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The Origin Stories of 25 of Your Favorite Fast Food Chains

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Curious how your favorite fast food joint became a mainstay at food courts, strip malls, and truck stops around the country? Read on to learn the origin stories of 25 famous chain restaurants.

1. TACO BELL

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Before he launched a Tex-Mex empire, Taco Bell founder Glen Bell ran a group of hamburger and hot dog stands in the San Bernardino, California area. Bell, himself, liked Mexican food, and had noticed the success of a neighboring diner called Mitla Cafe, which sold tacos made with hard fried shells. Wrapping and frying an individual taco was a lengthy process, so Bell asked a chicken coop maker to create him a frying gadget. To expedite service, he began selling his own version of the street food made with preformed fried shells.

Customers liked Bell's tacos so much that in 1954 he and a partner founded a Mexican-style restaurant called Taco Tia. The partner didn't want to expand beyond three restaurants, so Bell found himself new partners and opened yet another short-lived taco business, El Taco, before finally going solo.

Bell used a $4000 investment to open the very first Taco Bell in Downey, California, in 1962. PepsiCo eventually purchased the burgeoning chain in 1965 for around $125 million.

2. WHITE CASTLE

The front exterior of a White Castle restaurant

One of the the nation's very first (if not the first) fast food chains was White Castle, the restaurant whose sliders were immortalized by a very hungry Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) in the 2004 film Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Not only did the chain inspire an infamous stoner flick, it may have also paved the way for the entire fast food industry's existence, along with the standard hamburger patty we know and love today.

In either 1915 or 1916, fry cook Walter Anderson in Wichita, Kansas, invented the first flat ground-beef patty. (This reportedly occurred during a moment of frustration, during which Anderson used a spatula to smash a meatball stuck to the griddle). Shortly after that, Anderson used an $80 loan to found a hamburger stand, and his business quickly expanded to include several locations.

W.E. "Billy" Ingram—a local real estate broker who'd go on to become CEO—invested in Anderson's scheme, and in 1921, the two launched a chain that sold sacks of 5-cent burgers. They named the business White Castle so their food would become synonymous with images of cleanliness and order.

3. BOJANGLES

The front exterior of a Bojangles restaurant

By the time Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas founded the first Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits in 1977, the two were already established figures in the fast food industry. Thomas was Kentucky Fried Chicken's former president of operations and had once been in charge of 600 stores. As for Fulk, he'd owned a Hardee's franchise in North Carolina, where he became skilled at making biscuits and putting his own spin on the corporate recipe.

Fulk's recipe tinkering got him in trouble with Hardee's, but ultimately paved the way for Bojangles' success: When he, along with Thomas, opened up the flagship Bojangles in Charlotte, North Carolina, sales jumped 60 percent once they added Fulk's signature baked goods to the menu. Today, Bojangles locations can be found in 11 mostly Southern states, in addition to Washington, D.C.

4. QUIZNOS

The exterior of a Quiznos restaurant

Before restaurateur Jimmy Lambatos sold toasted sandwiches, he cooked steaks as executive chef at the now-closed Colorado Mine Co. steakhouse in Glendale, Colorado. In 1978, Lambatos left to start his own venture, an Italian restaurant called Footers, and three years later he and partner Todd Disner opened the first Quiznos in Denver. According to Lambatos, the eatery's toasted subs were a throwback to the oven-baked sandwiches he ate as a kid in New York.

By the 1980s, there were 18 Quiznos locations, but Lambatos and Disner would eventually sell their business to father-and-son franchisees Dick and Rick Schaden. Lambatos would later appear in Quiznos commercials and serve as company spokesman.

5. SBARRO

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Long before it became a food court staple, Sbarro was a bona fide Italian grocery, or "salumeria," in Brooklyn, run by founders Gennaro and Carmela "Mama" Sbarro. The immigrants from Naples founded the flagship store in 1956, but it initially only sold Italian meats and cheeses.

To feed hungry shift workers, pizza was eventually added to the business’s deli menu. But when the Sbarros launched a second store in a local shopping mall, they realized that people wanted to eat Italian food on-site. Sensing a business opportunity, the Sbarro family developed a cafeteria-style adaptation of their grocery. The first Sbarro franchise opened in the late 1970s, and new locations eventually popped up in malls, airports, movie theaters, hospitals, food courts, and universities around the country.

Gennaro Sbarro died in 1984, and in 2004 Carmela Sbarro had a stroke, which prompted her family to eventually close their original Brooklyn store. The Sbarro family sold its share in the company in the late 2000s, but their legacy—and Mama Sbarro's vision—lives on.

6. WAFFLE HOUSE

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In the mid 1950s, Joe Rogers, a regional manager for now-defunct national restaurant chain the Toddle House, and Tom Forkner, who worked in real estate, decided their small Atlanta suburb needed a 24-hour diner. The two neighbors opened up the very first Waffle House in Avondale Estates, Georgia, in 1955, and by 1961 the fledgling chain had grown to include four to five restaurants.

Both Rogers and Forkner left their jobs to devote their full attention to the expanding enterprise, which they named Waffle House, as waffles were their main money-maker. The two retired as managers in the 1970s, after which Rogers's son was named president and CEO.

7. WENDY'S

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Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas had dreamed of owning a restaurant since he was a kid, eating meals with his adopted father at five-and-dime stores. After earning valuable experience as a regional director for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Thomas opened the first Wendy's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969, after noting that the city’s downtown area lacked a good hamburger joint.

Thomas named his burger restaurant after his young daughter, Melinda, who was nicknamed "Wendy" since she couldn’t pronounce the "L" in her name. Wendy's signature pigtailed girl is modeled after her likeness.

Thomas, however, is perhaps just as recognizable as his daughter, as he’d go on to star in more than 800 Wendy's TV commercials, even after stepping down from the company in 1982.

8. P.F. CHANG'S

The front exterior of a P.F. Chang's restaurant

P.F. Chang's was founded by Philip Chiang, the son of notable Chinese restaurateur Cecilia Chang (she's been called "the Julia Child of Chinese cooking") and his business partner Paul Fleming. As a young man, Chiang, who studied art, couldn't find a job. So he followed in his mother's culinary footsteps and worked at her restaurant, The Mandarin, before opening up his own casual Chinese joint called Mandarette. It was there that he met Fleming, a customer who happened to own the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse franchise in California.

The two became friends, and when Fleming moved to Arizona for work, he told Chiang that there weren't any good Chinese restaurants in the state. He recruited Chiang to help him found one, and in 1993 the two launched the very first P.F. Chang's (a combination of Fleming's initials and an Anglicized form of Chiang's last name) in a shopping mall in Scottsdale, Arizona.

9. CHIPOTLE

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Chipotle's founder, Steve Ells, is a bona fide chef. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1990 before working as a sous chef at Stars, a now-closed San Francisco hotspot. Stars put a premium on fresh ingredients and came equipped with an open, immaculate kitchen. Ells borrowed these details to launch his own Mission-style burrito joint in Denver, as the Bay Area staple was growing in popularity.

Founded in 1993, Chipotle was originally intended to be a precursor to Ells opening up his own fine dining restaurant. But business was so good, he kept at it and ended up building the foundations for the chain we recognize today.

10. IN-N-OUT

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Founded in 1948, In-N-Out was California's very first drive-thru hamburger stand. It was the brainchild of newlyweds Esther and Harry Snyder, who worked in tandem to run the business. To speed up operations, Harry Snyder reportedly installed the very first two-way speaker system for drive-thru ordering, thus eliminating the need for carhops.

11. SONIC

The front exterior of a Sonic restaurant

Sonic, America's largest chain of drive-ins, started as a single root beer stand in Shawnee, Oklahoma, called Top Hat. Founder Troy Smith was a young military vet who made a foray into the restaurant business after leaving the Army Air Forces and working for a brief period as a milk truck driver.

Top Hat, which Smith opened in 1953, was by far the most successful of his multiple establishments, so the entrepreneur closed his other eateries and doubled down on its growth. The secret to the stand's success may have been its car-to-kitchen intercom, a technology Smith borrowed from a fast-food joint he encountered on the Texas-Louisiana border. By 1959, Smith had renamed his stand Sonic and coined the slogan "Service with the Speed of Sound."

12. JACK IN THE BOX

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In 1951, Robert O. Peterson opened the first Jack in the Box restaurant in San Diego, California, on the main highway leading into the city. Around a decade prior, he'd founded a local fast food chain called Oscar's (previously called Topsy's Drive-In), with circus-themed decorations. But when Peterson learned about two-way intercom technology, he purchased the rights from another restaurateur, mounted the intercom inside a plastic clown, and converted an already-existing Oscar's location into a new establishment that allowed customers to place their order before picking up their food at the window. This expedited the entire drive-thru process.

13. POPEYES

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Chicken on the Run, the original precursor to Popeyes, was opened in Arabi, Louisiana, in 1972. It was intended to compete with Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had recently migrated south. However, founder Al Copeland quickly realized he needed to make his new brand spicier—both literally and figuratively—to cater to local customers' tastes.

Copeland stopped selling traditional Southern-fried chicken in favor of spicy New Orleans-style chicken. He also re-named the chain "Popeyes" after Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the detective from the 1971 movie The French Connection. The first official Popeyes franchise opened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1976, and by the mid 1980s, the chain had a location in Canada and had expanded to include 500 U.S. restaurants.

14. TIM HORTONS

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Jim Charade, a Canadian snack-food salesman, had always dreamed of founding his own doughnut chain. He finally got his chance after meeting Canadian pro hockey star Tim Horton by chance in a local barbershop. The two later did business together when Charade purchased a car from Horton, who moonlighted as a vehicle salesman. Hoping he'd found a willing partner (and a celebrity name) to get his idea off the ground, Charade pitched his business scheme to Horton. The only problem? Horton was more interested in selling hamburgers.

The duo opened two hamburger restaurants in Ontario, but business wasn't great. Horton finally agreed to Charade's original plan, and in 1964 they established the first Tim Hortons in Hamilton, Ontario, on the site of an old gas station.

The business was a success, and the Tim Hortons brand slowly started to grow. But Charade would ultimately resign from the chain in 1966, and Horton would die in a car crash in 1974. Charade's replacement, a former Dairy Queen franchisee named Ron Joyce, ended up paying Horton's family $1 million for their share of the company.

15. CARL'S JR.

The front exterior of a Carl's Jr. restaurant

Before it became known for its signature charbroil burgers, Carl's Jr. was a hot dog stand in Los Angeles, founded by a truck driver named Carl Karcher in 1941. Karcher decided to go into the food business after noticed that his neighbor ran a small-scale hot dog chain. Thinking that he, too, could strike gold with sizzling sausages, Karcher and his wife, Margaret, used all their savings ($15) to make their business scheme a reality.

Karcher's hunch proved profitable: The stand was a hit, and the couple ended up opening up three more hot dog businesses in southern California. But in 1945, they launched a sit-down, full-service restaurant in Anaheim, California. Called Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, the eatery sold hamburgers in addition to hot dogs.

Carl's was also popular, so to piggy-back on its success, Karcher create two smaller, express versions of Carl's in 1956. These were called—you guessed it—Carl's Jr.

16. JIMMY JOHN'S

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Jimmy John Liautaud wasn't a great student (he ranked second to last in his high school class of 1982), so it seemed unlikely he'd be college bound. His father wanted him to enlist in the military, but Jimmy dreamed of opening his own food business. The two made a deal: Jimmy's dad would loan him $25,000 to get operations off the ground, but he'd join the Army if he didn't make a profit within the first year.

Liautaud, an Illinois native, loved Chicago street food. He originally wanted to open a hot dog stand, but the requisite equipment was expensive. Sandwiches were cheaper to make, so the teen began selling on-the-go lunches made from home-baked bread and deli meat.

The very first Jimmy John's restaurant opened in 1983, in a remodeled garage in Charleston, Illinois. Hungry college kids at the nearby Eastern Illinois University made the shop a success, and by 1985 Liautaud had bought out his father's interest in the business. Today, Jimmy John's has nearly 3000 locations.

17. KRISPY KREME

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In 1933, Krispy Kreme founder Vernon Carver Rudolph is said to have purchased both a doughnut shop and its closely guarded doughnut recipe from a French chef from New Orleans [PDF]. (Others say he likely got it from an Ohio River barge cook named Joseph G. LeBoeuf.) Rudolph and his business partner, who lived in Kentucky, moved operations to Nashville. The former's family also opened shops in Charleston, West Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia, where they sold doughnuts to local grocery stores. But Rudolph wanted to strike out on his own, so in 1937 he and a new group of associates moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where they used all their money ($25) to rent a storefront.

Rudolph convinced a local grocer to lend him ingredients, and on July 13, 1937, Krispy Kreme doughnuts was born. Rudolph initially delivered his doughnuts to stores, but customers clamored for them so much that he eventually cut a hole through his store's wall so he could peddle them directly to patrons on the street.

By the 1950s, Krispy Kreme had mechanized their doughnut production, making it easier for the company to produce mass quantities of pastries. After Rudolph's death in 1976, Krispy Kreme was purchased by Beatrice Foods Company, and was later acquired by a group of franchisees.

18. KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN

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During the Great Depression, Harland Sanders, then in his early forties, began selling food to travelers from his roadside service station in Corbin, Kentucky. He perfected a secret recipe for fried chicken that was so closely guarded that the chef didn't dare write down the recipe. (He even locked the spice mix in his car.) Eventually, the eatery became so popular that Sanders got rid of his gas pump and ran it as a regular restaurant.

By 1939, Sanders developed the perfect flavor-to-texture ratio when he used a pressure cooker—then a new device—to fry his chicken. The restaurateur's renown skyrocketed, and in 1950 the governor of Kentucky honored Sanders by giving him the title of colonel. It was around this time that Sanders started wearing his trademark white suit and Kentucky colonel tie.

In 1952, Sanders opened the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Utah, and six to eight other locations followed shortly after. But just four years later, in 1956, Sanders was forced to sell his original Corbin restaurant after a new interstate highway was built that completely bypassed the roadside joint.

Needing money, the Colonel traveled around the country and pushed his product on countless restaurant workers. His tireless franchising efforts helped make KFC an international success, and in the mid 1960s Sanders sold his interest in the company for $2 million.

19. DAIRY QUEEN

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Dairy Queen founder Sherb Noble was born and raised in cow country, so it makes sense that he always wanted to work in the dairy business. After graduating from a two-year program at Iowa State, Noble ran a creamery for a short period before moving to Kankakee, Illinois. There, he wound up running three ice cream parlors named Sherb's.

In 1938, Noble's ice cream providers told him about a new innovation called "soft serve," and Noble suggested marketing the newfangled treat by running a 10-cent all-you-can-eat sale at his store. The promotion ended up being such a success that Noble was actually afraid that the dense crowd of customers would accidently break the storefront's glass.

Noble opened the first Dairy Queen in Joliet, Illinois, in 1940. It was followed by a second store in Aurora, but when World War II rolled around Noble put his growing business on the back burner to fight for his country. When Noble returned home, he continued opening more shops until it gradually grew into the ice cream destination we know and love today.

20. CHICK-FIL-A

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Chick-fil-A's chicken sandwich wasn't always its signature item. In 1946, southerners Samuel Truett Cathy and his brother Ben opened a small restaurant called the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia. Poultry was added to the menu when another Georgia business, Goode Brothers Poultry company, was tasked with providing a batch of boneless, skinless chicken breasts for airline meals. The breasts didn't end up meeting airline requirements, so the owners, Jim and Hall Goode, asked Cathy to take the product off their hands. Cathy agreed, and ended up using the re-purposed meat to make a delicious sandwich that to this day is made from a closely guarded secret recipe.

Cathy shortened the term "chicken fillet" to "chick fillet," which led to him coining the name "Chick-fil-A." (The "A" was capitalized to indicate quality.) The first mall Chick-fil-A opened in Atlanta in 1967.

21. PIZZA HUT

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Pizza Hut founders Dan and Frank Carney were successful entrepreneurs before they even graduated from college. In 1958, the two brothers—then students at Wichita State— borrowed $600 from their mom and launched their own pizza restaurant for students, at the urging of a local landlord who had an unrented building. The building itself looked like a hut, and the sign only had room for 9 letters, which is how the name "Pizza Hut" came to be.

The venture was successful (College kids love pizza? Who knew!), and the Carney siblings opened up their very first franchise in Topeka, Kansas, the following year. This was followed by a second location in Manhattan, Kansas, which pioneered the business’s now-famous delivery service. (Deliveries were made on a three-wheeled scooter.) The Carneys solidified Pizza Hut’s brand—including its trademark red roofs and hut shapes—by 1965, and sold their interest in the company in 1977.

22. SUBWAY

The front exterior of a mall's Subway restaurant
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In 1965, an aspiring doctor named Fred DeLuca opened a submarine sandwich shop to help pay for medical school. His friend, Peter Buck, loaned him $1000 and offered to become his partner. The first-ever Subway location was in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and by 1974 the two owned 16 sub shops across Connecticut. Aiming to expand their business even further, DeLuca and Buck began franchising Subway, which led to it becoming the world's largest submarine sandwich chain.

23. DUNKIN' DONUTS

The front exterior of a Dunkin' Donuts restaurant
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Dunkin' Donuts founder William Rosenberg originally owned a business that catered lunch for industrial workers. He soon noticed that coffee and doughnuts made up 40 percent of his revenue, and in 1948 he decided to open a brick-and-mortar doughnut store in Quincy, Massachusetts, called Open Kettle.

Knowing he needed a better name to boost business, Rosenberg asked his business associates to brainstorm a new one. Rosenberg's architect reportedly thought up Dunkin' Donuts, which became the company's official name in 1950.

24. BASKIN-ROBBINS

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In 1945, Irv Robbins, the son of an ice cream shop owner, opened his own sweets business in Glendale, California, after leaving the military. His brother-in-law, another veteran named Burt Baskin, was also bitten by the ice cream bug and established his own storefront in Pasadena shortly after.

Nearly a decade later, the two decided to combine their eight stores into a single enterprise. They named the franchise Baskin-Robbins in 1953, after flipping a coin to see whose name would come first.

25. PAPA JOHN'S

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After earning his business degree from Ball State University in 1983, Papa John's founder John Schnatter moved home to Jeffersonville, Indiana. There, he began managing a seedy bar, Mick's Lounge, that his father co-owned. Right away, Schnatter began making much-needed improvements to the family watering hole: He repainted and cleaned the establishment, added more pool tables and video games, and paid outstanding debts owed to creditors. Within a month, Mick's Lounge was newly profitable.

Wanting to boost business even further, Schnatter knocked down the wall of a broom closet, built a tiny kitchen, and began making pizzas. The pies did so well that Bob Ehringer—Schnatter Sr.'s business partner, who ended up purchasing Mick's Lounge in its entirety—teamed up with the younger Schnatter to acquire a storefront next door.

This new pizza business was incorporated and self-sufficient by 1986, and the following year Schnatter and Ehringer sold Mick's to focus on growing Papa John's. Thanks to a strategic plan to use pre-mixed dough, Papa John's was able to cut down on labor costs and open lots of new businesses for cheap. By the early 1990s, the company was doubling in size every year as pizza-hungry Americans clamored for their product.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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