From the Gen X obsession with sun-dried tomatoes to the 1950s-era meat salads suspended in aspic jelly, we have collectively come a long way from our culinary past. New fad foods and diets pop up and disappear every year, but one thing has curiously stayed the same over the last century: junk food.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most of what we would now consider “junk food” was made at home on a small scale. While the invention of the steel mill and steam power was certainly useful and revolutionary, the more whimsical effects of the societal overhaul are worthy of analysis, as well. The developments in food science expanded while mass production grew more sophisticated, enabling the American public to experience a wide array of new snacks.
The most impressive aspect of junk food developed throughout the 20th century is just how many of the inventions stuck around. Cracker Jack and Jell-O are permanent fixtures in the national American identity. Hershey has become an entire census-designated place in Pennsylvania. While Atkins TV dinners and poke bowls may come and go, we tend to hold our old junk food standards close generation after generation.
“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” sounds practical, but its origins were tactical. The 1941 invention of the M&M was a result of wartime necessity. Mars began producing the hard-coated candies that could withstand overseas travel and storing for troops fighting in WWII.
The Mike and Ike family of candies was first introduced in 1940. Russian immigrant Samuel Born had become popular in the candy industry for his "Born Sucker Machine" that inserted sticks into lollipops, but he truly struck it big with the elongated jelly beans that came in fruit and spicy cinnamon flavors.
The invention of the Multimixer milkshake machine in the late 1930s gave rise to the trend of soft-serve restaurants. Near the end of WWII, Dairy Queen opened for business to serve both savory and sweet delights.
The Frito was a huge success, so the Frito Company delved into new types of corn snacks throughout the 1940s, most notably Cheetos. Developed in 1948, Cheetos were made using extruded corn blasted with cheese powder. Many "cheese puff" copycats followed soon after.
The end of WWII was a major boon to the United States economy, which meant a massive uptick in inventions and people with money to blow on delicious trash. One major advent of this era was the volume of fast food restaurants, namely McDonald's, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. This was also a testament to the expanding palate of the average American, eager to feast after the constrictions of WWII rationing.
While doughnuts had been sold locally across the nation since the 1930s, the fried, glazed treats went mainstream following the 1950 launch of Dunkin' Donuts. William Rosenberg of Quincy, MA, franchised his popular doughnut store in 1955.
While pizza had been around for decades before, it was considered an "exotic" food until the 1950s. The first genuine fast food pizza chain was Pizza Hut, founded by Frank Carney in 1958. The pizzas came in two sizes: small for 95 cents, and large for $1.50. The restaurant franchised in 1959.
Kraft food scientist Edwin Traisman had his hands in many historic fast-food pots. He opened some of the first McDonald's restaurants in the nation, where he found solutions to keep sliced potatoes crisp and fresh using freeze-and-dry methods. However, his greatest personal invention took place in 1953, when he created Cheez Whiz out of cheese and emulsifiers loaded into an aerosol can. Chili hot dogs were never the same.
Food science innovation picked up steam throughout the 1960s, as the consumer culture of the previous decade encouraged a constant stream of novelties. This was a particularly good time for lunchbox staples, such as Little Debbie snack cakes and Hunt’s Snack Pack pudding.
The Oatmeal Creme Pie was the first Little Debbie confection, released by McKee foods in 1960. Today, Little Debbie has retained a nostalgic packaging concept that harkens back to this important junk food era. Hunt’s Snack Pack pudding, invented in 1968, had a significant makeover; until 1984, the pudding was stored in individual pull-tab aluminum cans.
In 1963, Nabisco made yet another major splash in the cookie market with one of its most popular selections, the Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookie. As a marketing scheme, Nabisco claimed each 18-ounce bag of cookies had at least 1,000 chocolate chips. The company issued the "Chips Ahoy! 1,000 Chips Challenge," challenging consumers to come up with the most creative way to confirm the thousand-chip claim.
Another popular baked good was the Kellogg Pop-Tart, introducing the concept of a sweet filling between a thin layer of pastry crusts on either side. The Pop-Tart's direct competition was the Country Square by Post Cereals, but the rectangular design proved more popular.
Doritos were nothing short of an instant classic. Following the Frito-Lay merger in 1959, one of the company's first new products was the triangular cheesy corn chip. Stories say that a marketing executive came up with the idea for mass-marketing the chips after visiting the Casa de Fritos branded restaurant in Disneyland. Cooks fried up stale tortillas instead of throwing them out, and the executive was inspired after tasting the crunchy chips on a visit to the park. Doritos were released in 1966, and closed the year as the second-most popular snack item in the country.
The 1970s were a banner decade for all things crunchy. On the savory end of things, Pringles made quite a stir in the potato chip world in the early 1970s due to their unusual composition. All other chips were made of sliced and baked/fried potatoes, while Pringles were dehydrated, reconstituted, and pressed into the uniform shape that allowed them to be packaged in their signature long tube.
Candy novelties soared to new heights with the 1975 invention of the Ring Pop, a curious fusion of food and fashion. Topps engineer Frank Richards created the bejeweled ring treat to help his daughter quit sucking her thumb.
Pop Rocks were another curious creation from this inventive era. Technically, General Foods developed the crackly, carbonated candy in 1956, but they were not released until 1975. Pop Rocks were taken off the market for 10 years soon after, following a rumor that the rocks would violently explode.
In 1978, Vermont natives Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their flagship location in South Burlington. The ice cream shop was originally called "Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Crepes."