Nutrition Column – a Bit of American Culinary History

America is known as the great melting pot because of the country’s rich cultural history. A classic example of the many cultures that have met and blended over time is reflected in America’s culinary history. What is commonly referred to today as "American cuisine" actually is a combination of original creations and imported favorites.

Under the direction of University of California-Davis Nutrition Professor Louis Grivetti, several individuals and organizations have worked together to research American culinary history. Their efforts are now part of an exhibit entitled "American the Bountiful: Classic American Food from Antiquity to the Space Age." The exhibit is housed at the University of California at Davis, with an online version available through the Internet.

Here are a few of the interesting facts assembled by the research team about some of the most popular American dishes:

– Apple seeds were brought to the New World by the Pilgrims in 1620. Apple pie, formerly called house pie by the poor, was the universal favorite American food in the 1700s.

– Native Americans introduced chewing gum to the Pilgrims. In New England, Native Americans chewed resin from the black spruce when they were hungry, and this gum eased hunger pangs. The first commercial manufacture of chewing gum in America was in Maine, about 1850. Following the native practice, the commercial chewing gum was spruce-resin flavored.

– Spanish missionaries introduced wheat to Arizona and California early in the 18th century. Wheat did not become an important American crop, however, until planted successfully in the Mississippi Valley in 1718.

– While the origin of pizza is obscure and may have been invented in ancient Greece, the pizza that Americans recognize today was developed in 1905 in New York City.

– During the late 19th century, the word salad referred to cooked salads, whether escarole, hot or cold slaw, potato salad or sauerkraut. Fresh green salads remained the exception well into the 20th century. The shift toward fresh green salads was partially due to the development of refrigerated rail cars, which could bring perishable greens to market.

– Caesar salad, made using Romaine lettuce, garlic, olive oil, croutons, Parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, egg yolks, lemon, and anchovies, was first created by Caesar Cardini in the 1920s in Mexico. Tradition holds that San Diego, Calif., was the first place in the U.S. to serve Caesar salad.

– While dining at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York, a finicky patron repeatedly returned his order of french fried potatoes. Chef George Crum became enraged, sliced some of the potatoes paper-thin, returned the plate to the guest, who loved them, and the potato chip was born.

– Ketchup, or catsup, originated in China in 1690 as a pickled fish sauce called ke-tsiap.

– Before World War II, U.S. consumers ate more fresh oranges per person than any other country in the world. However, after World War II, commercial frozen orange juice became popular and our consumption of fresh oranges declined significantly.

– The modern hamburger (on a bun) appeared around the time of World War I. The White Castle restaurant chain was established in 1916 at Wichita, Kansas, and by the early 1920s was selling hamburgers. However, some scholars say the first hamburger served on a bun appeared in 1917 at Drexel’s Pure Food Restaurant in Chicago.

To learn more about the interesting history of some of America’s most well-known foods, visit the American the Bountiful exhibit on the University of California-Davis Web site at

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension