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5 Beloved Ethnic Foods Invented for Americans

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Many of those beloved “ethnic foods” Americans crave so much—Mexican, Chinese, Italian—were actually invented or popularized in the good old USA.

1. General Tso’s Chicken

Photo courtesy jensteele's Flickr photostream

Who is General Tso and why is his chicken everywhere? No one seems to know. While there was a General Tso (or Zuo Zongtang) in 19th-century China, little about him suggested he was a whiz at whipping up deep-fried, sweet ‘n’ spicy chicken. Especially since, by the time it first appeared, he wouldn’t have been alive to taste it.

An influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the early half of the 20th century created a need for somewhere to grab some Chinese cuisine. Ordinary Americans, however, didn’t cotton to traditional Hunan cuisine, so one enterprising chef (one Peng Chang-kuei, according to the claims) battered and deep-fried the chicken, and then added sugar to offset the spicy element. Thus, General Tso’s Chicken was born.

2. Nachos

Photo courtesy jeffreyww's Flickr photostream

Sure, tortillas are a Mexican thing, but tortilla chips--and the practice of putting random toppings on them—that’s all-American, baby. Tortilla chips came out of the true mother of invention: needing to sell leftover scraps. The El Zarape Tortilla Factory took their misshapen and unsellable tortillas, cut them up, fried them and sold them for a dime a bag. One man’s trash is another man’s golden fried treasure.

The combination of tortilla chips and melted cheese, however, took place in a Mexican border town. As the story goes, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, maître d' of the Victory Club, was closing up the restaurant when a dozen wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan across the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, wandered in after a day of across-the-border shopping. Having little to offer, Anaya ran back to the kitchen and threw together chips, cheese and sliced jalapeno. When the delighted ladies asked the name of the dish, Anaya proclaimed, "Nacho's especiales." The dish became so popular that Anaya gave up the maître d' life to open his own Nacho restaurant. The invention of Nacho-flavored spray cheese is a story for another day.

3. Cashew Chicken

Photo courtesy Kominyetska's Flickr photostream

This Chinese restaurant staple can be traced back to the least Chinese of places: Springfield, Missouri. Chef David Leong, who emigrated from China to Missouri in 1940, struggled to turn his fellow Missourians onto traditional Chinese cuisine. Then he noticed how much the people of Missouri loved their fried chicken. Leong deep-fried chunks of chicken, tossed some oyster sauce and cashews on top and suddenly had a winner. Most places you go now offer the non deep-fried variation. Ask for “Springfield-style Cashew Chicken” and you’ll get the battered and deep-fried original.

4. Spaghetti with Meatballs and Garlic Bread

Photo courtesy Jessica Spengler

Sure, you will find spaghetti noodles in Italy. Red sauce and meatballs too—though not the comically oversized meatballs Americans are accustomed to. What you'll have a harder time finding in Italy is the combination of all three on one plate.

As for garlic bread, the closest thing Italians have to it is bruschetta. After WWII, returning soldiers came back with a hankering for the wondrous bread they enjoyed abroad. To meet the new demand, American restaurants whipped up their own version: toasted white bread with garlic and margarine.

5. Fortune Cookies

Photo courtesy Beth Kanter

The humble fortune cookie has a number of origin stories, none of them beginning in China. Some say it was invented in Los Angeles by baker David Jung back in 1918. He handed out the cookies to homeless people, each containing an uplifting biblical passage within.

Another tale claims the prophesizing pastries came from Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara. In 1907, Mayor of San Francisco James Phelan fired Hagiwara for the offense of being Japanese. A public outcry followed and when Hagiwara was reinstated, he supposedly created little cookies with “Thank You” messages tucked inside for all the people of San Francisco.

What is known for sure is the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company began spitting out the machine-made edible oracles by the late 1960s. China didn’t get a taste of the fortune cookie until it came to the country in 1993, sold as "genuine American fortune cookies,” and thus cementing the cookie’s place in fake Chinese lore.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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May 23, 2017
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