30 Food Firsts

Jon Whittle

Andrew Smith, the culinary historian who authored the indispensable Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford University Press, 2007), has made it his mission to document the way Americans eat. In October, Columbia University Press published Smith's latest book, Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. Smith says that, after spending so many years examining the provenance of individual American foods, from ketchup to hamburgers to peanut butter, he wanted to pull back and look at the arc of American culinary history from a broader perspective. "I started seeing cross-connections between items," he says. "I started asking, How did we change? When did we change?" Smith ultimately pinpointed 30 watershed events, innovations, and inventions that hailed a new way of producing, cooking, selling, or eating food in the United States. We've collected Smith's fascinating findings, in a very abridged form and in no particular order.

1. Inventor and entrepreneur Gail Borden begins canning condensed milk in 1852. During the Civil War, the Union army issues a contract for Borden's product—the first ever for a canned food. Commercial canning is born.

2. In 1898, John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, Will—the owners of a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan—offer their patients toasted corn flakes, a "health food" made by steaming, flattening, and baking corn kernels in an oven. Eight years later, Will starts promoting corn flakes as a packaged breakfast cereal.

3. The Food Network debuts in 1993. Before long, it starts featuring cooking shows hosted by professional cooks such as Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and Sara Moulton, who help usher in the era of the celebrity chef.

4. The Flavr Savr, a hybrid tomato that had been genetically modified to make it less prone to spoilage, becomes the first bioengineered fruit or vegetable to be approved by the FDA, in 1994. The Flavr Savr is not a commercial success, but it opens the floodgates for other GM foods.

5. In 1892, using a device called the Calorimeter, Wilbur O. Atwater begins measuring the food intake and energy output of more than 10,000 people, leading to a new way of tabulating the nutritional value of foods. Measuring calories eventually becomes a national obsession.

6. To promote her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child appears on Boston's public television station in 1962 to demonstrate omelette making. The station gives Child her own program, The French Chef, the first widely televised cooking show.

7. The debut issue of Gourmet, America's first food magazine, goes on sale in 1941. It contains a recipe for marinated wild bear.

8. Cyrus McCormick, a Virginia farmer and inventor, patents the mechanical reaper, a horse-drawn device that harvests five times what a large crew can bring in by hand, in 1834. The reaper marks the first step toward the industrialization of agriculture in America.

9. Oliver Evans invents a fully automated grain mill in Delaware in 1784. Flour becomes the world's first processed food.

10. The transcontinental railroad is officially completed in 1869. Days later, train cars laden with California fruit start heading east from San Francisco for the one-week journey to New York, giving many Americans their first taste of California produce.

11. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 sends Union troops streaming into the South. Many of those who return bring with them a fondness for fried chicken, barbecued pork and beef, sweet potatoes, and other regional fare. Southern cooking goes national.

12. In response to wartime restaurant labor shortages, the New Haven Restaurant Institute, the first degree-granting culinary school in the U.S., opens in Connecticut in 1946. It later relocates to Hyde Park, New York, and is renamed the Culinary Institute of America.

13. A tropical-plant exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition introduces bananas to fairgoers, at ten cents apiece. Within a few years the fruit will reign as one of America's favorites.

14. Brothers John and Peter Delmonico open a cafe in New York City in 1827. Delmonico's soon expands its menu and goes on to become the first French restaurant in the U.S. For a time the most famous eatery in the country, Delmonico's helps popularize dining out.

15. In 1830, the dietary reformer Sylvester Graham gives his first lecture promoting vegetarianism and whole-grain foods like his whole wheat Graham bread (the precursor to graham crackers). The modern health food movement is born.

16. The Erie Canal is completed in 1825. The waterway conveys cheap wheat and corn from the Midwest to the coastal markets of New England. New Englanders find they prefer inexpensive food from afar to locally grown items; the rest of America eventually follows suit.

17. Jean -Nidetch, a New York housewife, starts a weight-loss club in 1963. She founds Weight Watchers later that year.

18. Alice Waters opens Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Seasonal cuisine takes root in America.

19. Philip Morris buys General Foods in 1985: the first of several mergers that corporatize much of U.S. food production.

20. The first full-service supermarket in the U.S., King Kullen, opens in Queens, New York, in 1930.

21. In 1895 the first mass-produced packaged snack food arrives when Frederick and Louis Rueckheim, brothers from Chicago, start selling boxes of molasses-covered peanuts and popcorn, which they call Cracker Jack. Prizes don't show up in the boxes until 1912.

22. In 1942, the Pennsylvania-based author and publisher Jerome Rodale codifies the fundamental principles of organic farming—including composting, soil building, and nonchemical methods of pest control—in his magazine Organic Gardening.

23. The gold rush of 1848 brings Chinese workers to California; the first Chinese restaurants catering to Americans soon follow, sparking a national love affair with "exotic" and "ethnic" cuisines.

24. In 1924 the entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye develops quick-freezing technology, which leads to such developments as TV dinners and the decline of home cooking.

25. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle** is published** in 1906. The expose of working conditions in the Chicago stockyards fails to strengthen workers' rights, but it does spur legislators to pass food-safety laws and prompts the eventual founding of the FDA.

26. Fast food as we know it is born when the McDonald brothers open their drive-in burger joint in California in 1948.

27. The Radarange, the first commercial microwave oven, goes on sale in 1947—for $3,000.

28. In 1896 the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book standardizes measures for the teaspoon, tablespoon, and cup.

29. After years of lobbying by a writer named Sarah Hale, President Lincoln declares Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Hale's account of a Pilgrim-Indian feast has little basis in fact but resonates among citizens of a war-torn nation.

30. Quaker Oats debuts its famous label in 1891, marking the advent of modern food branding.