10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat

Larry Holzwarth - December 19, 2017

We don’t eat the way our ancestors did. What we eat, where we eat it, how we eat it, even why we eat it has changed with time. Food is the nutrition necessary to sustain life, but in the United States our food often has less to do with survival than it does with pleasure. The quantity and quality of a host’s table has always been a measure of class status, it has become in many cases the defining measure. Obtaining sufficient food has never been easier. Americans are blessed with supermarkets which are daily stocked with amounts of food which would stagger our predecessors of just one or two generations. Supermarket parking lots are usually dotted with restaurants offering specialties of all kinds.

Throughout American history, innovations and changes of lifestyles have changed what and how we eat, especially since the end of the Second World War. Where once thoughts of food were centered on having enough, we now worry more about having too much. A cook once prepared a meal based on what was available that day at the local market, now the ingredients of exotic meals can be ordered and delivered to the door, pre-measured to assure perfection at the table.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
An American railroad dining car on the L & N Railroad. Americans have long taken their meals on the go. L&N RR

We think about food all of the time, without ever really considering how it has changed us, and how we have changed how we eat. Here are ten innovations that have changed the way we eat.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
An early Raytheon Radar Range was installed on the nuclear powered NS Savannah. Wikipedia

The Microwave Oven

British engineers and scientists are responsible for the technology which led to the microwave oven. John Randall and Harry Boot, working at the University of Birmingham, developed an improved high powered vacuum tube called a cavity magnetron for use in the development of small but powerful radar. It enabled radar sets to be much smaller than they were previously, carried in fighter aircraft among other uses. It served its purpose then, but the cavity magnetron is seldom used in radar applications today.

There are, nonetheless, well over one billion cavity magnetrons in use, and most of them are used several times a day. They are the source of the microwaves used in microwave ovens. The first microwave oven was developed by an American engineer, Percy Spencer, and his discovery was an accident. Spencer was working on a radar set in his capacity of an engineer for Raytheon when he found that it had melted a candy bar he had in his pocket. Spencer decided to experiment cooking food with radar, appropriately the first food he prepared with it was popcorn.

By 1947, Raytheon was marketing what it called the Radarange, a water cooled behemoth nearly six feet tall, weighing over seven hundred pounds. Suitable only for commercial use, Raytheon found a limited market. They licensed the technology to Tappan, who attempted to market a smaller version for the home. They too found market response to be less than enthusiastic. One problem with the early microwaves was that they were perceived by the public to be dangerous.

In 1967 Raytheon, through their subsidiary Amana, began to market a countertop microwave, using the Radarange name. Several other manufacturers marketed similar ovens, and the microwave became ubiquitous in American kitchens, break rooms, and wherever Americans ate. Whole new lines of food and packaging were developed to accommodate the ovens.

There has been a backlash against the use of microwave ovens by those concerned that they rob food of nutrients and flavor, cause unpleasant texture, and heat the food unevenly. Many people are unduly concerned over radiation leakage, despite it being highly unlikely. And by the way, the idea that a microwave oven cooks food from the inside out is incorrect, though they do heat to a greater initial depth than a radiant heat conventional oven.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
Frozen concentrated orange juice was developed by the USDA and the University of Florida. University of Florida

Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice

Concentrating orange juice is a process in which the water is removed from juice using evaporation in a vacuum. It was developed by a US Department of Agriculture scientist named Cedric Atkins, working at the University of Florida alongside L.G. MacDowell and E.L. Moore. They had been tasked with finding a means of providing a better tasting form of orange juice which was non-perishable for extended periods of time, and which could be easily shipped.

Prior to the development of orange juice concentrate, juice was either freshly squeezed or pasteurized to be sold in cans. The former was inconvenient and the latter not pleasing to the taste. Pasteurization killed most of the flavor and left a bland, watery beverage. Concentrating the juice allowed for volatile oils and other essences which produced flavor to be added back in, enhancing the beverages appearance and taste.

Frozen concentrated orange juice made the beverage a drink for any time of the day, and the process was soon applied to other fruits and vegetables. Originally frozen concentrated orange juice was marketed under the brand name Snow Crop, eventually the brand became Minute Maid. Oranges became crucial to the economy of Florida, which still offers orange juice to visitors to its Welcome Centers when entering the state.

The heyday of orange juice consumption may be in the past however. Sales of orange juice in general and frozen concentrated orange juice in particular have been steadily dropping over the past several years. One reason is that Americans seldom sit down for large breakfasts nowadays, another is the availability of smoothies and other beverages which do not rely on orange juice for either their base or their flavor.

Since the mid-1990s orange sales have dropped more than 40%. Part of the problem stems from its own former popularity, higher demand created higher prices which encouraged consumers to explore other alternatives. Orange juice is no longer America’s primary source of Vitamin C either, with numerous options including fresh leafy greens available in supermarkets year around. Still, the process of creating frozen concentrated orange juice changed the way Americans had breakfast for decades.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
One of the earliest Fast food chains was A & W dating to 1919. Today they are part of Yum! Brands. National Archives

Fast Food

There were examples of fast food restaurants prior to the 1950s, but they were scattered about the country. Today they are ubiquitous. They became part of the American landscape and diet as part of the great migration to the suburbs following the Second World War, and the creation of the Interstate Highway System which connected the country. At first they seemed to be all about hamburgers and hot dogs, now there are fast food chains which offer every conceivable style of cuisine.

The United States fast food industry is the world’s largest, and it is probably no coincidence that over 100,000,000 Americans are considered to be obese according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Prior to the growth of the fast food industry Americans ate the majority of their meals at home. As food to go has become more and more readily available, with most service stations being convenience stores which sell prepared food, Americans have spent less time preparing meals at home. When they do it is often in the form of convenience foods.

In 1970 Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century the amount spent was over $160 billion per year. But the amount being spent on fast food as an overall percentage of restaurant sales is dropping. This is due in part to direct competition between the industry giants. Pressure from casual restaurant sales is also having a negative impact on fast food sales as overall restaurant sales are continuing to rise.

Another factor which contributed to the fast food industry changing the way we eat is the price of its products. The US government, through subsidies to the food industry, has indirectly subsidized the fast food industry. Dairy products like milk and cheese, beef, and soy are all supported through government subsidies. This makes them more affordable to both the industry and the consumer, and contributes to the fact that Americans spend less of their income on food than other countries around the world.

The fast food industry has changed the way Americans eat even when they aren’t eating fast food. Fast food chain products are widely available on grocery shelves and refrigerated cases, to be heated up at home. It has created a nation in which the automobile frequently doubles as the dining room. It has replaced the dinner hour with the drive-thru window. It has enormous impact on the economy, lifestyle, public awareness and the ecology, but most of all it forever changed how America eats.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
Produce is loaded onto refrigerated rail cars – known as reefers – in Florida. State Library and Archives of Florida

The Refrigerated Rail Car

In the late 1850s the meatpacker Gustavus Swift tried an experiment. He removed the doors from several boxcars and loaded the cars with sides of freshly killed beef, for shipment to markets throughout the rest of New England. It being the dead of winter he reasoned that his beef would arrive at markets fresh. It worked, but relying on winter weather was impractical, for obvious reasons. A reliable means of shipping butchered beef was necessary as the nation continued to grow.

To the west in Kansas City and Chicago, meatpackers and railroad executives were also searching for a means to keep meat fresh while being transported from the packers to markets. Experiments packing the cars with ice surrounding the meat were disappointing, contact between the beef and the ice caused discoloration of the beef; what is now called freezer burn. Later efforts included insulating the cars and packing the roofs and side walls with ice. This was more promising, but ice required constant replenishment during the beef’s journey to eastern markets.

Swift hired an engineer named Andrew Chase to design a car which preserved the ice longer, kept the loaded beef from shifting, which had caused derailments in earlier experiments, and was ventilated to ensure even temperatures throughout the car. When the railroads refused to purchase cars of Chase’s design, or to haul them if owned by someone else (which would have reduced the railroad’s income) Swift contracted with a railroad which until then had received little income from cattle or beef. Soon he was shipping 3,000 dressed beeves to Boston a week.

It wasn’t long before the meatpackers In Chicago and other cities were following suit. The refrigerator cars made beef more readily available and affordable throughout the country wherever there was rail service. In turn, Americans developed a taste for beef. Up to that time, lamb and pork were the most commonly consumed meats, with game still a substantial portion of the American diet in rural areas.

The refrigerator cars were soon carrying other products to regions where they were not produced locally. Fruit grown in New England was shipped south, with southern peaches heading north. But it was beef which had the most immediate impact, and it became the centerpiece of the American diet, a position it held for many years due to the immensity of the herds in the west and southwest.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
Wonder Bread and its many competitors changed how Americans viewed bread for generations. Wikipedia

Sandwich Bread

In the Gilded Age, about 90% of the bread consumed in American homes was prepared by the homemaker, or their cook in those days of household servants. Specialty breads beyond the means of the housewife were obtained from the local bakery. By the time of the Great Depression, nearly all of the bread consumed in the home was baked in bread factories. This reversal marked a change in American diets which has only recently started to recede.

Part of the change was convenience and part was media driven fear. Bakers were often immigrants and mass producers of bread marketed their product as being produced in sanitized factories, rather than by an immigrant of unknown dedication to hygiene. The mass bread producers aggressively marketed their most profitable and easiest to produce product – white bread.

Indianapolis based Taggart Baking marketed their bread under the name Wonder Bread until 1925, when it sold the brand to Continental Baking. Continental introduced sliced bread (it was Wonder Cut) shortly thereafter, suspended the sale of sliced bread during World War II due to a steel shortage increasing the cost of blades, and returned to the production of sliced bread in 1945.

The refined white flour used by Wonder and other bakers produced a loaf which was consistent in texture and appearance, but nutritionally challenged. In the 1940s, spurred by the federal government, Wonder and others began enriching their bread with added minerals and vitamins. Niacin, riboflavin, iron, and folic acid were added. By the 1960s any grocery in the country had shelves full of breads which were virtually indistinguishable from others, regardless of where they were baked. Enriched white bread was consumed everywhere.

In recent years there has been a reversal which is gathering momentum where locally baked artisan breads are making a comeback. Home bread making has been making a comeback as well, both using bread machines and by hand. The grocery store loaf of enriched sliced white bread is still found everywhere, but it has much competition in the market as Americans once again change the ways they eat.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
The original Nathan’s in New York. Many claim to have invented the hot dog bun, but Nathan’s isn’t one of them. Wikimedia

The Hot Dog Bun

Much of the history of the hot dog and the roll on which it is customarily consumed is a mystery. Hot dogs themselves are called by many names, wieners, frankfurters, red hots, and so on. One such story is that the German immigrants of Cincinnati frequently ate their frankfurters on rolls as they sat in the city’s many beer gardens, referred to derisively by passer’s by as hot dogs due to their resemblance to dachshunds.

The term frankfurter is a reference to a German sausage known as a Frankfurter Wurst, made of pork, and given as part of the celebration of an Imperial Coronation as far back as that of Maximilian II. So something resembling a hot dog has been offered as sustenance to the crowd at large gatherings long before they became a popular American standby at sporting events.

The hot dog bun has multiple stories which claim to explain its invention. One of the most popular is that during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, a local vendor was selling hot dogs accompanied with a white glove to protect the hand of the customer while eating the sausage. When many of the customers simply wandered off while wearing the gloves his wife suggested purchasing rolls from another vendor nearby, and passing the cost along to the customer. Some similar version of this tale applies to the earlier World’s Columbian Exposition, and other gatherings as well.

Another story gives the credit to Charles Feltman, a pieman at New York’s Coney Island. In 1869, after two years of selling pies from a pushcart, Feltman equipped another cart with a pot of hot water and a tray of buns. He sold frankfurters, which he called Coney Island Red Hots, so successfully that he eventually built a restaurant complex which attracted over five million people per year by the 1920s.

Feltman employed a bun slicer who became discontented with his employer, and was reportedly urged by Jimmy Durante – others say it was Eddie Cantor, others say both – to go into his own business and sell hot dogs at half Feltman’s price. The young man, whose name was Nathan Handwerker, did just that, selling his hot dogs for a nickel when he opened his first stand, which he called Nathan’s.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
Charles Cretors invented the popcorn popping machine, and created a new American industry. Cretor

The Popcorn Maker

Popcorn is indigenous to the Americas with evidence of it being consumed by ancient peoples in Mexico more than five thousand years ago. It was consumed by Americans, although relatively rarely, as early as the late 18th century. It was prepared by hand over a stove or fire. There is evidence of it being sold prior to the Civil War, usually referred to as popped corn.

Charles Cretors, originally of Lebanon Ohio, operated a confectionery store in Decatur, Illinois. After purchasing a peanut roasting machine and being dissatisfied with its performance he rebuilt it, eventually moving to Chicago to sell models of his machine. The machine used a small steam engine as its heat source to roast peanuts, and Cretors discovered that it could also pop popcorn in oil. Cretors patented his popcorn popper in 1893.

Cretors used the machine at the Columbian Exposition that same year to generate awareness of the invention, and was soon selling popcorn poppers to be drawn by horses. In the 1920s movie theaters began to expand and Cretors developed machines to sell popcorn in the new movie houses, linking popcorn to movies ever since. He continued to develop machines with increased holding capacity through the next two decades.

It was during the Great Depression that the popularity of popcorn as a snack really took off. Popcorn was cheap and filling, and became widely consumed as a substitute for a meal at times. As the depression wound down in the late 1930s, movie attendance increased and popcorn’s popularity continued. Then during the Second World War, rationing of sugar and other items increased the price and availability of other snacks, with little effect on popcorn, as the quantities of fats to pop it are relatively low.

Electric home poppers, stovetop poppers, and air poppers have all held their periods of popularity with the public, but today most popcorn sold for eating at home is marketed in microwaveable bags, pre-seasoned, which were first patented by General Mills in 1981. C. Cretors and Company still manufactures commercial popcorn poppers, as well as other product lines.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
A window display for a store of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company – A&P – in Manhattan in 1936. New York Public Library

The Supermarket

Prior to the turn of the 20th century supermarkets did not exist. Grocers supplied the consumer with groceries, the butcher was the source of meat, a poulterer would be visited for fowl, a fish market for seafood, and so forth. City marketplaces often found all of these and more in the same general location, but they were independent of one another, often taking deliveries on different days. Usually dairy products were delivered by local dairies straight to the consumer’s door. Often vegetable were as well.

Vincent Astor, a member of the wealthy Astor family, created what could be considered an early supermarket in New York in 1915. It failed within two years. Self service stores in which the customer selected his or her own products began to emerge around the country at the same time, with Piggly-Wiggly and A & P growing nationally, but these stores still did not yet sell meat or many other perishable items even into the 1920s. When such stores did emerge it was synchronistic, with many chains today claiming to have been the first.

According to the Smithsonian, that credit belongs to Michael J. Cullen, who founded King Kullen in 1930. Cullen was a former employee of Kroger’s, which chain soon followed suit. This was in the early days of the Great Depression and most grocers were leery of risk as prices rose and jobs vanished. The larger chains soon found that they could offer lower prices to customers from reduced costs. Although meat could now be purchased under the same roof as fresh vegetables, it still usually required the assistance of a meat clerk or butcher.

Prepackaged cuts of meat wrapped in plastic evolved over time. Local dairies discovered that is more cost effective for them to deliver to the store than to individual consumers. As chains grew they began to develop their own brand labels and products, under different names from that of the store itself, to compete with national brands.

Today, the trend is for discounters offering clothing, furniture, electronics, and everything else under the same roof as food. But another trend is emerging as well. Many of these so-called superstores are also offering separate fish markets with fresh fish, a butcher who will take your order, wine stewards, and other services similar to those displaced since King Kullen first opened almost ninety years ago.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
Irving Naxon, the inventor of the slow cooker. Grand Rapids Herald Review

The Slow Cooker

The slow cooker was developed to match the American lifestyle when getting home for dinner was still a priority, but there wasn’t enough time to prepare dinner once home. Irving Naxon of Chicago developed a slow cooker which failed to sell, and the Rival Company bought the struggling Naxon Company and after some re-design produced the first successful slow cooker – the Crock Pot – in 1971. How successful? Virtually all slow cookers today are referred to as Crock Pots, in the manner of tissues being called Kleenex.

Timing is everything, and the Crock Pot emerged at the same time as many women started to work outside of the home in the 1970s. The Crock Pot was soon supported with a raft of cookbooks and guides for its use, and recipes for stews, soups, goulashes, and more were everywhere.

The Crock Pot allowed for the use of less expensive cuts of beef and pork since the slow cooking method increases the tenderness of the finished dish. Less expensive cuts of meat moved to the forefront of meat cases, and meatpackers changed the ways that they prepared many cuts for use as pot roasts or stews.

In 1971 the Crock Pot sold $2 million worth of appliances. By 1975 it sold $93 million. That doesn’t take into account the sales of slow cookers by Rival’s – ahem – rivals. The slow cooker craze led to an increase in the sale of fresh vegetables, particularly root vegetables, and regional recipe guides to take advantage of local produce.

By 1976 the sales of slow cookers began to ebb, in part seemingly because everybody had at least one. Slow cookers are enjoying a bit of a renaissance today by being combined with pressure cookers. The slow cooker changed the way many Americans bought and prepared their food in the 1970s.

10 Unexpected Innovations in History that Change the Way You Eat
A Ford assembly line in 1913. Ford’s assembly lines led to the development of the modern charcoal briquette. Wikimedia

The Backyard Grill

As America moved out of the cities to the suburbs during the late 1940s onward, new forms of entertaining friends and neighbors evolved, including the barbeque. Cooking outdoors over charcoal, gas heat, and more recently artisanal wood fires became de rigeur in the warmer months and for many year round. Outdoor grills can be as simple as a grate over a pan of coals or a complex system which rivals commercial kitchens. They are the source of debate, including the never ending argument over whether gas or charcoal is the preferred source of heat.

Charcoal in the form of today’s briquette was invented by Edward Kingsford. He had noticed that the production lines for Henry Ford’s Model T produced tons of scrap wood, which was simply burnt. The frugal Ford was intrigued with Kingsford’s suggestion that the wood be converted to charcoal and sold via Ford’s growing network of car dealerships (some state it was actually Ford’s idea and that he ordered Kingsford to stop the waste).

Whichever is correct, Ford soon offered picnic kits as an accessory to his cars. Outdoor picnics and camping trips provided markets for charcoal, but the market exploded with the expansion to the suburbs. The Weber grill and its famed kettle design was introduced in 1952. The gas grill followed in just a few years.

The word barbecue is even a subject of debate, with some preferring to spell it barbeque, and it appears in both spellings on the never ending procession of new sauces produced commercially to enhance the flavor of cooking in the manner it describes. Both versions of the word are derived from the Spanish barbacoa, a term used by sailors with Columbus to describe the cooking racks used by the Arawak Indians.

Before the 20th century, there was no particular allure to cooking over an open fire, since that was how it was usually done. The desire to cook meals outside over flames, regardless of their fuel, was another change to the ways Americans eat. Like many others, it was a change driven by looking backwards to past generations.