Comfort food wasn't always the old-fashioned, reliable thing that we consider it now. At one time, many food items that we now wolf down without a thought were once unbelievable breakthroughs in technology, science, or sophistication. Here are the most delicious discoveries that you've already eaten.
10. Baking powder was a labor of love and patriotism.
We do the craziest things for love. In the 1800s, Arthur Bird married a woman who was allergic to both yeast and eggs, two materials traditionally used to puff up breads and pastries. After spending one too many mornings seeing his new bride listlessly gnawing on a cracker, Bird couldn't take it anymore. He took to the lab and experimented until he mixed together baking soda, cream of tartar, and something to keep both dry, and came up with a quick, yeast-free way to make fluffy breads. When the Crimean War came around, he put forward his baking powder so that soldiers at the front could have good bread produced quickly.
9. Cheez Whiz was the best fake cheese it could be.
At the time and place Cheez Whiz was invented - 1950s America - people were already used to eating fake cheese. 'Cheese food product,' was commonly used in both sandwiches and cooking. The problem was, it didn't melt well. The oils and solids of fake cheese separated easily, leaving people with clumps of solids surrounded by viscous oils. People needed a 'cheez' that would stay homogenous no matter what, and Cheez Whiz was the answer. Cheez Whiz did have different cheeses in it, including gouda, muenster, and mozzarella - as well as other flavors. It kept indefinitely, didn't have to be grated since it melted evenly and easily, and never lost its consistency. As a materials science product, Cheez Whiz was and is impressive. As a food product - it's a matter of taste.
8. Igor, the mad scientist's assistant, creates ganache.
In truth, he was just the chef's assistant, but he made a new thing happen. Legend has it that an assistant in France was given a pot of hot cream to pour into a bowl so it could be whipped. Instead, he unthinkingly dumped it into a bowl that contained pieces of chocolate. Since chocolate was hard to come by in those days, the chef yelled at him, calling him a 'ganache,' which translates as 'fool.' The fool got the last laugh, when the mixture turned out to be delicious, and a staple of pastry and candy making. (Actually, it probably got the name 'ganache' because any dummy could make it, since it's just different ratios of chopped chocolate and warm cream stirred together.)
7. Kellogg's flakes were part of a plot to heal the world.
John Harvey Kellogg owned the Battle Creek Health Spa in Michigan. His patients were put on a strict diet of bland grains, specially processed. Kellogg made breads by pushing grain meals through rollers which made them into sheets of dough. One day, while he was baking wheat, he had to step away and was detained until the wheat was stale. When he put it through the roller anyway, each grain was flattened and cracked into a flake. Served with milk, it was palatable to the patients. But why did Kellogg serve such bland food to begin with? He believed that masturbation was an evil that influenced all the other evils in the world, from crime to depression to leprosy. And he was sure that a spicy or rich diet encouraged the practice. Kellogg's flakes (later made with corn instead of wheat) were the ultimate experiment in social control.
6. Broccolini tried to hide its shameful mutant pedigree.
Broccolini plants were one of the more recent developments in food. The vegetable was actually patented in 1996, three years after it was developed by the Sakata Corporation. It was marketed, at first, under the name of Aspiration - something meant to make it seem like the upscale asparagus. Eventually it was revealed to be an unholy - but tasty - hybrid of broccoli and gai lan.
5. Artificial sweeteners are almost all the result of terribly unsafe experimental techniques.
When people up to scientific mischief tell you that they have 'everything under control,' go ahead and point out that almost all sweeteners were discovered by science experiments not only because people got bits of the experiments on their hands, but because they put them into their mouths. Saccharin, aspartame, and cyclamate were discovered when lab workers licked them by accident. Saccharin actually made it into a guy's dinnertime rolls, which he had with his family. Aspartame got smeared over reports that a researcher tasted when he licked his fingers to turn pages. Cyclamate was discovered when a junior lab tech mistook the order to 'test the chemicals' for an order to 'taste the chemicals.'
4. Margarine was the food invention that shook America.
Margarine was invented in France in the late 1800s by Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez. It was made from margaric fatty acid - hence the name, and recommended to Napoleon as a cheap way to feed his troops a buttery substance. When it came to the United States, though, it was hotly opposed by the dairy industry. Dairy farmers sought to stamp out the cheaper butter-substitute so vigorously that President Grover Cleveland himself signed an act that required margarine manufacturers to get expensive licenses and imposed a tax on the sale of the product. Margarine was still cheap enough to sell well. Next state legislators imposed aesthetic initiatives to keep people from buying it. It was against the law to dye margarine yellow, and in one case it was required to be dyed red to put people off their food. Margarine is still around, and still cheaper, today.
3. Soft drinks are a two-hundred-year-long march of technology.
The first recorded use of the phrase 'soda water' was in 1798. It probably referred to naturally carbonated mineral water, but it got people thinking. In 1810 a process for making artificial mineral water was patented, followed by a contraption that held the water under pressure and dispensed it a bit at a time. Flavor wasn't added for another forty years, when ginger ale was invented in Ireland. Root beer came in the 1870s, cola came in 1875, and 'Coca-cola' was invented in 1886. Bottles for soda and bottle caps for individual use came in the 1890s, and soda making exploded. The six-pack, called Hom-packs came in the twenties, and ushered in new flavors, such as "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Sodas," later called 7 Up. Diet sodas came in the early 1950s, and aluminum cans in the late 1950s. The seventies, with their casual attitude, brought plastic bottles. Infamous New Coke sank in 1985, but it's clear the soda evolution will never stop. Next, I predict walking soda bottles.
2. Jell-O went through generations of scientists before becoming what we know it today.
Gelatin has been around for a long time, but making usually involved boiling hooves and bones and other unsavory things - and it usually was a savory substance, not a sweet one. Peter Cooper changed the process in 1845, when he made a powdered and easy-to-make substance that would gel. It failed to win over the market, but it did get the attention of a cough syrup maker named Pearl Wait. Wait was trying to get into medicine, and though the smooth texture of the gelatin would be a good way to make the medicine go down. He also tried to make the gel into an easy-to-take laxative. Neither option worked out for him, but during the process he created a fruit-flavored concoction that, according to his wife, tasted pretty good. She suggested the name Jell-O, and they started marketing the substance. No one had any interest in the wonder food until after the turn of the century, but in the early 1900s, under General Foods, Jell-O became one of the most popular American desserts.
1. Imitation crab meat is practically matter conversion.
If there is anything that should convince someone they're living in the future, it's imitation crab meat. This process grabs a bunch of random matter and turns it into a specific food. The only thing that makes this different from the replicators in Star Trek is the sound effects. First people start with random fish. Any fish will do, because the whole thing is pretty much going to be melted down, but bland fish are best. The flesh of the fish contain fish myofibrillar proteins. These proteins are stripped down until they're a gel. That gel is then twisted into strips, which are again twisted together into the 'sticks' of crab meat that are sold.
Over time, the process was refined. Starch was added to give heft and resilience to the gel. Sugar was added to keep the gel from freezing and losing its cohesion. Flavorings were mixed into the gel to make it more like crab meat, and colorants, including paprika, were splashed across the sticks in order to dye parts of them the same shade as cooked crab meat. What's strange is that natural flavorings don't flavor the meat nearly as well as an artificial flavor developed from processed ingredients. This is why 'natural and artificial flavors' show up on the label of most imitation crab meats. The natural flavors are there so that the consumer feels okay about buying fake crab meat. The artificial flavors are there so that the meat actually tastes like crab. Sometimes invention is better than nature.
Top Image: Agriffin
Cupcake Image: Alicia Rae
Crab Stick Image: Wiki Commons
Via What's Cooking America, Food Timeline, NY Times, Idea Finder, Psych Central, Cracked, Buttery Spread.org, About.com, MIT, and Made How.