an invaluable lesson that's been true throughout history and always will be, as follows.
So remember, kids: stay in school, work hard every day, change the world, remain humble throughout, and you too may one day be rewarded for grand accomplishments by being buried in a pauper’s grave.
The Chicken Of Tomorrow Contest Gave Us The Chicken Of Today
The National Chicken Council, which I picture as a literal council of chickens dressed like generals, shows how poultry-eating habits have evolved per unit time. In 1960, a red-blooded, hard-working American built station wagons and consumed 28 pounds of chicken per year. That figure has risen consistently, and in 2021 it reached 97 pounds of chicken consumed per capita.
Before World War II, chickens were prized for egg-laying and only slaughtered when their egg-laying days ended. On homesteads, roast chicken was a special treat for the visit of city-slicking relatives, including uncle Ron with his wingtips and shiny Packard—some of us do hard, honest work to support a family, as the Lord intended!
Only in the following decades did chickens morph from egg-producing machines to Atomic Hot Wing-producing machines. And the cluckers we enjoy today were developed during a momentous period in American and global poultry history: the Chicken of Tomorrow contest of 1948, which was preceded by numerous regional chicken-breeding competitions.
The CoT contest was sponsored by chain store A&P (the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company), to distract from their mom-and-pop-shop-destroying “criminal restraint of trade” conviction. It was the NCAA tournament of chicken breeding, where today’s biggest poultry producers made their names by creating bigger birds to shove down America’s insatiable craw-hole.
The contests (there was another in 1951) had all the Americana accouterments of a respectable jamboree, including a parade, rodeos, concerts, dances, and pageants to crown a Chicken of Tomorrow Queen. Americans back then held pageants for literally everything; I wouldn’t be surprised if July 1945 saw the crowning of “Miss Fat Man” and “Miss Little Boy.”
Chickens were rated on points from an incel manifesto, with criteria such as “carcass characteristics” and “economy of production.” The winners of the Chicken of Tomorrow are among today’s largest brands, with appropriately evil-sounding names.
Like Arbor Acres®, which brings to mind a nondescript warehouse where you drop off your aging grandpa in the night before receiving a $25,000 direct deposit from “AA Genetics Research and Phosphorus Supply.”
And Cobb-Vantress, LLC., whose name slots right into an exposé about newly discovered atrocities against civilians and illegal exports during the Gulf War.
Or Ross®, which sounds oddly sinister considering it’s just a basic name—i.e., “Good evening, the situation has taken a turn for the worse, as the Ross Industries Kill-Bots™ have rebelled against their military handlers. More at 11.”
Two of the most pleasing breeds, produced by Arbor Acres and Vantress, were bred together to yield the ancestry of most modern chickens worldwide. But the advent of industrial, impersonal chicken production is a plague that threatens breed diversity and drives antibiotic resistance in sicklier, confined chicken populations. Chickens are abused, live in pain, and gone is any whimsicality: we now devour nameless clones rather than a Jersey Giant, a Rhode Island Red, or other forever-lost variants with old-timey MLB nicknames.
Toxic Metal-Wine-Laxative Poisoned Mozart, Countless Others
Antimony is 51st on the periodic table, but in terms of historical importance, it’s definitely top 35.
This metal was medicinally versatile, and by medicinally versatile I mean toxic. With a rich history to boot: in antiquity, the antimony-based stibnite mineral was a favored cosmetic for Egyptians, mascara for the biblical Jezebel, and a skin cure for Greeks. Also known as stibium or stibnum, antimony is one of those haughty Latin-and-Greek-symboled elements that condescends on its peers with weird sexual under-and-overtones—hence its chemical symbol “Sb .”
In the 17th century, it captivated Isaac Newton as much as gravity did, with its alchemical potential. Since alchemy was the Qanon of its day, it’s no surprise they say Newton died a virgin. Then in the 1900s, antimony was used to poison people in New Orleans brothels—though to be fair to antimony, few metals haven’t been.
Yet antimony’s most popular use was as a medical emetic or laxative in Middle Ages Europe. Before germ theory had us wiping down doorknobs 7 times a day, all ills were caused by “bad humors,” an idea dating to Hippocrates (460 BCE–370 BCE) who, if I recall correctly, also masturbated inside a barrel in public.
To purge bad humors, medieval folks popped a pill of antimony. This toxic lenitive caused two-way evacuation. Too expensive to replace, it was recovered manually from one’s excrement. Thus, it was passed down through the generations as a “perpetual pill,” much the way insulin pumps are bequeathed as heirlooms in Missouri today.
Circa 1600, the pills were outlawed, but contemporary yokels valued their freedoms and didn’t stand for this act of life-saving tyranny. Instead, enter antimony poisoning round 2: the increased use of cups made with some percentage of this toxic metal.
Filled with wine and let to stand 12-24 hours, the antinomy mingled flirtatiously with the wine’s tartaric acid, yielding antimony tartrate. One quaff later, the quaffer finds themselves in a pervading state of vomitoria.
Mozart potentially over-self-medicated on this fortified wine and suffered antimonial symptoms like “intense vomiting, fever, swollen abdomen and swollen limbs,” before dying aged 35. But those are also the symptoms of discovering season 2 of your favorite show sucks. And if you’re thinking, “Wow, haha, stupid old-timey people, we’ve come a long way since then,” do you really think the vaginal-yeast-sourced Mega Colon Blast (with reishi and lion’s mane) sold by Earth Mama on Etsy is any less toxic? Checkmate, antimony haters.
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