People We Never Realized Shaped How We Eat
Vote up all the important foodies.
Though we eat out of necessity, the evolution of the way food is prepared and served has also made it an incredibly enjoyable experience that we look forward to every few hours. And while we often sit down to enjoy a home-cooked dinner inspired by our favorite TV chefs, run through the drive-thru to get a hearty meal from our favorite fast-food joint, or get dressed to celebrate an occasion at our favorite restaurant, we rarely stop to consider exactly how the foods we love ended up on our plates.
Innovative chefs, foodies, and entrepreneurs paved the way for us to fully savor our food. If you've ever wondered how an unconventional taco stop became America's favorite fast-food Mexican obsession, preparing meals made its way from the subject of recipe books to standard cable programming, or who the inventors and chefs were behind some of America's most beloved comfort foods, this list is for you.
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Sit-down restaurants were a newly conceived concept in the mid- to late 1800s because most people didn't understand the need to eat away from home. Until the first burgeoning French eateries, taverns and inns were the only places that hired a cooking staff.
Kitchens were cramped, grimy places where cooks worked in hot, windowless rooms with wood and coal-burning stoves, often drinking wine to stay hydrated. French chef Auguste Escoffier changed that, refusing to allow his cooks to drink anything other than malt brew to keep them sober as they worked with sharp utensils.
Escoffier introduced the first cooking assembly line, where each worker had a different station designed to perform a specific task. This made cooking a much more pleasant and economical experience and allowed restaurants to turn higher profits.
Escoffier also introduced a la carte menus, and created more than 5,000 recipes during his career, from foie gras to canned tomato sauce.
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When Upton Sinclair began interviewing workers in a Chicago-area meatpacking plant in the early 1900s, he intended to expose the harsh realities that many immigrant workers faced in the meatpacking industry.
The Jungle, published in 1906, was a work of fiction based on the seven weeks he spent investigating and conducting interviews at Chicago's Union Stock Yards. The book's plot centered on the relentless working conditions a Lithuanian immigrant endured to provide for his family.
Instead of stirring outrage for better working conditions, the exposé drew more attention to the unsanitary conditions at factories where US meat was processed. After the public learned of meat dropping to a sawdust floor, only to be nibbled on by rats before it was picked up and packaged, the government was forced to investigate. Realizing the author's claims were true, Congress went to work immediately to enact the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.
Sinclair himself noted:
I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
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Before he was the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson served as the US Minister to France. While living in Paris from 1784-89, he brought one of his enslaved workers, James Hemings, with him to be trained as a French chef. Under this agreement, Hemings would learn the art of French cooking, bring his acquired skills back to Jefferson's Virginia home (Monticello), and be freed after teaching an apprentice the craft.
Upon their return to the United States, James Hemings brought a number of signature dishes back to the United States, including macaroni and cheese, ice cream, whipped cream, and french fries. Though Jefferson kept his word and freed Hemings in 1796, the former enslaved chef credited with bringing some of the most beloved dishes to the American palette perished five years later. While the cause is uncertain, historians believe he took his own life.
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Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipe book didn't just bring a practical method of cooking French food to American homes. It also thrust her into the spotlight to become the pioneer of TV cook-show hosts.
The American-born, French-trained chef first appeared on a television show called I've Been Reading to promote her cookbook in 1961. Instead of sitting down for a normal interview, Child brought a hot plate, a whisk, and eggs on set with her and cooked an omelet during the broadcast. Fans of the show loved the episode and wrote to the producers asking to see more of the chef on air.
By February 1963, Child had her own cooking show on the WGBH network. The show was an overwhelming success, lasting 10 seasons. In addition to bringing cooking to the TV entertainment lineup, The French Chef also introduced closed-captioning for the first time for hearing-impaired audiences. Child went on to have numerous other cooking shows, paving the way for future generations of TV chefs.
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Food innovator William A. Mitchell found his start in the sweet treats business early in life. He began monitoring the sugar crystallization tanks for the American Sugar Beet company when he was just a teenager and never really left the sugary food industry. He developed a substitute for tapioca to help keep soldiers full during WWII, and in 1956, attempted to invent a self-carbonating soda that left him with a product soon to be marketed as Pop Rocks.
By 1957, he had created a sweet powdered drink that was high in nutrients for NASA. Though the astronauts of the Apollo program weren't huge fans of Tang, consumers loved the idea of having a space-worthy treat available in their local stores.
In 1967, he developed gelatin that congealed with cold water - setting the pace for what would later be recognized across the country as quick-set Jell-O. He also developed a dairy-free alternative to whipped cream, Cool Whip, that same year.
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When Rocky Aoki first approached his father in the 1960s about purchasing a four-table Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in Manhattan, NY, Yunosuke Aoki wasn't keen on the idea. The elder Aoki had opened his own restaurant, Benihana, in Japan during WWII. Yunosuke believed that Americans needed a show to keep them in their seats long enough to enjoy a Japanese meal and that the business model couldn't last in New York.
So Rocky encouraged his tableside chefs at his Benihana restaurant to put on the best spectacle they could for clientele, which included juggling eggs, cracking jokes, setting fire to onion volcanoes, and preparing full meals in front of guests. Because Japanese cuisine was new to the American palate, Rocky chose to offer a menu that catered to his patrons, with “no slithery, fishy things” as the restaurant motto.
Benihana drew rave reviews, and became a go-to spot for prom dates and other special milestones.