The American Table: 5 Amazing Food Stories from History

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, especially when it involves food, ingredients, and American history. Here are a handful of curious stories whose after-effects still influence our dining habits today. There’s plenty more to read (and be surprised by) in the pages of Cook’s Country Eats Local.

1. Pork in Disguise

City Chicken (recipe featured in New England and the Mid-Atlantic chapter)

City chicken may sound like a sophisticated chicken dish, but in fact, it’s neither particularly fancy nor made with chicken. Instead, pork or veal cutlets are threaded onto skewers and made to resemble chicken drumsticks. The skewers are breaded, shallow-fried, then baked or braised for about an hour. City chicken came about during the Great Depression, when chicken was a pricey commodity, but it’s part of a long-standing tradition of disguising foods to look like something else. In the mid-19th century, when supplies of flour, sugar, fresh fruit, and spices were cut off by blockade during the Civil War, clever Southern cooks created mock apple pie, said to smell and taste like real apples, from a “small bowl of crackers” combined with sweetener and tartaric acid (to replace the lemon juice) and, we suspect, a lot of imagination. Some 70 years later, hard times gave the pie a reprise: During the Depression, Ritz Crackers featured the recipe right on the box. Mock apple pie may have fallen out of favor, but city chicken is still popular in parts of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Of course, it’s no longer intended to fool diners: City chicken may have been born out of necessity, but it survived because it’s delicious.

2. Old Bay’s Origins

South Carolina Shrimp Boil (recipe featured in Appalachia and the South chapter)

Old Bay seasoning, a key ingredient in our South Carolina Shrimp Boil, was created in 1941 by a German-Jewish spice merchant and refugee. Gustav Brunn had arrived in America just two years earlier, after spending 16 days in a concentration camp. The family managed to secure his release and fled to America with Brunn’s spice grinder. Brunn, who spoke little English, had trouble getting a job, so he opened a business by the port of Baltimore. Observing seafood merchants steaming crabs in their own spice blends, he developed his own blend, naming it Old Bay after a defunct steamship line. The business remained in the family until the 1980s. McCormick & Company now owns Old Bay and still follows the original recipe.

3. Funeral Food

Funeral Potatoes (recipe featured in Texas and the West chapter)

Mormons have their funeral potatoes, but for many of the first American colonists, respectable funerals were unthinkable without a stash of “funeral biscuits” to distribute to mourners. Unrelated to modern baking powder biscuits, these were basically large, flat cookies, usually round and stamped in molds with hearts or other decorative motifs. With a texture that resembled dry, slightly crisp ladyfingers, they were meant to be consumed with wine. Families that could afford them ordered many dozens from specialty confectioners and received them ready to hand out, handsomely wrapped in white paper—an expensive luxury at the time—and sealed with black wax. Funeral biscuits (the Dutch called them dootcoekjes, literally “death cookies”) probably reached their height of popularity in the early 19th century and faded out after the Civil War.

4. Chiles: A Love Story

Carne Adovada (recipe featured in Texas and the West chapter)

New Mexicans love their chiles. Need proof? Read this 2005 joint memorial requesting that the secretary of state list the chile as the state vegetable—never mind that scientists classify them as a fruit. We quote in small part: “WHEREAS, mass immigration to New Mexico in the past four hundred years has been rumored to be a result of the addictive qualities of chile…; and WHEREAS, New Mexicans are more proud of this magical vegetable than they are of the Lobos basketball team, the roadrunner state bird, the biscochito, the state’s sunsets or its blue skies, combined…” The official state question is “Red or green?” This refers to chile preference, and if you’re dining out in New Mexico, you’ll be asked it when you place your order.

5. Not So Fast, New York

The Best Reuben Sandwiches (recipe featured in The Midwest and Great Plains chapter)

The grilled Reuben is the epitome of a New York deli sandwich, but even The New York Times reports that the Reuben was created in the 1920s at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, when a local grocer, Reuben Kulakofsky, concocted it for his poker buddies, then convinced the hotel owner to put it on the menu. A waitress there won a national contest with the sandwich in the 1950s and it soon swept the country. Good taste travels!