5 Primitive Predecessors to Today’s Snack Foods
It’s been estimated that every year, the majority of America’s collective research and development budget goes into maintaining the deliciousness of Doritos. The person who came up with that estimate was high when he did so, but the fact remains that snack foods are technical accomplishments and proof of how far we’ve come as a species. We had snack foods years ago, as well. They were just a tiny bit different.
You Had to Dip Chewing Gum in Sugar
If we really dig into the past, chewing gum predates recorded history. Various cultures, not in communication with one another, independently started chewing on stuff like chicle and tar, having been taught by practice with eating food that chewing stuff is inherently fun.
But let’s zip forward and look at the era of commercially produced gum. We’ll see that in the 19th century, people bought flavored chewing gum, but no one had mastered how to make the gum retain its flavor for more than a few nanoseconds. Once the flavor vanished and people wanted to go on chewing, they’d take the wad out of their mouths, roll it in powdered sugar and then pop it back in. There’s no objective reason to call this gross, but still, we tend to prefer things not to be expelled from the mouth after entering nowadays, and definitely not to return to the mouth after expelling.
The tradition of rolling gum in powder hasn’t been forgotten, however. In Ukraine in 2009, a student of chemistry named Vladimir Likhonos had a habit of rolling his gum in citric acid powder, the stuff that covers sour candy. According to news reports that raise more questions than they answer, he one day mistakenly rolled his gum in some explosive powder he had handy. The gum exploded in his mouth and blew his jaw off.
Chips Used to Come With Individual Salt Packets
Chips, like gum, once needed a little DIY with a white powder. Aging people in Britain still recall the days when their packets of crisps would come with a much tinier packet inside of them, containing the salt you had to sprinkle manually over each wafer. In theory, this let you customize each bite’s saltiness. In practice, it was stupidly inconvenient, considering that convenience would end up being half the selling point behind potato chips.
Today, you might still see a packet of plain salted chips labeled as “ready salted.” This is holdover from the time when you never knew if salted chips you bought were already pre-salted for your pleasure.
In any event, the science of potato-chip salting continues to evolve. Since you eat each chip so quickly, you swallow before the salt crystals fully dissolve, and you therefore only taste a fraction of the salt that’s present. A decade ago, Lay’s discovered people only taste 20 percent of the salt present in chips. They then switched to a differently shaped crystal with more surface area, making you taste a higher percentage of each one. They used this revolutionary tech to create low-sodium chips that taste the same (rather than, as we’d suggest, using the same amount of salt to create chips so salty, everyone starts gagging).
Popcorn Is Older Than Corn
Popcorn is a strange and magical food, which would look quite alien if you were seeing it for the first time. Before we had microwaves, popping some yourself used to be quite a project, and we could do a whole article of the evolution of popping tech. The real surprising part of popcorn, however, is when you go all the way back in history. Because people were eating popcorn before they were eating non-popped corn, because edible non-popped corn did not yet exist.
Thousands of years before we created today’s corn varieties through selective breeding, the Aztecs had a predecessor called teosinte. You could not eat teosinte. Maybe some animal with eight stomachs could digest the stuff, but humans could not. Nor could we smash the kernels into flour; they were just too hard. But we could pop them. When we tried cooking the teosinte, it never got soft, but each kernel retained its moisture till it exploded into foamy starch.
Today, of course, we have all the corn we can eat, and then some. In some states, even municipal water must contain 15 percent corn syrup to be considered legally potable.
Hydrox Was Made by Oreos’ Brother
Oreos are universally famous, to the point that we all know what “Oreo flavor” means — even though the ingredients assure us there’s no such thing, it’s just chocolate-flavored, given the illusion of uniqueness thanks to texture. “Engraved chocolate sandwich biscuits” is a generic concept that anyone is free to replicate, as you’ll know if you stop by any grocery chain and pick up a box of store-brand alternatives.
Hydrox, a less popular cookie that’s basically the same as Oreos, would seem to be one of these off-brand imitators. But years ago, we stunned readers by informing them that, actually, Hydrox came first, and Oreos were the imitator. However, we left out an important part of the story. This wasn’t just a case of one company copying another. These two competing cookies were made by two competing brothers.
Jacob and Joseph worked together initially, at a 19th-century bakery in Kansas City. Jacob turned the bakery into a huge business, then Joseph went further and pressed forward with mergers till he’d formed the National Biscuit Company. Jacob, returning the biz after a bout of illness, wanted to stay a bit independent and formed the new Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company, which came up with the Hydrox cookie. Nabisco (as Joe’s larger company ended up calling themselves) stole brother Jacob’s idea and sold their own sandwich cookies under the name Oreo.
Despite Nabisco being the bigger company, Hydrox outsold Oreo for a long time. Only after both brothers died did the reversal kick in. One issue was the name. Hydrox sounds like a cleaning product now, but it didn’t originally — it only started sounding like that after the rise of such brands as Ajax and Clorox. If chemical companies sold borax under the brand name Boreo, maybe Oreo would have faltered, too.
Before Chicken Nuggets, We Had Onion Nuggets
The Chicken McNugget is a very different product from that other chicken snack, the chicken tender. The chicken tender, or chicken finger, is a solid piece of meat, a strip taken from either side of the bird’s breastbone. The McNugget is reconstituted meat, scraps of flesh leftover from other processes and stuck together to give the illusion that you’re eating something whole. This economical (and delicious) way of reusing waste meat was developed by the military and was used for the McRib before the McNugget.
Between the McRib and McNugget, however, McDonald’s unveiled another product in the same family. It was called the Onion Nugget. It didn’t use reconstituted meat, as it didn’t use meat, but just as a McRib used bits of pork that couldn’t otherwise be sold as a chop, the Onion Nugget used bits of onion that couldn’t otherwise be fried into a perfect ring.
Everyone likes onion rings, so they were sure to like onion nuggets, which were even onionier, reasoned McDonald’s. In reality, it wasn’t a huge hit, and McDonald’s discontinued it in 1984 after an underwhelming decade. The product wasn’t necessarily bad. It’s just that almost immediately after introducing it, McDonald’s started selling McNuggets, and between those two, the choice facing diners was obvious.
Oh, we know, plenty of people reading this are grimacing at that thought, muttering to themselves that McNuggets are “not really food” and “even the paper box they come in is made of more actual meat.” But one day, you’ll be in some unfamiliar city, lost and sad. Then you’ll spot those familiar arches and think of that sweet-and-sour sauce. When the meal is done, you’ll tell yourself, “Never again,” but right before that, you’ll have a few minutes of pure bliss.