The Food that Built America

Seamlessly blending historian interviews with dramatized re-enactments, The History Channel’s three-part series on The Food that Built America offers a surprisingly riveting look at what might sound like some mundane topics.

A few things I learned:

  • Tomato ketchup, historically known as tomato catsup, is a tomato-based variety of “catsup sauce”, other varieties of which include fish-based sauce and walnut-based sauce. The original purpose of all of these “catsups”, tomato catsup included, was to mask the unpleasant flavor of rotting meat, as most meat at the time was not kept very well, but people felt compelled to eat it anyway, rather than let their expensive food go to waste.
  • The Heinz Company, purveyor of quality tomato catsup, successfully lobbied the United States government to establish and enforce food preparation regulations, in order to push out of business low-budget competitors who were making inferior tomato catsup on the cheap.(Perhaps had Heinz done this first, meat would not have been served rotten, and we never would have needed tomato catsup in the first place!)
  • The Kellogg brothers developed breakfast cereal initially as a quasi-medicinal product, to help people suffering from poor digestion and other stomach ailments. (Maybe from eating too much rotten meat?) One of their patients was C. W. Post, who “borrowed” the idea and launched breakfast cereal to the general public. William Kellogg eventually followed suit as a competitor, though his doctor brother was at best reluctant to market their “medicinal” breakfast food as a commercial product.
  • Milton Hershey launched his chocolate business before he had even figured out how to make chocolate, including building housing for employees and hiring an executive salesman to market something that did not yet exist. He was confident that he could develop a usable recipe, and that, once that part was compete, milk chocolate would be a runaway success.
  • In the midst of the Great Depression, when many people lacked the resources to buy much food, Hershey halved the price of his allegedly protein-rich, peanut-filled Mr. Goodbar chocolate, touting it as a meal substitute with the same nutritional benefit as a pound of meat.

The series was enjoyable to watch, well-acted, well-produced, and left me both wanting to learn more about the origins of these everyday products, and maybe wanting to eat some more of them.