Whether it's cooked up at home or served at a restaurant, Americans love food. When it comes to talking about it, we often assume that some of our most burning questions regarding culinary experiences in the US can be met with a simple response: "That's just the way it is."
Why do Americans love pizza so much? Why are salt and pepper considered staple seasonings? Why is fast food sometimes cheaper than fruits and vegetables? It turns out these questions actually have answers, and they're a lot more fascinating and rooted in history than we might initially think.
This list answers some of the questions we've always wondered about restaurants and food.
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How Did Salt And Pepper Become The Go-To Seasonings?
From elegant restaurants to home dining room tables, salt and pepper shakers are considered a culinary staple throughout the Western world. However, this wasn't always the case.
Humans need salt to survive. It's such an essential mineral that Roman soldiers were allegedly paid with it in ancient times. (The Italian word for salt is sale, which eventually led to the modern term "salary.”) For centuries, salt was considered a commodity for the rich - but it was also served alongside sugar. French King Louis XIV's 17th-century court began separating savory foods from sugary desserts, using salt to stimulate appetites and sugar to signify the end of a meal.
While pepper doesn't play a crucial role in vitality, ancient Romans believed it was a remedy for numerous ailments. Like salt, the Romans prized pepper and sometimes used it as currency. The spice went out of style during the Renaissance, but Louis XIV's picky eating habits elevated pepper back to its high seat at the table during the Enlightenment period.
But how did salt and pepper become such popular food staples? Associate professor of food studies Krishnendu Ray at New York University noted that in earlier times, people didn't gather around the table with their specific food preferences and restrictions. Instead, everyone ate the same dish. Having salt and pepper at the table allowed each diner to alter the flavors of their food to their liking. The two seasonings also provide a bridge into different cultural dishes, allowing eaters to experience some form of familiarity when they try something new.
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Why Is Pizza So Popular In The US?
Around 4 million immigrants came to the US from southern Italy between 1880 and 1920, and they brought their pizza with them. After years of Italian-Americans making pizzas in their homes and selling them through unlicensed vendors, the first official pizzeria, Lombardi's, opened its doors in New York in 1905.
Although Naples, Italy, claims the rights to the pie's invention, single slice sales came about due to the American pizzeria boom. Workers loved the idea of being able to grab a quick bite that didn't require them to buy a whole pizza. Because the ancient Greeks founded Naples, the cuisine wasn't truly an Italian dish - but no one seemed to mind. Pizza soon became more popular in the US than in Italy, establishing it as more of an American than Italian cuisine. The greater Italian population didn't catch on to the pizza craze until the 1940s.
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Why Do So Many Chinese Restaurants In The US Share Nearly Identical Menus And Decor?
Many Chinese restaurant owners choose commonly known names and menu items in hopes of ensuring success. Whether diners visit restaurants in a small town or a big city, they recognize the name of a place and can feel confident they'll find the Chinese comfort food they know and love.
Restaurants commonly have the words "garden," "lucky," "fortune," or "dragon" in their names, also as a tribute to the hopeful prosperity of the business. In Mandarin, the word "garden" is a homophone for money. While the restaurants aren't directly correlated, many get their menus, decor, and even workers from the same distributors based in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston.
Americans expect Chinese food to be inexpensive and reliable, offering fried and sauteed appetizers and entrees with ingredients they recognize - along with soup, rice, and noodles, of course. While these definitions of "Chinese" dishes don't necessarily fit the vast array of culinary flavors the massive country offers, Chinese restaurant owners have adapted their menus to entice patrons to return.
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Why Do We Care What A Tire Company Thinks About Restaurants?
Yes, the Michelin star system is directly related to the tires. Shortly after Michelin brothers Ándre and Édouard opened their tire business in France in the late 1880s, they thought that providing a travel guide to their limited customer base would help drive sales. They began the Michelin guide in 1900, encouraging drivers to travel great lengths to experience the best the country had to offer.
At the time, there were only 2,200 cars in France, and the country didn't boast an extensive road system. Michelin was a premium tire brand, and the guide featured restaurants, hotels, gasoline vendors, and mechanics worthy of carrying the Michelin name. As car owners ventured beyond their typical local picnics to experience what the brothers considered exquisite services, their tires wore out more quickly, ultimately resulting in more Michelin purchases.
By 1931, the company had expanded to fine dining and established the star system now recognized worldwide.
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How Do Restaurants Make Their Fajitas Sizzle So Much?
The sounds of sizzling fajitas making their way from a restaurant's kitchen and onto a patron's table creates an undeniably enticing atmosphere. As the diner who ordered the dish grows even more hungry during the anticipatory seconds that they hear the food before they actually see it, other patrons get the urge to order the Mexican-inspired dish for themselves. Why is it that fajitas at restaurants seem to sizzle so much louder and longer than ones prepared at home?
Some restaurants, like Chili's, use what's mysteriously called a "sizzle sauce" to create the snapping, crackling, and popping. Before the meat and vegetables go on the hot serving skillet, chefs cover it with the sauce (allegedly a mix of cooking oil and soy sauce), allowing for the distinctive sounds that announce good food is on its way.
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Why Do Onions Make You Cry When You Cut Them?
Anyone who's ever chopped onions for a meal knows how quickly it can turn from a pleasant experience to an excruciating one. As the blade hits the vegetable's center, the cook's eyes begin to sting, burn, and water. Sometimes, it can feel almost unbearable. What causes this misery?
Onions are full of amino acid-containing cells, which readily absorb sulfur. As a blade slices through the bulb's layers, it rapidly bursts these cells, causing a release of their juicy contents. As newly separated enzymes come in contact with sulfur-dense amino acids, they rearrange themselves to create the volatile chemical syn-propanethial-S-oxide. It quickly turns to vapor, which travels from the chopping block through the air and into the unfortunate chef's eyes. Recognizing a potential danger, the brain signals the eyeballs to release tears in an attempt to wash the irritating chemical away.