Photo: Romulo Yanes
Working on the recent Past Perfect issue of Gourmet Live got me thinking about a 2002 article I wrote for the trade publication Restaurant Business Magazine about restaurants that have stood the test of time. For the article, we asked the proprietors of 10 ancient restaurants, “What’s the secret to staying open forever?” One of the featured restaurants was Louis’ Lunch, opened by Louis Lassen in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1895 and often credited as the “birthplace of the hamburger.”
For the article, I interviewed Louis’ grandson, Ken Lassen, who had started grinding meat for the restaurant when he was a young boy. “There are a lot of things that 85-year-old Ken Lassen doesn’t like,” I wrote. “He doesn’t like the crass language that boys use these days. ‘The knuckleheads don’t have any respect for women,’ he says. He’s even less pleased that girls are ‘getting to where they speak the same way.’ He doesn’t like it when highways tear through town obliterating everything in their paths. He doesn’t like the ‘damn’ tax increases. He doesn’t like air conditioning. He doesn’t like the fact that cows raised for food are given growth hormones and aren’t allowed to stay in the feeding pen–he says it makes the meat taste less meaty. He especially doesn’t like fast-food burgers, which he says are so tasteless they have to be drowned in ketchup to get them down–which brings us to ketchup, another thing Lassen doesn’t like one bit.”
Ken Lassen is one of the memorable (and quotable) interview subjects of my career, but what’s stuck with me the most is his disdain for factory-farmed meat. He was speaking out against practices derided by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, first published in 2002 (and who I also interviewed for Restaurant Business). But while Schlosser talked about the harm to humans and animals, Lassen was focused on flavor.
Since those two interviews, I’ve sought old-fashioned meat–grass-fed and free-range–whenever I make a burger, steak, or meatloaf.
Pictured: the Ultimate Burger (apologies to the Lassens for the ketchup).
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Whether or not you celebrate the Festival of Lights, there’s no denying that a perfectly fried potato latke is a little piece of bliss. Interestingly enough, latkes came to the Hanukkah party fairly late. Here’s a brief history of the duo.
Hanukkah itself dates back to 168 B.C., when Syrian-Greek King Antiochus captured Jerusalem. The city’s loyal defenders, the Maccabees, finally succeeded in driving out Antiochus and his troops three years later. Afterwards, they assembled in the Temple in Jerusalem and lit a golden menorah to celebrate and give thanks. Though they only had enough oil for one day, the menorah stayed lit for eight days. Continue reading
Regardless of the fact that you probably haven’t eaten a raw candy cane since you were in middle school, you’ve got to admit to getting at least a little bit excited when they start showing up on the shelves at the local Duane Reade. Candy canes are one of those Christmastime harbingers that seem to spread cheer simply by existing. But why?
Candy canes have actually been around for about 350 years. At their inception, they were just plain white sugar sticks being produced by professional candy-makers and at-home cooks/sugar aficionados alike. With the advent of the Christmas tree in the late seventeenth century, European Christians began using them to decorate their trees, along with other sweets like sugar cookies. Continue reading
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It was one of my favorite things about the month of December as a kid: waking up each morning and ticking off another day on the Advent Calendar. Of course, being one of four, I only got to eat the treat that waited inside once every four days, but still. It was magic.
Fun as it may be, we all know there’s got to be a story behind the tradition. So what is it? Continue reading
Photo: Romulo Yanes
It’s the ultimate challenge on Thanksgiving Day, one that almost seems cruel: “Save room for dessert!” And yet a Thanksgiving meal without pumpkin pie seems horribly incomplete. So when did the indulgent holiday come to be associated with the sweet treat?
Pumpkins were long a staple of North and South American peoples. Scientists have even dated pumpkin-related seeds back to 7000 BC in Mexico. Early settlers of the Plymouth Plantation noticed how readily available pumpkins were, and copied Native Americas in roasting and boiling the squash to stay fed. Pumpkin was definitely a big part of the first Thanksgiving.
Later, in an attempt to make pumpkin more appetizing, settlers began cutting open the top, scooping out the seeds, and pouring milk, honey, and other spices—when available—into the pumpkin prior to cooking it, inadvertently creating the first pumpkin pie prototype. Continue reading
Courtesy Abbie Row National Park Service
Each Thanksgiving, the most powerful person in America stands over a completely oblivious turkey and offers it clemency. It’s kitschy and bizarre, and yet Americans (and the turkey industry) rejoice with each pardon and subsequent send-off to an early retirement. So what’s the story behind the practice? Continue reading
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Every fourth Thursday of November, almost 90 percent of Americans sit down at the table and feast on turkey. For all our fowl friends out there wondering what gives, here’s a brief history of one of America’s favorite traditions: the Thanksgiving turkey.
The year was 1621 and the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts had barely survived a harsh winter. The nearby Wampanoag tribe saw the colonists’ dwindling numbers and unsuccessful attempts at harvesting crops, and stepped in to help. The Wampanoag introduced them to local crops and showed them how to hunt North American game, and Governor William Bradford hosted a feast in gratitude. Continue reading
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All around the country, kids dressed as superheroes and Disney princesses are currently dreaming of the mountains of sugary goodness they’ll rake in tonight. But how did October 31st come to be the Super Bowl of candy? Let’s take a quick look at the history of trick-or-treating.
Halloween, which has its roots in the Celtic celebration Samhain, has always been associated with food. Celts lit bonfires and set up banquet tables filled with edible offerings for visiting spirits. The poor dressed as ghosts and demons and performed antics in exchange for some of the food and drink in a practice known as mumming. Continue reading
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It’s fall’s tiny, almost sickeningly sweet answer to the candy hearts and Peeps of spring. But did you know that candy corn has a history stretching back a century? Here’s the story behind one of our favorite seasonal treats.
Candy corn was first invented in the 1880s in Philadelphia by the Wunderle Candy Company. At the time, candy was frequently crafted in the shape of plants and other natural foods like chestnuts and clovers. Candy maker George Renninger wanted to try creating something in the shape of corn—which ironically wasn’t widely consumed by the public at the time—and wound up with candy corn. The first multi-colored candy, the tri-layering effect mesmerized the public. Despite corn’s associations of the time as unappealing and low-brow, it was an immediate success.
Each October, classrooms and families alike make their annual pumpkin patch pilgrimage, sorting through hay, mud, and pumpkin runts to return with the perfect canvas for a jack-o’-lantern. But when you think about it, hallowing out a large gourd to put a face on, candle in, and display on your front step would be kind of hard to explain to, say, visiting aliens. So why do we do it? Halloween itself dates back at least 2,000 years in Ireland to the celebration of the Celtic New Year, called Samhain or “Summer’s End.” Celts believed that on the night before the holiday, October 31st, deceased souls were closest to our world and could contact the living. Continue reading
Photo: Fairchild Archive
As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” It’s time to put away the flip-flops, indulge in a pumpkin spice latté, and focus on the important stuff.
Case in point: It’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. And while the movement’s pink ribbon is famous, the story behind the duo is little known.
In 1979, the wife of an American hostage in Iran who was was inspired by a song, tied yellow ribbons around the trees of her front yard as a sign of her struggle. Media outlets picked up the story and soon Americans nationwide adopted the practice in solidarity. In the 80s, AIDS activists created a red version of the looped ribbon for their campaigns. Continue reading
Fall is officially upon us, bringing hearty harvests, cool-weather clothes, and anxious children meeting new teachers for the first time. Did you send your little one off with an apple in tow?
Probably not. The truth is, packing a shiny, red apple in your kid’s backpack as a token of gratitude is something we see in the movies but would never think to do in real life. Clichéd as it may be, however, the apple as a symbol of learning endures. Why?
The apple has been associated with education for centuries, thanks to the story of our curious friends Adam and Eve. The Tree of Knowledge’s frequent depiction as an apple tree was not lost on religious disciples who began to consider the fruit a powerful symbol of information. Continue reading
Many fruits remind us of summer, but watermelon has to take the cake as the ultimate seasonal icon. Its bright green striped exterior and brilliant red interior are reminiscent of vibrant summer flowers and tropical paradises. Its high water content and sweet, juicy flesh make it perfect for picnics and other outdoor get-togethers. And before all these newfangled technologies emerged that made the melons available year-round, watermelons were primarily harvested during the summer months. Outside of their warm-weather affinity though, watermelons also have a fascinating history. Read on to get the full scoop on this fantastic fruit.
First and foremost, it’s called “watermelon” for a reason. This refreshing, crunchy, thirst-quenching relative of the melon family is composed of more than 90 percent water and has been prized throughout history as a drought resistant, vital source of H2O. First domesticated more than 6,000 years ago in southern and central Africa, the watermelon spread via trade routes to China, Vietnam, India, and Egypt, where its seeds and leaves were left for the dead in Egyptian tombs. Around 961 BC, Moorish conquerors introduced the watermelon to Europe, and in the 16th century, the watermelon made its way to the New World with African slaves and European colonists.
It’s hard to think of a food product more emblematic of summer than the Popsicle. This notable piece of Americana is versatile, refreshing and full of flavor. It’s a cold treat for kids, and with a little added pick-me-up, it can be transformed into a frozen cocktail for adults. But what are the origins of the Popsicle? Read on as we take a look at the history of the ultimate icy-cold, summertime sweet.
Although it is hard to imagine a summer without Popsicles, what we know as the Popsicle today wasn’t invented until 1905. As the story goes, on a particularly cold evening in San Francisco, 11-year-old Frank Epperson accidentally left a combination of powdered soda, water and a stirring stick in a cup on his porch overnight only to find the mixture frozen in the morning. Soon after his discovery, he began to share the frozen treat with his friends at school. Eighteen years later, Epperson started to consider his icy-cold creation’s business potential. Continue reading
As we get ready to set up our picnic table spread this Fourth of July, we couldn’t help but wonder about the history behind one of summer’s most iconic dishes: potato salad. And so we did a little digging and discovered that there’s quite the storied history behind the ultimate American side.
Although potato salad has become as synonymous with America as apple pie, it was originally a European creation. Potato salad was first concocted by Spanish explorers after arriving in Europe from the New World in the 16th century. The first potato salads were normally cooked and/or dressed with vinegar or wine in contrast to their modern American counterparts, which are traditionally slathered in creamy mayonnaise.
Photo: Krek Holy/Getty Images
What’s more American than fried foods and fairs? With summer just around the corner — and outdoor carnivals popping up around the nation — we’re taking a look at the history of a mandatory carnival must-have: hot and crispy funnel cakes.
Despite debate on the true origin of funnel cakes, it is popularly believed that these crispy-fried confections were created by the Pennsylvania Dutch, a group of German immigrants who landed in Pennsylvania before the 19th century. (The first ever recipe resembling a funnel cake showed up in a German cookbook in 1879.)
The name “funnel cake” was derived from the method of squeezing batter through a funnel in a circular pattern into hot oil to achieve a dizzying pattern of crispy-fried dough. The oldest recipe for a funnel cake in an English cookbook appeared in 1935, which instructed the cook to turn “the stream around in a gradual enlarging circle” and “serve hot with any tart jelly.” Continue reading
Photo by Southern Stock / Getty Images
The arrival of chocolate bunnies in stores is a budding sign of Easter fast approaching, bringing with it picnics, candy-colored eggs, and the first days of spring. But when did these edible treats first hop onto our candy counters? Read on for a brief history.
In pre-Christian pagan times, spring was celebrated by giving thanks to the ancient goddess of fertility Eostre—from which “Easter” derived its name. Since the rabbit was recognized as a symbol of fertility and new life, it became associated with the rituals of Easter springtime. Continue reading
Photo Credit: Fairchild Archive
It seems the whole world is abuzz with what’s surely to be one of the most memorable weddings of the century—the royal nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. And while we don’t have a front seat to the festivities (who does?), we have been keeping a keen eye on the day-to-day developments related to the can’t-miss confection—the royal wedding cake. But that got us thinking … when did cake become such an essential element of exchanging vows? Read on for the sweet history (and a few surprising facts) about why we’ve come to cut cake on every couples’ big day.
Back in the era of the Roman Empire, the wedding cake was a messy affair. It was customary for a groom to break the cake over his bride’s head (to symbolize breaking her virginal state). Luckily, back then the wedding “cake” was usually a dry piece of oatcake or barley bread. In medieval England, other accounts describe the custom of guests stacking sweet buns in front of the newlyweds who would attempt to kiss over the pile.
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, many images come to mind: leprechauns, rainbows, four-leaf clovers, and on the dinner table, a heaping platter of corned beef and cabbage. But how authentic really is this “Irish dish”? Take a look back in history to discover why you won’t find corned beef on the menu this St. Patrick’s Day – at least not in Ireland.
Corned beef—or salt-cured beef—popularly paired with cooked cabbage, has become a familiar centerpiece of St. Patty’s Day feasts in the U.S. But this dish is more Irish-American than Irish. In fact, back in the 17th century when the celebration of patron Saint Patrick of Ireland first became an official holiday, pork and bacon were the only affordable meats among most Irish, and beef was considered a rare delicacy.