The Curious Origins of America’s Favorite Meals

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Is Apple Pie really as "American as Apple Pie?" Was the Hamburger invented in Hamburg? Which came first, the freezer or Ice Cream? The answer to these — and other questions about traditional American foods — may surprise you.

We sure were surprised. And it led us on a quest to find out the secrets behind our favorite meals. The results were whimsical, strange and, in some cases, bizarre.

Read on to learn more about the origins of apple pie, hamburgers, ice cream, hot dogs, caesar salad, mac 'n cheese, fried chicken, and pizza.


The invention of the Hamburger is a hotly disputed event. At least four different parties lay claim to its "discovery." The interesting thing is that of these four, there seems to be no doubt about the fact that the name originates from Hamburg, Germany; a result of early German immigrants' obsession with ground beefsteak.

The brothers Charles and Frank Menches say the Hamburger was their idea and that they invented it in 1885 at the Erie County Fair quite by mistake. In an interview done years later, Frank stated that due to a shortage in pork, ground beef was used in the sandwiches he was slinging and they became an instant hit. Ohioans are proud of these native buckeyes and the full story is available on Check it out should the desire for pride-inducing Ohioan legend strike you.

But, there are other contenders to the throne. Like, for example, the aptly named Charlie "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen who apparently wanted to solidify the title by adopting it as a part of his name. Like the Manches brothers, Nagreen also claims to have invented the Hamburger in 1885. You won't find Charlie on, since he did it at the Seymour County Fair in Wisconsin. Charlie was just 15 years old when he started selling meatballs out of an ox cart. He soon discovered that his clients couldn't walk and look at the exhibits at the same time, so he flattened the meatballs and stuck them in between two slices of bread. And thus was born another Hamburger claim. Charlie's got a website (doesn't everyone?) that defends his claim with the vehemence of a fanatic, proffering interviews, newspapers clips and even a poem.

Woe to the house of Fletcher Davis — so close to culinary infamy but losing all concrete evidence at the hands of a hapless writer

From the Midwest we buzz on down to Athens, Texas where Fletcher Davis' compatriots declare him the rightful inventor of the Hamburger. Davis, a potter and an every man's man, claim his posterity, invented the sandwich around 1880 in a little café he owned after the pottery business started to go downhill. His sandwich was so delicious that — according to Texan lore — Davis' friends collected money to send him and his creation to the 1904 World's Fair. Quite impressively, Davis' creation caught the attention of a journalist for the New York Tribune who wrote up a story about the sandwich but failed to name the creator. Woe to the house of Davis — so close to culinary infamy but losing all concrete evidence at the hands of some hapless writer.

Last and certainly not least we have Louis Lassen, the original owner of Louis' Lunch Wagon. Louis' story is that once in 1895 when a client very much in a hurry asked for something to eat Louis, ever quick on his feet, handed the man some ground beef between two slices of bread. The idea caught on and today in New Haven Connecticut you can still eat an almost identical recreation of Louis' original sandwich. Louis also has one other thing missing from the claims of the previous three; official recognition by the Library of Congress. It seems while our other friends were running around at the County Fair, Lassen must have been filling out the paperwork for an official copyright. And, of course, a website.

Being the only contender to get his creation into the Library Congress and the fact that his original recipe has hardly changed since its creation, TheCooksDen tends to recognize Louis Lassen as the true creator of the Hamburger. Congrats, Louis — you can send my "honorarium" in small unmarked bills to this site.

Ice Cream

Think you need a freezer or at least a cold climate to enjoy ice cream? Think again. And never underestimate the ingenuity of a Pharaoh with ten thousand slaves and a craving for a tasty frozen treat on a hot summer day.

With that in mind, the early story of ice cream is mostly a study of immense human energy expended to quickly transport naturally-formed ice to warmer climates. There it could be enjoyed by those with extreme power and wealth, who never lifted a finger to make it.

The Persians were the first known civilization to employ ice-importation techniques for the purpose of making dessert, doing so in roughly 400 BC. They flavored their concoctions with fruits and spices. A modern-day equivalent, faloodeh, is still served in Iran today.

Fast forward a few hundred years and you'll find the Caliphs in ancient Bagdad adding cream to these tasty treats to produce something closer to what we might consider ice cream today.

Never underestimate the ingenuity of a Pharaoh with 10,000 slaves and a craving for a tasty treat on a hot summer day.

Once ice cream caught on in the rest of the world — the Europeans and Chinese were big innovators in the area of flavors and toppings — the trail gets a bit scattershot. But we can pick up a clear path again in 18th-century England when ice cream recipes began appearing in mainstream cookbooks.

Quaker colonists brought the dish from England to their new home in America because, really, who wouldn't? Here it was popularized by, among other luminaries, First Lady Dolly Madison.

Dolly Madison Ice Cream is still made today, though I doubt the former First Lady would recognize the modern Chunky Hubby Wavy Peanut Brickle Supreme craze.

We've come a long way since Persia. Think ancient Pharaohs would be impressed with today's modern conveniences? And maybe amused by the things we put on top?


Today's default take-out food, pizza has quite a storied past, with roots dating back to the Persian Emperor Darius the Great. Historical accounts have Darius' soldiers placing their shields on the ground and baking bread on top of them, adding cheese and dates as available.

Pizza may have migrated to Greece when Alexander the Great broke the Persian Empire, or the Ancient Greeks might just have come up with it on their own. Either way, the Greeks made pizza with flavors that we associate with modern pizza, such as herbs and onions.

From here pizza traveled, like most Greek culture, to the Romans. And beginning in about the 17th century we have the birth of the modern Pizza.

An official Neapolitan pizza must be cooked at a specific temperature for a specific amount of time and made without the aid of mechanical tools.

It was about this time that "i Napolitani" began using tomatoes and tomato sauce as a base. The pizza became quite popular and continues to enjoy its prestige in Naples to this day. To some "pizzaioli," only Naples-style pizza are worthy of the name. Their claims are, at least in part, confirmed by the "Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana" or True Neapolitan Pizza Association. The AVPN mandates — along with a host of other guidelines — that an official Neapolitan pizza must be cooked at a specific temperature for a specific amount of time and made without the aid of mechanical tools. Try telling that to a Pizza Hut employee and you might just get a blank stare.

The Pizza didn't reach the US until the 19th century with the influx of Italian immigrants. For obvious reasons, it was first introduced and assimilated in the bigger cities. Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant in Little Italy is said to have opened the first pizzeria in 1905. Pizza has experienced a slow rise in popularity from then until present day. Now it is America's number one favorite frozen food item and all purpose meal for "study weary" college students.

Hot Dogs

Care for a concoction of scraps, blood, fat and internal organs crammed inside a casing made from intestines? Mmmmm... the hot dog. Figure it must have a pretty bizzare origin? Well, convoluted is more like it.

Tracing the history of the American hot dog means chasing down three distinct components: the dog itself, the bun and, of course, Coney Island.

The frankfurter gets its name from Frankfurt, Germany, and people there will happily lay claim to the meal's origin. However, sausages had been around for centuries before that name came along. In fact, the Ancient Greeks were eating them as early as 600 BC. What the people of Frankfurt can claim is somewhat unclear. But the first vendors to sell sausages in buns in the US were almost certainly German immigrants in the late 1800s.

Meat scraps, blood, fat and internal organs crammed inside a pig intestine. Who comes up with this stuff?!

And how did they arrive at the idea of adding buns to sausages? Good ole fashioned market research and economics. The earliest bun-less sausage vendors heard complaints from their customers that they were getting grease on their hands. Their first solution? Handing out white gloves with each sausage. It wasn't long before they discovered that a bun was a more economical choice as a free giveaway.

We associate hot dogs with Coney Island thanks to that area's storied past as a playground for innovation, capitalism and hucksterism. When Nathan Handwerker left his hot-dog making, Coney Island-based, German immigrant boss to form Nathan's Famous nearby and charged just five cents per dog, the craze was born.

Fried Chicken

Though fried foods get a bad reputation for being fattening and distinctly American, the traditions of boiling foodstuffs in oil dates at least as far back as a Roman cook by the name of Caelius Apicius. Apicius should not be confused with the similarly-named Roman Emperor who threw the seventh-most extravagant dinner party in history.

Apicius used olive oil for his deep fried concoctions as did most Europeans after him. That includes America's early Scottish immigrants. Though the Scots introduced us to deep frying chicken, Americans adapted the technique to suit local climate and economics. Specifically, in the 18th century South, olives weren't plentiful (or cheap), but pigs were. Pig fat, or lard, was cheap since hogs ate pretty much everything, making them efficient and inexpensive. Hogs could be shoveled most waste products and they would lap it right up.

Because lard was cheap and highly caloric, the cooking style was quickly adopted by poor southerners and African slaves. And just as they transformed vapid European Hymns into The Blues, so too did they improve the recipe by adding a unique blend of spices and creating what we know today as Southern fried chicken.

The KFC we know and love was birthed in a gas station that Colonel Sander's owned in 1930.

After the Emancipation, fried chicken continued to be a staple food for many southern blacks, eventually finding its way into common consumption.

Colonel Sanders and KFC came along much later, around 1930. The KFC we know and love was birthed in a gas station Sander's owned in 1930. His meals were so popular that he was inspired to get the word out. He travelled around, signing up franchisees across the country. Dave Thomas, of Wendy's fame, even got involved, adding a few key marketing insights during the Colonels thirty some-odd year run. When Sanders finally sold the business in 1964 (for a measly $2M bucks), there were about six hundred KFC restaurants spread throughout the country. Today there are 14,000. And home fryers are prevalent.

Caesar Salad

A delicious chopped lettuce and anchovy combination named after a famous Roman Emperor or a spur-of-the-moment finger food created by a bootlegger with a flair for the dramatic?

The story of the Caeser Salad is widely misunderstood. The truth actually has nothing to do with Julius Caeser, did not contain anchovies originally, and was intended to be eaten with the hands.

Its inventor, Caesar Cardini, was an 1920's Italian restauranteur living in Mexico in order to avoid Prohibition in the USA. He created the dish when his kitchen ran out of items on the regular menu. Caeser threw together what he had left, made it seem special with the flourish of a table-side tossing and had a hit on his hands soon after.

A chopped lettuce and anchovy combo named after a famous Roman Emperor? Not!

The Cardinis still serve their version today and sell a host of dressings to go alongside.

They still don't add anchovies, though. Those were added by competitors who interpreted the Worcestershire sauce flavoring as reminiscent of the salty minnow.

Apple Pie

The quintessential American dessert, the apple pie, has actually been around for centuries; the pie crust for even longer.

The Greeks were some of the first people to cook food in a flour crust. We are told, however, that the crust was not meant to be eaten, that it functioned as a container to hold in meat juices and was discarded when the contents had finished cooking.

Europeans continued this tradition into the 14th century, dubbing the solid inedible pie crusts "coffyns." When sugar became more widely available the crust was made fit for human consumption and the modern pie was born. Apple pie was first introduced as early as King Richard in 1390 CE and wasn't introduced into the Americas until the arrival of English settlers. Up until then there were only crab apples. And if you've ever tried to eat one of those you could imagine why they weren't popular for pie making.

The crust — solid, bland, and dubbed a "coffyn" — was never intended to be eaten.

The ease of growing apples contributed to their popularity. Apple trees can grow almost anywhere and due to their wide availability and their ability to keep well when dried, the apple pie solidified its claim as America's pie. In fact, we're told that women in the 1700's would serve pie with every meal.

Because of apple pie's sacred place in US history, it warranted its own official organization. Thus was born the American Pie Council — the "only organization committed to preserving America's pie heritage and promoting American's love affair with pies." In partnership with Crisco, the APC holds a yearly baking contest called "The Great American Pie Festival" featuring the latest in pie development. This year Phyliss S. of Toledo, Ohio took best in show in the amateur division with her homemade peanut butter pie. Way to go, Phyliss!

Macaroni & Cheese

Humans have been eating pasta-like dishes for nearly 4000 years. But a dish recognizable as modern-day pasta was not really available until Arabs — living in Sicily, of course — introduced it in the seventh century.

Various cultures introduced cheese throughout the ages, and it was no surprise that it made it to American shores as the colonies were founded.

Modern-day macaroni and cheese, though, was popularized in this country by none other than Thomas Jefferson, perhaps after one of his fine-dining experiences in France. Thom had the nerve to serve the gourmet dish in the White House. Guests, we are informed, weren't particularly impressed.

Kraft's dish may not have been as tasty as Thomas Jefferson's version, but timing was on their side.

From then until about 1937 this cheesy fare experienced spotty popularity until the invention of the Kraft Dinner. If the name sounds funny that's because it's better known in the U.S. as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. You know, the one in the "blue box." The Kraft Dinner was a far cry from what Jefferson served in his White House dinner and closer to what we know today: dry noodles and processed cheese.

Though Kraft's dish may not have been as tasty as TJ's, timing was on their side. History buffs will have noticed that this was right before the U.S. entered WWII and, when it did, Kraft experienced due success. With a lot of men away fighting and women working out of the home, it was nice to have something easily prepared at the end of the day. Kraft's success with this boxed dinner may have lead us to the plethora of frozen meals you can find today at your local grocer's freezer.

Noted historian Edward Gibbon once remarked that History "is little more than a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."

Well he obviously never licked his grease-swathed fingers after a plate of southern-fried chicken. Because if he had, he would have to concede that the annals of food history have brought us palate-pleasing confections that are nothing short of national treasures.

8 Responses

  1. Gifting. Not poison. Says:

    […] Is Apple Pie really as "American as Apple Pie?" Was the Hamburger invented in Hamburg? Which came first, the freezer or Ice Cream? The answer to these ” and other questions about traditional American foods ” may surprise you.Source: […]

  2. Crouton Heckman Says:

    ….King Richard, Greeks, Thomas Jefferson….give me a break!!!!! This otherwise well-written and entertaining article suffers from an anti-Armenian bias. We all know the Armenians invented all the above foods, along with backgammon and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

  3. Gioia Foxy Says:

    Let’s not forget how Armenians helped diffuse the use of rhinoplasty. But hey, nicely written article, I’m craving some Persian ice cream and Greek pie…what about the origins of beer? Wish I had some of that, too

  4. Black Lady Mombassa Smith Says:

    Everyone knows Hamburgers were invented by the Earl of Sandwich at the Greater Armenian convention of 1904. The convention festival feast was about to begin when they were surrounded by threatening Turks. Earl angry, but famished and rushed, grabbed some meat and threw it between two buns, then killed Ten-Thousand Turks. That’s why they were originally called Turkey Burgers.

  5. invader Says:

    great article lad
    im a german and by my information
    the name frankfurter comes from the butchery named frankfurter in vienna, austria
    thats why we have the wiener sausages (ouside vienna) and the frankfurter sausages ( formerly only so called inside vienna)
    so now you can explain two names instead of one^^ đŸ™‚

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