The history of some of the foods we eat, and their sometimes curious origins, can be an interesting and entertaining study to engage in. For the most part we seem to just happily consume them, while perhaps having some vague idea of the beginnings of our favorites, but only because they are our favorites. And as a general rule the origin pales by far in comparison to how well they are prepared, which is almost always our only real concern at the moment.
Many people know there is some connection between the hamburger and Hamburg Germany. Most just don't know that it is only that the chopped steak patty of the burger resembled Hamburg Steak, a completely different dish which it was in fact patterned after. A name it was originally sold by here in the U.S. as a marketing campaign, by enterprising restaurant owners who used the name to command higher prices for a simple dish using the fancy foreign name. It would seem very little has changed in that regard over the years but I digress. However, when it was first served to factory workers from lunch wagons during the industrial revolution, it proved to be an unwieldy dish to eat while standing and without a table, so some enterprising lunch wagoner come up with the idea of putting the patty between two slices of bread making it a sandwich, and thus the hamburger was born in the mid 1800s.
As for the french Fries, they may have began in Belgium during the 80-Years-War, after the potato had been brought over to Spain from Latin America by the Spanish sailers, that part of the story is unclear. But one of the first mentions of them being referred to as French is in an old menu from a state dinner at the White House, where Thomas Jefferson referred to them as “potatoes cooked in the French fashion”, as french-frying was then another term for what we call deep-frying today. Oddly enough they have largely been marketed to the rest of the world as french fries via U.S.-based fast food chains going abroad, and now they are often known in other countries as “American Fries”.
Speaking of Belgium... Beer itself, the inception of alcohol in general, is believed to have happened when an early Mesopotamian farmer sampled some water in which bread had been sitting and fermenting for a day or two, and thus stumbled upon a whole new idea. Yet Belgium White Beer seems to have had it's beginnings actually happen in Belgium. Although there is a German version of the white/wheat beer also known as Hefeweizens, and a French version – imagine that – bière blanche. Belgian White beer was historically brewed in the Flemish region of Belgium, where brewers could easily obtain both the cereal grains from farms and the spices from their neighbors in the Netherlands. I'm told the most notable difference in flavors between the Belgian and German versions comes from the yeast used. The yeast in German white beers tend to have notes of cloves and bananas, while the yeast in the Belgian white beers tend to have notes of citrus and spices. Which may explain why I prefer the Belgian varieties, with me not being a fan of the flavor of cloves, but to each their own.
Since we've wondered our way to Germany, I suppose most people probably recall the connection of the frankfurters used in hot dogs to Frankfurt Germany. Some consider hot dogs an American food. Yet it is assumed by others that since sausages originated in Germany, and were traditionally eaten with bread by the Germans, that the nestling of the wiener in a bun was a German influence. However history clearly states that the Chili Dog, originally the “Texas Hot Dog”, is definitely an American dish. It just didn't originate in the state of Texas, but rather it was created in Pennsylvania in 1918 near the end of World War-I. The use of Texas was to reference the hot chili sauce used.
Bangers And Mash
Having mentioned World War-I, this is a good place to bring up the origin of a popular name for another sausage dish, this one coming from Great Britain. Sausages and Mash is an English dish that dates back to the earliest days of sausages and mash potatoes, and long before the first laptops ever showed up in pubs, but during World War-I the popular dish acquired a new nick name.
With all the shortages and rationing going on, many meat production companies and sausage makers began using various fillers in their sausages to to stretch their meats further and maintain as much of their sales and profit margins as they could. One of the most notable fillers was water, and when the waterlogged sausages were cooked in skillet or over a fire the water inside the casings would reach the boiling point and the sausages would explode with a loud bang. Thus they earned the nick name “bangers”, and Sausages and Mash has been known as Bangers and Mash ever since.
Having left World War-I era England behind, we can venture back over to New England in the U.S. and discuss lobster. Findings in a cave off the Southern Shores of South Africa shows that we humans have been eating shellfish for more that 165,000 years. Culinary evidence in Europe confirms that lobsters specifically were known to the ancient Romans and Greeks. Much as they are now here in the U.S., they were then highly esteemed by the British, who considered lobster an especially elegant and appropriate food for lovers with it being an aphrodesiac and all.
They were not, however; held in such high esteem by American colonists. In the early days of the New England settlements, long before all the modern commercial harvesting, the New England bays were said to be so full of lobster that they would sometimes wash ashore during storms, and form piles up to two feet high. Some of them were even reported to weigh as much as 25 pounds. In those days Americans considered the lobster an inelegant food fit only for the poorest of people. With lobster being my absolute most favorite food of all it was there in that moment, in reading that little bit of history, that I had the first instance of daydreaming of being an early American colonist since I was in Junior High.
Having traversed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean a couple of times, I'm going to now circle back around to those colorful little bottles in the background of the opener image. They may have caught the eyes of some of you. They caught my eye as I was sitting there eating my burger and fries in the Whiskey Thief lounge at the Edwin Hotel. I knew they were bitters, I had seen them used before and had them in drinks, I just didn't know any of the history behind them. Not until I asked my friend tending bar that night what the story behind them was. I had only just mentioned that though I wouldn't be able to go again this year, I really do hope to make it back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras some day. It has been many years since I was there for the parade, it was before I became a father almost 27 years ago.
Picking up one of the bottles, and looking at it thoughtfully, she set about telling me some of the long complicated story of whiskey bitters. She explained that their roots could be traced back to early Egypt where herb infused wines were given as herbal remedies. I learned that the true bitters had been developed by physician alchemists like Paracelsus and Johann Siegert, who used them to treat many maladies, and that over time they had been developed into very complex alcoholic herbal tinctures. And that though they were initially used medicinally, as digestifs and cure-alls, in time the strong-flavored tinctures had come to be used for balancing and enhancing the flavors of alcoholic cocktails. Both of which uses, by the way, Mark Twain is said to have been very fond of. And then with a smile she sat a cocktail in front of me, a concoction called a Sazerac, and said “here, since you can't make it to New Orleans I'll bring a little New Orleans to you”.
History was not my favorite subject to study in Junior High. It caused far too many daydreams and made me lose track of all the names and time lines I was trying to keep up with, but it did eventually became my most favorite subject of all in High School and beyond, even until today. But even now, some history lessons are simply far more fun and interesting than others. Cheers!
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Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.