salad days trivia roundup

I discovered a list of national food days and fell deeply under its spell. Did you know there’s national hoagie day, national eat a hoagie day, and national sandwich day? The French are overrepresented, with days for french fried clams, pots de creme, steak au poivre, creme brulee, escargot, cassoulet, and vichyssoise. There’s also a national crown roast of pork day, a tater tot day, a pigs in a blanket day, and, for the love of god: bicarbonate of soda day. September 11 is national hot cross bun day (never forget). Of course these are arbitrary and capricious and not actually sanctioned, but let’s deep dive into some food day trivia.

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1. Both March 11 and September 26 are listed as Johnny Appleseed Day. In American lore, Appleseed was a nomadic simpleton, wandering the country barefoot with an overturned pot on his head, spraying his indiscriminate seed across the land because he loved nature, and apples. In reality, Appleseed (real name: John Chapman) was a quasi-land baron and probably not-so-bright primitive Christian “traveling to heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiments” (he was actually Swedenborgian).

johnny depicted then (1800s, left), and now (right)
johnny depicted then (1800s, left), and now (right)

To get the facts straight, Chapman:

  • did traipse around barefoot
  • did plant apple trees all over the place
  • did not wear a tin pot hat
  • did not plant trees out of some proto-Sierra Club affinity for nature.

About that last part: “pioneers” could claim land by establishing a permanent homestead. One way to demonstrate permanency was to plant 50 apple trees. Chapman didn’t just sow seeds while rambling through the countryside; he planted trees in unclaimed land, tended to them, entrusted their care to a neighbor before leaving. Eventually, he sold them—making the truth of Johnny Appleseed perhaps an even more American folk tale than the standard mythology. Likewise, he was not planting apples for food, but for hard cider (side note: June 5 is national moonshine day). His ascetic religious beliefs probably forbade alcohol, but then the almighty dollar is the one true god.

Chapman’s substantial land holdings were greatly diminished during the financial panic of 1837. When he died in 1845 his estate had been reduced to just 1200 acres. His obituary said “the deceased was well known through the region by his eccentricity,” which I’m sure he was.

A lesser known Pennsylvanian folk hero, Billy Scrappleseed walked the countryside carrying only a bucket of pork leavings and buckwheat flour, planting scrapple trees wherever he went, creating the Golden Russet and Esopus Spitzenburg scrapple cultivars. National Scrapple Day is November 9.

The rare sight of a scrapple harvest in action
The rare sight of a scrapple harvest in action


2. Bringing all the prestige and distinction of eating on an airplane to eating in your home, September 10th was national TV Dinner Day.

Let’s step back to Clarence Birdseye, taxidermist and naturalist, born 1886. Sent to Newfoundland on assignment in 1912, he ate lynx, porcupine, polar bear, and skunk; more importantly, showed him how fresh fish froze almost instantly in the subzero temperatures. When thawed and reheated later, they still tasted good. In the US, frozen food was uncommon and a last resort, watery, mushy, and tasteless. Birdseye reasoned that extreme cold made all the difference, and he was right: faster freezing meant smaller ice crystals that wouldn’t rupture cell walls when thawed, which made the food lose texture and flavor.

Back in the states, Birdseye went to work developing a flash-freezing system. He started with only a fan, a bucket of brine, and some ice. Eventually he developed the “multiplate freezing machine,” in which haddock filets were pressed between refrigerated metal plates. He sold the patent for $22 million in 1929.

Birdseye freezing stuff
Birdseye freezing stuff

So focused was Birdseye on solving the technical issues of flash freezing that he hadn’t considered the issues of implementation, both in terms of infrastructure and culture. For one thing, home freezers, store freezers, and refrigerated boxcars were almost nonexistent. For another, consumers and health officials generally distrusted mass-produced and bulk-transported frozen food, given past experiences. Ultimately Birdseye probably spent more energy solving those problems than he did inventing the freezing device: he leased refrigerated boxcars, installed freezer display cases in stores, gave training seminars to grocers, and held Gotham City for ransom while threatening to freeze the entire town.

The multi-plate freezing machine made TV dinners plausible. By 1945, Maxson Foods was selling frozen Strato-Plates to airlines, but the product never “took off.” A few years later Fisher’s FridgiDinners were sold to bars, as quick prepared food for patrons. But the first company to produce a commercially popular frozen dinner was, appropriately enough, Frozen Dinners, Inc. By 1954, they’d sold more than 2.5 million frozen dinners, at which point Swanson entered the fray with a full-scale blitzkrieg marketing blitz for the first “official” TV dinners.

distressing ad copy
that is some distressing ad copy

Accepted history holds that Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas “invented” the TV dinner—he’s in the Frozen Food Hall of Fame for it (the FFHoF really exists and was really founded by the Distinguished Order of Zerocrats, presumably a millennia-old secret society descended from the founders of Atlantis and who control everything in the world, including the newspapers). Thomas claims he had the idea after pondering how to liquidate an unwanted turkey mountain after poor thanksgiving sales. But Betty Cronin, a Swanson bacteriologist, says the idea came directly from the Swanson brothers (yes, bacteriologist: she worked on getting all the elements of the dinner to finish cooking at the same time, a problem known in delightful corporate vernacular as synchronization). Who really “invented” them? It’s a gray area.

Also a gray area: why they are called TV dinners? Because the original tray vaguely resembled a 1950s TV? Because early packaging had a tv on the box (but then why did it have a tv on the box)? Because people eat them while watching TV, and that sounds better than “wearing a soiled tank top and tighty whiteys dinner?” And why exactly do the ads describe it as “Swanson TV brand dinner,” because what exactly is “TV brand?” Mysteriously, the TV tray came out a full two years after the TV dinner; the inventor of the TV tray is unknown. In any case, the packaging hasn’t said “TV Dinner” for more than 50 years.

In 1960, desserts were added. In 1967, the Hungry-Man came to fruition. In 1999, Swanson got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, presumably for contributions to things that keep people on the couch. Additional reading here, here, and here, and a treasury of old tv dinner ads here.

god that's depressing
god that’s depressing

By the way, if you’re in DC on September 30th, stop by the American Frozen Food Institute’s Frozen Food Filibuster, a “one of a kind frozen food showcase” that will also feature the National Grocers Association Best Bagger Championship.

Double by the way: other Frozen Food Hall of Famers include: Dr. H. Reid Wagstaff (erstwhile director of fruit procurement, J.M. Smucker Co.); L.B. Willoughby (inventor of refrigerated biscuit dough); Harry Hussman (founder of Hussmann Patented Refrigerated Meat Display cases); Marvin Schwan (founder of Schwan’s).

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3. National Gummi Worm Day is July 15. Though I’ve eaten—possibly literally—tons of gummi bears, I didn’t know that Haribo actually invented gummi candies in 1922. Well, it was the company’s founder, Hans Riegel; the company name is a semi-acronym for HAns RIegel, BOnn. Gummi worms, in contrast, date only to 1981. Does anyone remember that old gummi bears cartoon? The theme song has been stuck in my head for 4 days.

Important candy pedant tip: don’t confuse gummis (made with gelatin/protein) and jellies (usually made with corn starch/carbs). Swedish fish and Sunkist gems are jellys, bears and worms are gummies. Also, I will pitch in $20 to anyone willing to try the 7-foot gummy python, so long as they record photographic evidence of consuming it. Not offering the same deal to anyone who tries salted herring swedish fish though.

I'd offer the same deal on the life-size gummy brain, but they don't make it anymore.
I’d offer the same deal on the life-size gummy brain, but they don’t make it anymore.

4. If you go about 150 miles west of New Orleans, you’ll run into Avery Island (or Petit Anse, in the original french). Which isn’t really an island in the prototypical sense, in that it’s surrounded by swamps and bayous and channels more than a unitary body of water. Also, it’s a salt dome, so it looks like a cyst, except filled with rock salt.

Back in the early 1800s, the Avery family ran a sugar plantation on the island, evidently unaware that of the 30,000 solid feet of rock salt just below the surface. It wasn’t until 1862 that the salt was discovered by white people, and Avery Island became a critical salt supplier to the confederacy. Eventually the salt mining operation was destroyed by the Union army.

medicinal properties
medicinal properties

Before the war, Edmund McIlhenny, a northern banker, had moved south and married Mary Avery. Financially devastated by the war, he and the family returned to the island and found that some peppers he’d planted were still growing—the fields had been salted by the invading army, so not much else was growing. McIlhenny tinkered with a hot sauce made from those peppers, and in 1870 he patented Tabasco sauce (note: January 22 is national hot sauce day). That’s the official story, but the concoction owes a debt of gratitude to one Maunsel White, an Irish orphan who began selling “Concentrated Extract of Tobasco Sauce” in the south in 1859. He’s described as “a prominent businessman in antebellum Louisiana, better known among epicures for his creation, ‘Maunsel White Peppersauce.'” Check out his detailed history here. Here’s a great 1880s newspaper description of the island:

…the chief industries at Petit Anse arise from the production and preparation of the three principal condiments which minister to the comfort of civilized man-pepper, sugar, and salt.  A feature of these hilltops is the crop of red pepper, which seems to find a most congenial soil thus near the sun.  A concentrated essence is prepared, put up, and sent to market from a small laboratory on the island…”

One of the McIlhenny sons, Edward, was a pseudo-naturalist who went on Arctic expeditions with former roundup entrant Frederick Cook. He also created a bird sanctuary on the island, saving the snowy egret from being driven to extinction by “plume hunters” who fed America’s insatiable demand for feathers in fancy hats. The sanctuary, called Bird City, still exists.

Later Edward developed botanical gardens and imported wisteria, Spanish moss, papyrus sledge, and also a millennium-old Buddhist temple from which to view those plants, which is a rather literal form of cultural appropriation. “Jungle Gardens” is still there, feel free to visit. In less successful endeavors, Edward also released nutria all over southern Louisiana, which was intended to cull other animal populations but instead created a massive and intractable feral nutria problem, as is the lot of so many well-intentional conservationists.

The peppers for Tabasco aren’t grown on the island anymore, as oil deposits are more lucrative than pepper farming. In sum, the island is only kind of an island, is made of salt, is covered in exotic plants, is buxom with egrets, and makes Tabasco sauce. And in addition to being like a real-world stately pleasure dome, it’s also a tourist hot spot.



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