Fun Food Facts, Part 1: Surprising origins of popular modern foods and snacks

There are many fun food facts: surprising origins of popular foods and snacks we enjoy today.

These fun food facts are surprising because their origins are not at all what we moderns might have thought.

Take PASTA, for example. We usually relate pasta’s origin to Italy. But the regions which today we know of as China and Tibet were actaully making pasta 3,000-plus years ago.

Tradition has it that Marco Polo and his uncles Niccolo and Maffeo, brought recipes for noodles back to Europe after their travels in China. It is known that pasta was firmly established in Italy by 1353 AD.

ICE CREAM is rated as America’s favorite dessert and we consume it in great amounts. But there again, ancient China surprises us in the list of fun food facts—by making ice cream 4,000 years ago!

Old China’s ice cream was more an ice milk than the creamy dessert we enjoy today. Originally the ice milk was made from overcooked rice and spices packed in snow. As the dessert became more popular and widespread, China imported snow from the mountains.

After China, ice milk and fruit ice appeared in Italy, then France and throughout Europe by the 1800s.

Italian ice cream vendors traveled throughout Europe, then Italian immigrant vendors in the U.S. until candymaker Burt Young of Ohio introduced the first chocolate-covered ice cream bar.

Thus was born the Good Humor man—and America’s love for ice cream.

PANCAKES originated in Egypt more than 2,600 BC. At first the wheat flour patties were cooked on hot stones. By 2,600 Egyptians had invented forms of ovens to cook the flour patties, and the pancake became a staple food all over the ancient world.

The earliest American pancakes were of corn meal, soon called ‘hoecake’ because it was cooked on a garden hoe blade. These pancakes were also called ‘ashcake’ or ‘ashpone’ as they were cooked low in the flames of a campfire and collected ash.

The first commercial venture of U.S. pancakes was the brainchild of an enterprising  journalist named Chris Rutt, who loved pancakes but was impatient making them from scratch each morning.

Eventually Rutt discovered Nancy Green in 1893, a black cooking genius—and Nancy Green became Aunt Jemima.

Nancy Green aka Aunt Jemima toured the country establishing pancakes in the American consciousness and kitchens until her death in 1923, at age eighty-nine.

KETCHUP—-is it American? Well, not exactly, ketchup is another fun food fact whose nucleus lies in ancient Rome hundreds of years BC. Of course American ketchup is mostly tomatoes, which originated in the Americas.

However, the Roman form of ‘ketchup’ was vinegar, oil, pepper and dried anchovies, and is historically considered the first ‘ketchup’ on record.

By the 1600s the Chinese developed another form of ‘ketchup’ from a brine of pickled fish, shellfish and spices. It was named ke-tsiap, and its popularity spread to the Malay archipelago, where it was named kechap.

Tomatoes entered ketchup in New England in the 1790s. Tomatoes were considered poisonous in the early U.S. Thomas Jefferson was the first in the U.S. to cultivate the tomato, and is credited with exonerating and legitimizing the fruit.

By 1876, homemakers eagerly purchased America’s first mass-produced bottled tomato ketchup from the German-American chef and businessman Henry Heinz.

And these are the Fun Food Facts, Part 1. It’s amazing to contemplate how much of our food history is derived from ancient civilizations which flourished long before America was born.

Check back next month for Fun Food Facts, Part 2.

Primary source is Charles Panati, author of the book, ‘Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things.’