5 Strange Origin Stories That Explain What Americans Eat And Drink
The American diet is kind of limited, and most of the time it's easy to see why we eat the way we do. We eat potatoes because they're there and they taste good, while we don't eat hippogriff meat because that shit turns you blind. But behind the scenes, a whole bunch of shenanigans and tragedies have shaped what's popular. You probably would never have guessed, for example, that ...
A Popular, Delicious Fruit Was Killed By The Logging Industry
If you ever find yourself in England, locked in a grocery store and forced to browse, you might see bottles labeled "blackcurrant syrup." When this syrup is mixed with water, you get a tasty berry drink whose flavor you may never have experienced if you're from the United States. In fact, you may have not even seen the word "blackcurrant" until right now. Elsewhere in the building, you'll run into blackcurrant jam and blackcurrant scones, and will wolf the stuff down right there in the store.
In the candy aisle, bags of Skittles and Starbursts will contain individual pieces flavored with blackcurrant. These, you should know, are the worst-tasting pieces in the whole bag, but the Brits do like them, so you'll still fume at having been denied access to them for so long. "Is there just a whole fruit that doesn't exist in America? Why?"
Like so many things, this mystery can be traced to a conspiracy of lumberjacks. Blackcurrants used to grow in the United States. Then in 1911, America's logging lobby got the federal government to ban the fruit nationwide. They believed that blackcurrants carry a disease called white pine blister rust, which sounds sexually transmitted, but actually affects pine trees. This belief turned out to be not entirely valid, but they believed it really hard, and pine lumber was really important, so the ban went through.
The federal ban eventually went away, leaving just state bans in place, and it then fell on individual enterprising farmers to lobby their local governments to throw those bans away. "Blackcurrants will be HUGE if you just let me grow them!" they argue today. The fruits have more antioxidants than blueberries and more Vitamin C than oranges, several times over. Why has no TV celeb called them a superfood yet? Farmers in some states are now growing and selling them, but they're fighting on an uneven playing field against a bunch of competing fruits that weren't kept from American taste buds for a century.
If you want to try blackcurrants yourselves, you can probably find them at certain specialty stores like, uh, Walmart. Yeah, you can get anything at Walmart. Or you can enter a sufficiently well-provisioned bar, put on your fanciest voice, and order "something with a little creme de cassis, if you please." But when you do, keep in mind that ...
Cocktails Became Popular To Cover Up The Dead Rat Taste Of Bootleg Liquor
Before Prohibition was introduced to save us from the devil's brew, most alcohol drunk in America was beer or wine. Then came the Volstead Act, and all production went underground. People now wanted the alcohol they bought to be as concentrated as possible, and bootleggers wanted to make as much profit as possible per pint. By the time Prohibition ended and we could start measuring consumption again, Americans had moved from beer and wine to spirits. They'd shifted to drinking a lot of liquor during Prohibition. Shitty, shitty liquor.
Shitty because even when the bootleg stuff for sale wasn't filled with actual poison (sometimes added purposely by the government, through a program that killed 10,000 people), the men who made it were rarely going to bother adhering to legal beverages' quality standards. Operations were too hidden and too hurried to, say, age whiskey in oak barrels. To simulate the flavor of bourbon, they'd instead add decaying meat, sometimes from dead rats. Scotch was thought to have a more smokey flavor, and they had a shortcut for that too: They'd pour in creosote, which is derived from wood tar.
Along with the poorly simulated flavors came some undeniable foulness, so to cover that up, there was suddenly an incentive to mix liquor with all kinds of sweet stuff, like honey and cherry and grapefruit juice. Plus, when the liquor had no flavor at all and there were no fancier alternatives available, that was still a pretty good reason to add in something tasty.
Though cocktails had existed for ages (and even the word "cocktail" had been around for over a century), people now drank more of them, and bartenders invented a bunch of new ones. So at your next cocktail party, feel free to break the ice with "Did you know this is an old ritual intended to hide the fact that their alcohol had rat testicles floating in it?"
Related: 26 Foods You Wouldn't Eat If You Knew How They're Made
Avocados Blew Up Thanks To NAFTA (And PR)
Avocados and guacamole only became popular in America in the last few decades, and that's despite the avocado industry working their darnedest to make them a thing for the past century. All the way back in 1915, the California Growers Association was wondering why their produce that tasted like thick green water wasn't attracting any buyers. At the time, it was called the aguacate fruit, and was more commonly referred to by the unappetizing nickname of " alligator pear" (which might still have been more appealing than "aguacate," the Aztec word for testicle). The growers came up with the name "avocado" as a pre-Jazz-Age form of rebranding.
The plan was to sell the avocado as an exotic luxury. This wasn't entirely successful -- even today, there's money to be made by selling a few people overpriced avocado toast, but much more to be made by selling millions of buckets of dip. The growers eventually realized the real profits would come from making avocado an everyday item, and a PR company they hired, Hill & Knowlton, came up with the idea of tying it to Super Bowl Sunday. They invented the Guacamole Bowl, sending free samples to a bunch of sports reporters and players, and this created the Super Bowl guac tradition out of thin air.
Guacamole's status as a mandatory dip expanded from there, but this also coincided with another big milestone in avocado history. Since 1914, the U.S. had banned avocados from being imported from Mexico, fearing the cheap competition, and claiming those things carried bugs. But then the early '90s ushered in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Mexico was soon able to flood America with the avocados we'd suddenly realized we wanted. Today, some 80% of avocados come from Mexico, down a guacamole pipeline that would be impossible were those bans still in place.
You might think those imports screwed the California growers, the ones who fought so long to make us like their crocodile kumquats, but they didn't. Today, America buys more avocados than California could possibly pump out on its own (those things need a lot of land and water, and only grow at specific times of the year that far north). And since it's a staple now, the high demand means they're valued higher than they were pre-NAFTA. Everyone wins! Except for the people behind whatever we'd have been putting on our toast without avocado. Marmite, probably.
Related: 17 Weird Facts About Food That You Probably Didn't Know
McDonald's Super Size Meals Began As A Jurassic Park Tie-In
The idea of offering fast food items in multiple sizes sounds so basic that no one person could have invented it. At the very least, it had to exist when settlers first came from Europe, which is why Pilgrims could order large stuffing at the first Thanksgiving. But no, this concept was first thought of by a specific guy: movie theater manager David Wallerstein.
Wallerstein, who's also credited with such innovations as butter in popcorn machines and ice in soda machines, came up with the idea of "large popcorn." Then he joined McDonald's and suggested doing the same thing with fries and drinks. McDonald's resisted at first. If someone wanted more fries, they reasoned, surely they'd just buy two orders of fries. Then they rolled it out starting in 1972, to great success.
Because of this, it's often said that Wallerstein invented "supersizing." But while meals of varying size were conceived as the greatest marketing innovation ever, actual Super Size meals (those really big portions, starting with 42-ounce sodas and 610-calorie fries) were supposed to be just a temporary gimmick, and they came aboutbecause of Jurassic Park.
When the 1993 film was on its way, McDonald's introduced a tie-in called "dino-size" meals. The portions were intended as absurdly large -- i.e. larger than the hefty portions the research team had already settled on as the chain's optimal top size. McDonald's figured customers would buy the dino meals, but only as a novelty as part of the promotion, like how Denny's customers might try the otherwise ridiculous two fried eggs in a cheddar bun if it's marketed as " the Hobbit Hole Breakfast" for a few weeks. But instead customers ordered dino so frequently that corporate realized this was the size Americans truly want.
McDonald's kept the option on the menu after the promotion ended, now calling it "Super Size." It existed for a little over a decade, until 2004. During that time, every other chain rushed to play catch-up and unveil their own giant selections. Shockingly, this arms race coincided nicely with a growing U.S. obesity epidemic.
Related: 9 Horrifying Foods You Won't Believe People Actually Eat
Americans Used To Love Mutton, Until Soldiers Got Sick Of It During WWII
There's a joke vegetarians like to tell: "Meat eaters say our diet is limited, when we eat 10,000 plants and they eat just three animals." The joke falls apart when you realize meat eaters eat three animals in addition to all those plants, but yeah, the bulk of our meat comes from just three animals we've specially bred for their deliciousness: cows, pigs, and chickens. Lamb ranks as a very distant also-ran -- Americans eat an average of one pound of lamb a year, compared to 70 pounds average of each of the top three.
Lamb, as the name indicates, is the meat of young sheep, just like veal is meat from young cows. Meat from other sheep is called mutton, and is even less popular by far -- most Americans never eat it at all. But we used to eat a whole lot of mutton 80 years ago. Mutton has a more powerful flavor than other meats, and is chewier, which makes some people say it's the best of all. That also makes other people say it's the worst, but tastes are subjective. In any case, you've got to wonder why Americans' tolerance for mutton evaporated so rapidly.
The biggest factor was World War II, when soldiers overseas ate a whole lot of canned mutton in their rations. Presumably, this was because it was cheaper for food producers back home to keep sheep than breed giant farting cows (which, come to think of it, would be another advantage of America eating more mutton today). You could get sick of any food if forced to eat it over and over in a war zone, and soldiers got especially sick of mutton. Mutton, prepared well, can be tasty, but gray chunks out of a can will eventually make you want to eat your boots instead.
When they returned home, these men had been conditioned to hate mutton, and refused to touch the stuff. Same thing happened in Britain, whose soldiers had similar diets. People ate lots of mutton before the war, but afterward they stopped, even though the only alternative was British food. In countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, etc., mutton is still huge. Go try some, unless you want Hitler to decide what you eat.
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