We all have to eat, but what we eat can often define us, or at least symbolize us, like poutine in Canada or spanakopita in Greece. There is a dish in Britain of such popularity, such cultural significance in Britain, that it has been called the country’s national dish. It’s not fish & chips, yorkshire pudding, or bangers and mash. It’s chicken tikka masala, an Indian dish of marinated chicken chunks in a creamy curry sauce over rice. Or is it a British dish? My name’s…
Lots of foods don’t come from where you think, either the modes and methods by which they came to be or their geographic location. Take Philadelphia cream cheese, for example, which is made in Beaver Dam, WI and Lowville, NY, neither of which is in Pennsylvania. It’s sold in Philly, sure, but it’s not from there, never has been. This versatile soft cheese, without which a bagel lives its short life unfulfilled, was invented in New York in 1872. It was named after the city of brotherly love in 1880 out of pure marketing, because the Philly region was known for good dairy products, like when companies put a grandma on the label to make things seem homey and hamish.
As you well know, I love a bonus fact dropped into a conversation. Sometimes I get it wrong, repeated an improperly vetted item, but on the really choice days, someone else is wrong and I get to correct them, so Ray, this is for you. For twas from Ray that I heard that one of the most popular dishes in the American Chinese takeaway catalog, Gen Tsoa’s chicken, is named for a brutal warlord who would have prisoners cut into pieces and fed to each other, or people were fed their families or some other outrageous claim. So who was Gen Tso and how did he get a tasty, tasty dish named after him?
Gen Tso was a real person, Zuo Zongtang, a Chinese statesman and military hero from Hunan province, a sort of Gen McArthur type, in the 19th-century. General Tsao’s chicken is a dish of battered, fried and sauced chicken bits with veggies that dates to about 1991. At least according to Hunan-born Taiwanese chef named Peng Chang-kuei, who claimed to have been the first to serve it at his restaurant in China before bringing it with him to his Peng’s Restaurant in Manhattan. However, the proprietors of Shun Lee Palace, also in NYC, say their chef T. T. Wang invented it in 1972.
A well-known and talented chef, Peng orchestrated and supervised the grand banquets of the Chinese Nationalist government from the end of World War II until they were toppled by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in 1949 and Peng fled to Taiwan. During the 50s, Taiwan became a haven for classical Chinese cuisine. Peng opened a restaurant in the capital of Taipei and for years served food inspired by traditional Hunanese cooking, including the now famous General Tso’s Chicken. The original character of the dish, if you believe Peng’s version, was more typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty. Definitely not popcorn chicken and karo syrup, like the western version.
The case could be made that Peng created the original GTC, but the American version came from Shun Lee Palace’s executive chef and co-owner Tsung Ting Wang. He’s been credited with helping to popularize spicy Sichuan cuisine in the States and maybe cribbing Peng’s menu. He had made a trip to Taiwan in the 70’s looking for inspiration for the restaurant he was about to open. To suit the tastes of his American clientele, he updated the recipe for crispier batter and a sweeter sauce. Talk about knowing your audience.
When Peng opened his own New York City restaurant the next year, he was furious to discover that New Yorkers were already eating a version of his dish *and acting like he’d ripped off Wang, not the other way ‘round. In a classic case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,’ Peng adapted his recipe to suit American palates, as Wang had. As for why it was named after a war hero from the 1800s, no one knows for sure, but it could be as simple as the general being from the chef’s home province and nothing as salacious as punitive cannibalism.
Bonus fact: while it’s exact origins are unknown and unknowable, chop suey gets its name from
tsap seui, a Cantonese dish that translates to “miscellaneous pieces” or “misc leftovers.”
Chinese takeout wouldn’t be worth the door dash fees if you didn’t get a fistful of fortune cookies at the end. It should come as no surprise that those crispy little folded tuilles with a message inside, sometimes cryptic, sometimes piss-takingly obvious and banal, are as authentic as the Chinese chicken salad at a Presbetyrean potluck. They come instead from San Francisco, specifically Japanese restaurateurs, so it’s, like, doubly inauthentic. A tasty sesame seed treat similar to fortune cookies was made in the southern Japanese capital of Kyoto in the 19th century, which were folded around paper blessings, predictions and even curses called o-mikuji. They may have come to America around the turn of the 19th century at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. Though the owner of a Japanese restaurant in L.A. is under the impression he was first, even though his supposed year came second. During WWII, when Japanese-Americans had their homes, businesses and freedom stolen by the government, Chinese bakers took over the industry and the recipe changed when restaurants changed hands. Fortune cookies might have stayed a regional specialty if not for UofC grad Shuck Yee, who invented a fortune cookie-folding machine in 1973, and the rest if crispy, sweet, god why am I going keto again, history.
I know in the bottom of the insatiable pit that is my stomach that I’ve never eaten an authentic Chinese dish in my life, just as I know all the “Italian” food I’ve eaten is Italian-American. You’d do well to avoid trying to order spag & meatballs in Italy, unless you have an incredibly high tolerance for embarrassment. Okay, Italy and China are far away, even if we ignore how people from those places came here, but what’s our excuse when it comes to Mexican food? Mexico is right there. I’ve been close enough to it to have my cell phone jump to a Mexican tower. This was when our GoT burlesque tour went through El Paso, TX, which means fittingly The Step, and y’all can @ me on the soc meds if you want, but I think the Juarez side looked a lot better. Remind me some time to tell you about the motel room they gave to change in. Would probably make a good Tiktok video, where I also livestream *part of the recording, when, patreon
Take chili con carne for example. The name means chiles, with an E, with meat, which could be almost anything. Chili, with an I, as we know it, probably traces its lineage back to chuckwagon meals on cattle drives in Texas. Or, for a more gritty backstory, some say it was devised in the state’s prison kitchens as a cheap way to feed prisoners. Chili made its way to the rest of the country, nay, the world, in 1893, when a San Antonio Chili Stand was set up at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. For my true crime buffs, yes, the same 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition that provided cover and victims for H. H. Holmes and his murder castle, though if one more person tries to call him America’s first serial killer, I may have to start throwing chairs.
Deadpool fans will be familiar with chimichangas, essentially a deep-fried burrito –all good things there– but a non-comic-fan in Mexico might not be. They were supposedly invented in Tucson, Arizona in 1922 when the owner of El Charro Café, the city’s oldest Mexican restaurant, Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into a vat of fry oil. If you accidentally drop something the size and density of a burrito into the deep fryer, OSHA would like to have a word. Naturally, this origin is contested, with a Phoenix restaurateur named Woody Johnson claiming he invented the chimichanga in Phoenix, but not till 1946.
At least it’s closer to being Mexican than a taco salad, a large fried flour tortilla shaped like a bowl and filled with fast-food taco ingredients and a tiny amount of lettuce. This comes to us not from Mexico but rather from,,,Disneyland. Charles Elmer Doolin, a candy store manager in San Antonio and inventor of Fritos (based on a recipe he bought off a Mexican immigrant) created the Tacup in the 1950s, a taco shell shaped like a fluted pastry shell, into which he heaped a filling. The Frito company opened an ‘if you squint at it hard enough’ “Mexican” restaurant called Casa de Fritos in Disneyland in 1955, Tacup in tow. People dug it and soon other restaurants were making their own versions.
How about chile con queso (chile with cheese), the creamy Tex-Mex equivalent of fondue that should be mandatory, not cost extra, and *is related to dishes from northern Mexico called queso fundido (melted cheese) or queso flameado (“flamed” cheese). But they are distant cousins to the queso you get north-of-the-border, which started life, as far as we can tell, as a melted slab of Velveeta processed cheese and a small can of Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes and Green Chilies. Still, it’s good’er than hell and proof positive that there are use cases for processed cheese food product, aka American cheese.
Now look, I know my voice is reaching people all over the world, especially European parts where their love of a good cheese exceeds even my own. I come to bury American cheese, not to praise it. Well, that’s not true. For or against American cheese is not the hill I’m dying on, not today at least. Speaking of Europe, the story of Amer cheese actually starts in Switzerland. In 1911, messrs Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler were trying to produce cheese with a longer shelf life more suitable for export and combined local Emmental cheese with the preservative sodium citrate. This produced a smooth, melty cheese that held up better.
Five years later, it was cheddar’s at-bat in the US, when Canadian-born James Lewis Kraft patented the process. He wrote in his patent claim that he intended to convert cheddar into a shelf-stable product that could be stored without going bad while maintaining the characteristic flavors of the cheese. His brother Norman Kraft patented a box lined with metal foil into which the soft cheese could be poured. The result = a practical and portable way to bring cheese to millions, including troops stationed overseas during the World Wars. It was during WWII that Kraft patented the individually-wrapped single-serving American cheese slice.
According to The New York Times, Norman, now Kraft’s head of research, wanted a way to make the product even more convenient. In 1935 he began experimenting with ways to sell the cheese pre-sliced like a loaf of bread rather than as a brick, the hallmark of all fine foods, coming in brick form. It would take all the way up to 1950 that “Kraft De Luxe Process Slices,” 8 naked slices stacked atop the one beneath, hit the grocer’s dairy case. The last piece of the puzzle came 6 years later wit the process to individually wrap each slice, making the product super convenient and environmentally chaotic-evil, but it was the 50’s, they didn’t have the environment yet.
Busy moms, growing kids, and those who simply can’t be asked love the convenience, to say nothing of the unmatched, and I mean this, unparalleled quality of it in a grilled cheese sandwich, a toasty I believe for those across the pond. But there was an anti-fanbase, gourmands and dairy men who were none too keen, claiming it’s not legally even cheese. Per FDA regulations, a cheese must contain at least 51% cheese curd. The ingredient list for a product like Kraft Singles –- boasting milk, whey, milk protein concentrate, milk fat, calcium phosphate, salt, sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid, cheese culture, enzymes, annatto, and paprika extract –- doesn’t cut mustard. n See, I said mustard there, because cheese, but the phrase is really cut or pass muster, which is a military term.
Thus the blue cuboid packages say pasteurized process cheese food. The anti-Amer cheese crowd didn’t feel that was good enough, still too close to cheese, has the word cheese right in it, mate. One of the preservatives, sodium phosphate, can also be found in embalming fluid for preserving corpses. Now, before you say ‘Kraft singles has embalming fluid chemicals in it!’ I’ll have to come over there and have a talk with you. There was actually a lobbying effort to have the product officially titled “embalmed cheese,” but federal regulators weren’t convinced, or they had better things to do, so they settled on the term “process cheese” instead.
Enter from right, contender 3, the new fanbase, professional chefs and diehard foodies, who have rediscovered American cheese’s greatest strength – its meltability. Sodium citrate, along with sodium phosphate and preservatives like sorbic acid, emulsify the product, making for a creamy texture and a stable cheese that doesn’t split if you turned your back on the saucepan for like 5 seconds because I need to flip the fish over, why are you such a tempermental strollop? Chefs are not only giving Amer cheese a go at glory in cheese sauces, but even soups and ramen, anywhere where a creamy mouthfeel would spark joy.
You can’t even trust a food with a place in its name to be from that place. In my crosshairs today, the danish, pastry folded 27 times to achieve gorgeous, buttery, flaky layers –why did I write a food episode the same week I cut all carbs?! Seriously, I’d shank a stranger for a cheese danish, three if it was cherry-cheese– even if these delicious little bastards have the temerity to not be from Denmark. [[Mais non, they are actually French.]]
The Danes call them Viennese, but neither are they from Austria. As the story goes, when bakery workers in Denmark went on a strike in 1850, their bosses hired pastry workers from Vienna, who brought the recipes for things they knew how to make from home, including what we call Danish. By the time the strike ended, the pastry had already become popular, so the returning Danish bakers had to learn how to make it themselves. They tweaked the recipe to make it more Danish, as an adjective, with more fat and eggs, and re-christened it wienerbrød.
This leaves me a little conflicted. I love a danish, even the individually plastic’ed vending machine kind, but I’m also pro-union and generally anti-scab. It’s like when I found out that corgis get their adorable dimensions from intentionally perpetuated dwarfism. That thought’s always in the back of my head when I’m dashing across a busy street to ask a stranger if I can pet their dog.
Food history is a lot like the end of the movie Clue – “that’s how it could have happened, but how about this?” Tangential bonus fact, when Clue was released in theaters, you only got none of the three potential endings and you wouldn’t know which one. Director Jonathan Lynn had it in his head people would just keep buying tickets until they lucked into all three endings. That’s a major reason the movie bombed at the box office. Anyway, while Austrian did take it to Denmark in the 19th century, according to the Danish bakers’ union, who sound like they would be authorities on the subject, the danish started not in Austria, but in France two centuries earlier.
That origin story, still colored with apocrypha, has it that it was all a happy accident. Apprentice baker Claudius Gelee forgot to add butter to the flour and hurriedly added it in media res. Rather than getting sacked, or just skating by with no one noticing, he was praised by his boss for the gorgeous product that resulted. In 1622, Gelee opened a café in Paris serving ‘the thousands leave’ pastry and opened a second shop in Florence, Italy, from whence the recipe traveled to Austria, to be carried to Denmark.
All this talk of France, Austria and pastries will put my cleverest listeners in mind of the croissant, which we think of as as quintessentially French as ‘insert tired, unfunny stereotype here.’ Legend has it, Viennese bakers working throughout the night heard the Turks as they tried to tunnel beneath the city during a 1683 invasion. They alerted the city’s defenders, in essence saving it from the Ottoman siege. In celebration, the bakers created a pastry that would symbolize the crescent moon, which is also the prominent symbol on the Turkish flag.
The usual story, and the one I’ve put forth myself, sorry to say, is that the homesick young queen Marie Antoinette with introducing to France the kipfel, a curved cookie precursor to the croissant and by extension the croissant itself. Trouble is, evidence of this is thin on the ground, an especially significant gap considering how extremely ‘in the public eye’ Marie was. What evidence there is points instead to the croissant being popularized by August Zang, who opened the first Viennese bakery in Paris in 1838, 45 years after Marie Antoinette made the acquaintance of the Patriotic Shortener. Zang’s bakery was a solid success, thanks to newspaper advertising and elaborate window displays. He also patented a steam oven that used moist hay to give his pastries a lustrous sheen. I use an egg wash, but either way. Zang also had his hands in banking and mining, and left the Paris boulangerie scene to start Austria’s first daily newspaper, amassing a fortune in the banking and mining industries. Within a few decades, the croissant was firmly entrenched as a staple of French breakfast foods. On a visit to Paris in 1872–73, Charles Dickens praised “the dainty croissant on the boudoir table” and bemoaned the comparatively “dismal monotony” of English bread and other breakfast foods. He’s British, he can say that.
Presenting to you now, my recitation of the comedian Richard Jeni’s view on croissants.
Many historical figures are credited with creating or popularizing foods. Thomas Jefferson keeps getting credit for macaroni and cheese or bringing ice cream to the colonies. [ex.] This phenomena isn’t restricted to ‘no more primary sources alive’ times, a major public figure created what is now considered a dish of national identity less than a century ago.
Picture it, Siam, 1938. Actually, we need to hop back 6 years, when Phibunsongkhram, usually called Phibun and I like my odds better there, had been highly placed in a military coup that eviscerated Thailand’s monarchy, crush a rebellion and was made Defense, then became prime minister in ‘38. Siam was also an ethnically diverse country with strong regional identities, and Phibun had taken away the thing that tied them all together, the monarchy. Siam was surrounded by French and British colonies, but had never been colonized, though that was probably more of a “yet” situation.
So you’ve got a new leader, threat of foreign incursion, and concerns of country cohesion. How to kill three birds with one stone? Phibun must have pondered. His solution, noodles! Phibun, who’d been educated in Europe, thought Siam was behind the times, positively provincial. He wanted to mold it into a strong, nationalistic, and modern country full of productive, patriotic people, according to the 12 Cultural Mandates he issued. Some of these mandates were weightier than others, ranging from wanting people to wear hats in public, k, to changing the name of the whole damn country to Thailand. Now to create a national identity. An army marches on a stomach and you can know a people by their food. As part of his campaign, Phibun ordered the creation of a new national dish: pad Thai.
Pad Thai is a direct descendant of Chinese dish kway teow phat Thai, or stir-fried rice noodles Thai-style, with flavors like tamarind, palm sugar, and chilies. It’s so good and the first thing I get when we try a new Thai restaurant. It’s the noodles rather than rice and stir-frying that set it apart from most Thai food. Phibun started promoting it the dish. Don’t be picturing warmly-colored posters with Phibun smiling and anything like Michelle Obama hanging out on Sesame Street, shilling for Big Vegetable. Remember, yer man here is basically a military dictator, a phrase that is more awful than the sum of its parts, like a Reese’s Cup made of boiled liver and anguish. “In an effort to build a nation with a firm and everlasting foundation,” Phibun said in a public address in 1941, “the government is forced to reform and reconstruct the various aspects of society, especially its culture.” Government and forced shouldn’t be that close together either.
Most of Phibun’s strategies for forging a common, modern identity were more direct—and often more coercive—than promoting a national dish. The government reformed and standardized the Thai language and banned other languages and dialects from schools. It closed the Islamic courts of Thailand’s Malay minority and reserved positions for ethnic Thais in industries dominated by the Chinese. It reformed school curriculums to highlight the continuity and shared history of Thailand, and I’m sure all of that information was totally factually accurate. Phibun also followed the fascist handbook on how to create a cult of personality, sadly not the one-hit wonder from Living Color – portraits hanging everywhere, his birthday was made a national holiday, paramilitary youth groups, and state media relating his every brilliant word and deed like a fawning grandmother in a nursing home who can finally get one over on Mrs. Axelby and her family of doctors. They called him simply “The Leader.” It wasn’t all frightening, I just want to give the full context of what was happening. Phibun also told everyone to wear European pants and skirts and how often to call their relatives. Not all frightening, but all taken very seriously. Phibun didn’t even let people use WWII as an excuse for not toeing the new, modern line.
For the pad Thai portion of the “Buy Thai” campaign, the Public Welfare Department distributed recipes and even free food carts, so people would have their own pad Thai stand, and just to be doubly sure that his people eat the right noods, banned Chinese and other foreign food vendors. “Noodle is your lunch,” became the slogan. By the end of WWII, the dish was in like Flynn and eventually spread around the world.
And that’s… Chicken tikka didn’t come from India, but it did come from Indian chefs, though stories clash about who actually thought to modify a butter chicken recipe to suit their customers’ tastes. In 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook hailed it as a symbol of modern multicultural Britain – a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. The dish, now served in Indian restaurants around the world, is considered Indian at heart.