Eat Like a Victorian—on burgers, fries, and soda
Nothing quite says modern hustle like burger joints, food trucks, and grabbing junk food for that night’s Netflix binge. Fast food answers the problem of our hectic lives, where there’s places to be and work to be done and absolutely no time to spend crafting artisan eats in the kitchen. Plus, many so-called kitchen nooks in new apartments are barely big enough to comfortably butter toast, much less mess around with stock pots and canning jars. Picking up something to go is the obvious answer.
This need isn’t new. As long as there have been hungry people, there’s been food for sale in easy-to-eat forms. Ancient Roman thermopolia provided affordable take-out. Street vendors have been around as long as hungry urbanites have existed. Pretty much every culture has the “stuff wrapped in bread product,” whether that’s samosas, Cornish pasties, or the Czech klobasnek/kolaches. In the old days, if you were out harvesting in the fields or heading down a mine shaft, you wanted food that can be stuffed in a pocket to eat later. We might have better health regulations, but the principles behind fast food remain the same.
The pedigree of some current favorites is fun to look at. Hamburgers and hot dogs immediately come to mind, since they follow the meat-in-bread pattern. Speculation has it the essential ground meat that makes up the hamburger patty was introduced to Europe by invading hordes in the thirteenth century. Tartar horseman stashed raw meat beneath their saddles to tenderize it, a practice that was happily abandoned by later chefs. In the seventh century, Russians brought their version of the dish, steak tartare, to Hamburg, Germany, where it morphed into the cooked version we know now. In the early 1800s, the “Hamburg steak” was well-enough established to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The dish emigrated to America in the mid-1900s and eventually appeared with a bun at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The first burger chains appeared in the 1920s and the cheeseburger debuted a decade later.
Hot dogs followed a similar path. Sausages have been around since the ancient world, ultimately establishing themselves in the German cuisine that came to America in the mid-1800s. Around 1870, a German immigrant named Charles Feltman set up a food cart on Coney Island and did a brisk business selling sausages in a bun. From there they were introduced at ball parks as a snack to go with beer.
What about sides? The history of French fries is contested, with origin stories dating back to the seventeenth century. Belgium is petitioning UNESCO to endorse the fry as an icon of Belgian heritage. The story goes that in 1680 the River Meuse froze over, preventing citizens of Namur from catching and frying the small fish they were used to, so they fried potatoes instead. American soldiers, evidently confusing French-speaking Belgians with their neighbors, encountered the fried treat during WWI, taking so-called French fries back to the US.
There are other contenders for title of fry inventor. Spain has a claim. After all, they introduced the potato to Europe in the late 1500s after learning about it in the New World. France maintains an eighteenth-century street peddler on Paris’s Pont-Neuf bridge introduced French fries to the world. Canada has a special affinity since fries are an integral ingredient in poutine (invented in Quebec the 1950s). Without argument, America eats the most per capita.
The first recipe for onion rings is more certain. It’s generally agreed to have been published in John Mollard’s 1802 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined.” Mollard was a cook and proprietor of the Freemasons’ Tavern at Lincoln Inn Fields in London. However, the dish did not become popular until it emerged in its full cholesterolific glory in twentieth century America.
Speaking of fried food, the potato chip was invented by the appropriately-named George Crumb in 1853, a chef in Saratoga Springs, New York. Originally called Saratoga Chips, they were eventually made and marketed by a company in Cleveland, Ohio. Herman Lay introduced potato chips to many customers from Atlanta to Nashville by selling them from the trunk of his Ford Model A. He eventually founded H.W. Lay & Company, which merged with the Frito Company in 1961, which eventually merged with Pepsi-Cola.
Naturally, we want something to drink after eating all these salty foods. Mineral waters have been consumed since Roman times, as they were believed to have curative powers. Readers of Regency novels will be familiar with invalids “taking the waters” at various spas. A man-made version of carbonated beverages was first produced in the 1760s by adding chalk and acid to regular drinking water. Initially, wine was added as flavoring, but various sweet syrups followed and by the 1840s, soda fountains began appearing in pharmacies.
In 1876, Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires concocted a mixture of herbs, roots and berries and added it carbonated soda water to produce the first root beer. In 1886, another formulation containing coca leaves and the caffeine-rich kola nut became Coca-Cola. Marketed as a tonic, the original formula contained extracts of cocaine, which wasn’t illegal at the time. In 1893, Pepsi-Cola was introduced as a digestive aid. Soon bottling facilities replaced soda fountains and, by the 1920s, soft drinks were available via vending machines. The medicinal claims surrounding such beverages were dropped and as early as 1942, the American Medical Association was specifically mentioning soft drinks as it recommended consumers limit their intake of sugar. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Slow Food movement aims to recover the joys of delicious home cooked cuisine, along with traditional methods of preparation. However, as the hipsters rush to rediscover bone broth and artisan sauerkraut, it’s worth remembering that food is as variable as the people who eat it. Our cuisine has a complex family tree, along with a few crumpled food wrappers tucked in the branches. Fast food—despite the overwhelming corporatization involved—is equally traditional, with a centuries-long story of its own.