5 Everyday Foods Americans Never Ate Till Strangely Recently

In the 1940s, Americans didn’t eat pizza. In fact, most didn’t even know the word
5 Everyday Foods Americans Never Ate Till Strangely Recently

People consider some food exotic, and their grandkids go on to consider it mundane. Go watch some TV show from the 1990s, and you’ll see a cappuccino was an absurd drink demanded by yuppies, while sushi (“raw fish?!”) made children recoil as though they’d been offered monkey brains. 

The really surprising part, though, comes when you go back a little before when people thought a food was weird. You’ll reach an era when they’d never even heard of that food and needed someone to explain it to them. With some foods, this was a lot more recent than you’d think.

In 1944, the New York Times Introduced Readers to Pizza

People have been plopping toppings on flatbread since before recorded history, and they’ve been calling it “pizza” for over a thousand years. Pizza really started, though, in the 16th century, when Italians started adding tomatoes to the mix (tomatoes being a strange new import they’d received from the Americas). Italian immigrants brought pizza to the U.S. in the 1800s, and the first American pizzeria opened in New York in 1897. More pizzerias opened in Boston, Trenton and Chicago from there.

Even so, by the start of the 1940s, most Americans had never heard of pizza. In 1944, the New York Times ran an article about a restaurant called Luigino’s Pizzeria, and they needed to explain to readers just what a pizza was. “One of the most popular dishes in southern Italy, especially in the vicinity of Naples, is pizza,” it read, “a pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes.” 

white pizza

City Foodsters

White pizza isn’t pizza. Source: the New York Times.

We evidently had not yet fixed on the word toppings, so centers had to suffice. “Cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, capers, onions and so on may be used,” continued the article. And they told readers that Luigino’s patrons could take pizzas home in a special cardboard box, letting us know the pizza box is as old as pizza itself, as far as America is concerned. Oh, and the article didn’t call them “pizzas.” For the plural form of the word, they used pizze. Again: We hadn’t yet settled on what sort of pizza words we were going to use. 

In 1947, the newspaper did another article, now illustrated with a single pizza split into dozens of slices. “The pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger,” it predicted, “if Americans only knew about it.”

Then in 1960, They Defined the Bagel

The only true bagels are New York bagels, according to New Yorkers. This pro-New York prejudice is somehow still acceptable, even in the modern era. If you were to travel to 1960s New York, however, and show them what’s today known as a New York bagel, they would mock it as a mass-produced imitation of the real thing. 

Bakers originally made bagels by hand. You’d roll the dough, loop the dough into a ring and boil it in a kettle. Only now was it ready to go into the oven. Then in the 1960s, Daniel Thompson invented a bagel-making machine. This machine meant bagels could be cranked out by restaurants everywhere, rather than just by trained bakers in the Jewish neighborhoods of America’s biggest cities. Machine bagels taste different from traditional ones. The crust is softer, and the spongey part bounces less. 

New York City bagels

Daniel Krieger

So, not a true bagel, some would say.

In 1960, the New York Times Magazine ran a story about bagels, mentioning how Poland’s bagel tax sparked a battle between underground bakeries and militias. They knew all about bagels in the Old Country, and in New York, but the magazine couldn’t count on the national audience having any familiarity with the food. The article defined a bagel for the public as “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.” 

The 1960s Were Also the Birth of Chinese Food in America

America had plenty of Chinese restaurants before the 1960s, going back to the 19th century, when a whole lot of Chinese workers came and set up shop. But China’s a big country, and American Chinese food remained limited. For a long time, it just meant Cantonese food, and a very Americanized spin on Cantonese food, full of chop suey and chow mein. 

If you’re more interested in northern Chinese cuisine, you can thank one restauranteur for bringing that to America: Cecilia Chang, whose Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco opened in 1962. The Mandarin introduced America to potstickers, Sichuan beef and moo shu pork. That last dish, by the way, had been called “moo shi pork” earlier, but “moo shu” sounds better, because it rhymes. 

Homemade moo shu pork

Ynotswim/Wiki Commons

Plus, moo shi pork sounds too mushy.

Of course, many would say that Chinese food was never truly complete until Panda Express started serving orange chicken in 1987. This dish rendered obsolete all other Chinese food, and indeed all other food in general.

In the 1970s, Americans Had to be Taught How to Pronounce ‘Taco’

We’re not always joking when we say fast-food chains revolutionize food. Taco Bell is credited as the reason Americans in general got to know what tacos and burritos are. It turned tacos into fast food through its process of pre-frying tortillas, and this let the chain quickly expand nationwide.

Taco Bell stole that process for pre-frying tortillas from a Mexican restaurant named Mitla Café, which reminds us that some restaurants in America did sell tacos before Taco Bell did. But those restaurants were in California, the Southwest or Texas. Americans elsewhere remained deprived. As proof, look to this Taco Bell menu from 1972, which felt the need to provide an pronunciation guide for the items on display:

Taco Bell

You might think, “Of course that’s how you pronounce those words, you can just sound them all out, except for maybe frijoles,” but cut those poor 1970s folk some slack. You’ll also note that the menu doesn’t bother to teach any us of how to pronounce “Bellburger.” It really should, for consistency, or for comedy — especially since, looking back, “a Taco Bell hamburger” is the weirdest item on this menu.

So, Taco Bell is how Americans came to know about tacos. Be careful, though, not to say that’s how Americans came to know Mexican food because calling Taco Bell “Mexican food” will anger a lot of people. When Taco Bell tried opening in Mexico, they renamed their tacos to a new word they made up, “tacostadas,” since Taco Bell’s fare doesn’t register as tacos in Mexico. They also somewhat embraced their reputation of not being real Mexican food, by selling American French fries and soft serve

Sadly, they offered no Bellburgers, probably because they had no guide on how to pronounce them. 

Kale Was Just Decoration as Recently as 2012

Slipping now ever closer to the present day, do you remember when kale became a thing? Around 2015, the vegetable overtook spinach as the most-purchased leafy green. This all happened after the American Kale Association hired a PR firm to convince people to buy kale, a campaign that very much succeeded. As part of all this, Gwyneth Paltrow talked to followers about kale, and the infection spread from there.

Steamed Kale

Laurel F/Flickr

Earlier, people had thought kale was just goop. 

In 2012, when publications were newly informing the public about this superfood, the biggest existing consumer of kale in America was Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut didn’t use it as a topping but in the salad bar — and not as food, but just as decoration around the salad bar’s items

Word on the street is that kale’s popularity has fallen a bit from its height. It’s good for more than just garnish, but it never had as much potential as Pizza Hut’s main specialty, pizze. Pizze are pies made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers.

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