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. Unfettered by national borders, trade embargoes, and weapons treaties, August 16 is WORLD bratwurst day. There’s also a national crown roast of pork day, a tater tot day, a pigs in a blanket day, and even a 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 in bare feet and wearing an overturned pot on his head, spraying his indiscriminate seed because he loved nature, and apples. In reality, Appleseed (real name: John Chapman) was a strange amalgamation of canny land baron and maybe not-so-bright primitive Christian (in the words of one preacher, “traveling to heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiments.” Actually, he was a Swedenborgian; more on Swedenborg himself in a future roundup).
So he did traipse around barefoot and he did plant apple trees all over the place but he didn’t wear a tin pot hat and he wasn’t just planting trees for the public good out of some proto-Sierra Club affinity for nature. “Pioneers” could claim land by establishing a permanent homestead, and one way to demonstrate such was to plant 50 apple trees. Chapman didn’t just sow seeds as he wandered shoeless through the countryside: he planted trees, tended to them, put up a fence, entrusted their care to a neighbor before leaving, then, usually, sold them—making the truth of Johnny perhaps an even more American folk tale than the standard mythology. Also, he wasn’t planting apples to eat, but tart apples for hard cider (June 5 is national moonshine day). Surprising, perhaps, given that his ascetic religious beliefs probably forbade alcohol, but then the almighty dollar is the one true god.
His substantial land holdings were greatly diminished during the financial panic of 1837, and when he died in 1845 his estate was down to 1200 acres. His obituary claimed “the deceased was well known through the region by his eccentricity.” 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, eventually crafting the Golden Russet and Esopus Spitzenburg (great for pies!) scrapple cultivars. National Scrapple Day is November 9.
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 the Inuit showed him how to ice fish, and that the fish froze almost instantly in the subzero temperatures. Frozen food in the US at the time existed, but it was the food of last resort: inevitably watery, mushy, and tasteless. The ice-fished and flash-frozen trout, in contrast, still tasted fresh when thawed. 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, which eventually led to the “multiplate freezing machine,” in which haddock filets were pressed between refrigerated metal plates. Birdseye sold the patent in 1929 for $22 million, or approximately eleventy corbillion dollars adjusted for inflation.
So focused was he on solving the technical problem that he at first didn’t consider the twin issues of infrastructure and culture. Freezers (whether home or store) and refrigerated boxcars were almost nonexistent, and consumers and health officials were inclined to distrust mass-produced and bulk-transported frozen food. And so Birdseye probably spent more energy solving those problems than 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 (an evil plan scotched by the Caped Crusader).
All of this gets us to a world where TV dinners were plausible, but not yet realized. By 1945, Maxson Foods was selling frozen “Strato-Plates” to airlines. The product didn’t “take off” (haha) and a few years later Fisher’s FridgiDinners were peddled to bars. In 1949 Frozen Dinners, Inc. rolled in, and by 1954 they’d sold more than 2.5 million frozen dinners. 1954 is when Swanson entered the fray with a full-scale shock-and-awe marketing blitz for the first “official” TV dinners.
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 as a means to liquidate an unwanted turkey mountain after Swanson’s poor thanksgiving sales. But Betty Cronin, a Swanson bacteriologist at the time, argues that 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 “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 only 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.
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).
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 (incidentally does anyone remember that old gummi bears cartoon? The theme song has been stuck in my head for 4 days).
Don’t confuse gummis (made with gelatin/protein) and jelly candies (usually made with corn starch/carbs). Swedish fish and Sunkist gems are jellys, bears and worms are gummies. I am a candy pedant. 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.
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. The second thing is that it’s a salt dome, so from the top it looks like a cyst except it’s filled with rock salt instead of pus.
Back in the early 1800s, the Avery family ran a sugar plantation on the island, apparently unaware of the whole “if you go a few feet below the surface, there’s like 30,000 solid feet of rock salt” thing (the Native Americans from whom they’d appropriated the land knew all about it). It wasn’t until 1862 that salt was discovered, and Avery Island soon became the crucial salt supplier to the confederacy, until the salt mining operation was destroyed by the Union army.
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 (not much else was, after being salted by the invading forces). He tinkered with a hot sauce made from those peppers and the local salt. 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 were feeding America’s insatiable demand for feathers in fancy hats); that sanctuary, called Bird City, still exists.
Later he developed a botanical gardens, importing wisteria, Spanish moss, papyrus sledge, and a millenium-old Buddhist temple from which to view these plants (a quite literal 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.