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The Birthplaces of 10 Great American Foods

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We've compiled a list of all the foods you love, and all the places you need to thank for them.

1. THE HAMBURGER

Location: Louis' Lunch, New Haven, Connecticut

There are competing claims for the coveted "Inventor of the Hamburger" title, but according to Louis' Lunch (and the Library of Congress, for that matter), this small New Haven restaurant takes the prize. The story goes something like this: One day in 1900, a rushed businessman asked owner Louis Lassen for something quick that he could eat on the run. Lassen cooked up a beef patty, put it between some bread, and sent the man on his way. Pretty modest beginnings for arguably the most popular sandwich of all-time, huh? If you visit Louis' today, you'll find that not much has changed. The Lassen family still owns and operates the restaurant, the burgers are still cooked in ancient gas stoves, and, just like then, there is absolutely no ketchup allowed.

2. THE FRIED TWINKIE

Location: The ChipShop, Brooklyn, New York

Iris, Flickr // CC BY ND-2.0

Sometimes what counts isn't being the inventor, it's being the innovator. Take the fried Twinkie, for example. The Twinkie—in all its indestructible glory—has been around for ages, but when ChipShop owner Christopher Sell had the brilliant idea to freeze the snack, dip it in batter, and deep-fry it, the Twinkie took gluttony to new heights. Even The New York Times raved about how "something magical" happens when you taste the deep-fried Twinkie's "luscious vanilla flavor." Sell, who was trained in classical French cuisine, didn't start with the Twinkie, though. In his native England, he fried up everything from M&M's to Mars bars.

3. ROOT BEER FLOAT

Location: Myers Avenue Red Soda Co., Cripple Creek, Colorado

If you thought what happened up on Cripple Creek only happened in song, you're sorely mistaken. In August of 1893, a failed gold-miner-turned-soda-company-owner named Frank J. Wisner was drinking a bottle of his Myers Avenue Red root beer while looking up at Cow Mountain. Just then, a full moon illuminated the snowcap on the otherwise black mountain, and Wisner had a brilliant idea—float a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass of his root beer. The new drink was christened the "black cow" and became an instant classic. Today, of course, most of us call it a root beer float.

4. CORN DOGS

Location: Cozy Dog Drive In, Springfield, Illinois

In 1946, Ed Waldmire, Jr. revolutionized the stick-meat world when he debuted the Cozy Dog—the first corn dog on a stick. At first, he wanted to call his creation the "Crusty Cur," but his wife convinced him to change the name to "Cozy Dog." She felt people wouldn't want to eat something described as "crusty." Good call, Mrs. Waldmire. Shortly after the Cozy Dog's inception, the Cozy Dog Drive In opened alongside old Route 66 and has been serving up corn dogs ever since.

5. THE PIZZERIA

Location: Lombardi's, New York City

Pizza has existed in one form or another for a long time, but America got her first true pizzeria when Gennaro Lombardi opened up a small grocery store in NYC's Little Italy. An employee named Anthony "Totonno" Pero started selling pizzas out of the back, and in no time, Lombardi's was concentrating on its burgeoning pizza business instead of plain old groceries. In 1905, the establishment was licensed as a pizzeria, and it's stayed that way ever since. Well, almost. The original restaurant closed in 1984 but reopened down the street 10 years later. On its 100th anniversary in 2005, Lombardi's decided to offer its pizza for the same price it'd been sold for in 1905—5 cents a pie. Needless to say, the line wrapped around the block.

6. THE FAT DARRELL

Location: R.U. Hungry, New Brunswick, N.J.

You may not know what the Fat Darrell is, but when you hear what it contains, you'll understand why it's truly a work of inspired genius. Since 1979, Rutgers University has played host to a collection of mobile food vans collectively known as the "Grease Trucks." Originally, they served a sandwich called the Fat Cat, which contained two cheeseburger patties, French fries, lettuce, tomato, and onions. Then one night in 1997, a hungry (and broke) student named Darrell W. Butler convinced one of the vendors to put chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries, and marinara sauce on a sandwich. Strangely, the concoction sounded so appetizing that the next 10 people in line ordered it, and the Fat Darrell became a mainstay at the Grease Trucks. Hey, not any old sandwich gets to be named Maxim's top "Meat Hog" sandwich.

7. PHILLY CHEESESTEAK

Location: Pat's King Of Steaks, Philadelphia

Philadelphia is known for many things (Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and Rocky, for starters), but fine dining is not really its forte. That's OK, though, because Philly is the home of Pat's King of Steaks, and Pat's King of Steaks is where the Philly cheesesteak was born. One day back in 1932, hot dog stand owners Pasquale (Pat) and Harry Olivieri decided to change things up and make a steak sandwich with onions. A cab driver who ate at Pat's daily insisted on trying the new sandwich, and with the first bite declared, "Hey, forget 'bout those hot dogs, you should sell these!" Cab drivers know fast food about as well as anyone, so the brothers did just what the cabbie suggested. In no time, the modest stand turned into the Pat's that exists today. Controversy remains, however, over who's responsible for putting the cheese in cheesesteak. Pat's claims it was the first to do so (in 1951), but across-the-street rival Joe Vento of Geno's Steaks (opened 1966) insists he added the finishing touches.

8. COBB SALAD

Location: Brown Derby, Los Angeles

Let's face it—most salads are wimpy little affairs meant for nothing more than occupying your mouth while you wait for the main course. Not the mighty Cobb, though. With lettuce, eggs, bacon, chicken, avocado, tomatoes, chives, watercress, Roquefort cheese, and a special dressing, the Cobb salad is not your traditional salad (or a healthy one, either). The man responsible for the concoction is Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. Late one night in 1937, Cobb and his friend, Sid Grauman (owner of the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre), were rooting around in the Derby kitchen looking for a snack. Cobb essentially grabbed whatever was left in the fridge, chopped it all up, and prepared a salad. Grauman came by the next day and ordered himself a "Cobb salad." Word spread quickly (this was Hollywood, after all), and soon it became the landmark restaurant's signature dish.

9. ONION RINGS

Location: Pig Stand, Dallas, Texas

According to most sources, the onion ring was invented when a careless cook at a Pig Stand location in Dallas accidentally dropped an onion slice in some batter, then pulled it out and tossed it in the fryer for lack of a better destination. Now, you'd think inventing the onion ring would be enough for one restaurant chain, but not Pig Stand. The company also lays claim to opening America's first drive-in, inventing Texas toast, and being one of the first restaurants to advertise using neon signs. Not bad for a little outfit from Texas.

10. DERBY PIE

Location: Melrose Inn, Prospect, Kentucky

A Kentucky favorite, derby pie is a chocolate and walnut tart with a pastry-dough crust—and that's about all we know about it. Why? Because the recipe is jealously guarded by the Kern family. Melrose Inn manager George Kern created derby pie in the mid-1950s with help from his parents, Walter and Leaudra, and the dessert was such a hit that the family was soon baking the treat full-time. In fact, Mrs. Kern, being the crafty monopolist she was, copyrighted the name, and to this day, you can only get real "Derby-Pie®" through Kern's Kitchen, Inc. Not only that, but a man from New England once handed Leaudra a blank check for the recipe so that his daughter could make the pie at home. She refused.

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in mental_floss magazine in 2008.

All photos by iStock unless otherwise noted.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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