When you think potatoes, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A side of fries? Eating them all mashed up and buttery with gravy on Thanksgiving? If you were a Frenchman during the 18th century, your answer might have been “leprosy” and “rampant, unchecked sexual urges,” since consuming potatoes was believed to lead to both of these things—probably because the starch was thought to resemble lepers' feet and testicles.
Potato cultivation was actually banned for a time until French agricultural pioneer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier began promoting the potato in the late 18th century. Parmentier gave potatoes a PR campaign boost by serving potato dishes to the likes of Benjamin Franklin (whose sexual appetite was famously always intact, potato or no potato) and hiring armed guards to protect his prized potato patch.
It’s hard to believe that the tomato, so versatile and central to European cuisine, was thought of as poisonous on the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries. The savory fruits had a reputation for killing the elites of society, and for good reason, since quite a few upper-crust folks did fall gravely ill after eating them. However it was actually their pewter plates, high in lead content and made even more potent by acidic tomato juice, that were the culprit.
So what turned the corner for the tomato? Among other things, the invention of a cheap and undeniably delicious new dish called pizza, in the 1880s, is said to have helped the so-called “poison apple” gain Beatles-like levels of popularity.
Tuna is currently the most widely eaten fish in America, but it took some crafty PR campaigning to bring the tasty, healthy saltwater fish to popularity. At the turn of the century, yellowfin and skipjack—the two darker tuna varieties most widely eaten today—were avoided by fishermen and largely thought of as “junk fish” due to America’s preference for lighter meat.
But once World War I and the Great Depression rolled around, the widely-available and efficient protein source was slapped with the label “chicken of the sea,” and Americans started eating tuna by the literal boatload. The rest is smelly, oily history.
These days, lobster pretty much serves as shorthand for “fancy food.” But as anyone who’s read David Foster Wallace’s treatise on the American delicacy, Consider the Lobster, knows, the marine crustacean was once considered unfit for human consumption and was mostly eaten by prisoners and the poor. In fact, up until the 19th century, the abundant creatures were considered a nuisance and frequently ground up as a fertilizer after washing up on the East Coast.
So how did the massive, near-insects get fancy? Part of the shift has been chalked up to the American railroad, which spread the food well beyond the Northeast, where they were most abundant. Lobster was also one of very few foods that wasn’t rationed during World War II, which made it a more regular part of the American diet. It should also be noted that dipping anything in melted butter never hurts.
With the rise of gastropub culture over the past twenty years, burgers have gone from greasy fast food fix to a gourmet American dish. But since being invented around 1900, the burger has come even further. Due to the nature of the meat industry during the early 20th century (as famously explored in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) hamburgers were widely viewed as unclean food for the poor.
In his landmark book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser touches on the rise of hamburgers in America, largely crediting White Castle—which used "white" to give the impression of cleanliness—as the chain that helped burgers become a quintessential American meal. Steak 'n Shake also positioned itself to change perceptions of ground beef, calling their burgers “steakburgers” and grinding their meat within public view to show off their untainted product.
Oatmeal: tasty for breakfast, even better in a cookie. But back before oats could be found in pantries across America, they were considered strictly animal feed in the States. It wasn’t until a German immigrant named Ferdinand Schumacher marketed his ground oats as an alternative to breakfast meat that the food started to catch on as a morning meal.
Schumacher’s Akron-based empire (which would eventually become part of Quaker Oats) expanded even further once the Civil War took hold. The federal government put in oatmeal orders quicker than Schumacher could supply them after Union soldiers gave an initial order of his product rave reviews.
Thought to have been brought to North America by African slaves, peanuts were once considered food fit for only the poorest poor and livestock. Peanuts started taking off as an American staple following the Civil War, and there’s a good chance you recognize a few of the names involved with the pro-peanut shift.
First, there’s PT Barnum, whose circus started selling “Hot Roasted Peanuts” in the late 19th century—baseball stadiums and food carts would soon follow suit. There’s also the famous African American botanist George Washington Carver, who advocated for switching from cotton crops to legumes during the early 20th century and developed some 100 recipes involving the peanut. The undeniable, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth deliciousness of peanut butter, popularized a few years later, cemented the peanut as an omnipresent American ingredient.
Garlic makes pretty much everything tastier, and pretty much everyone smellier, as well. The “smellier” part has led the pungent vegetable to be viewed as uncouth in England for centuries, and stigmatized in the United States until surprisingly recently.
Because of its odor, the English have long viewed garlic as a vulgar food and considered its smell unacceptable, especially on the breath of young, courting couples, and have only gotten on board with the ingredient over the last few decades. For many years, the United States borrowed the anti-garlic attitude of its mother country, and it wasn’t until Polish, German and Italian immigrants settled in massive numbers that public perceptions started to shift in favor of the once forbidden vegetable.
9. Portobello Mushrooms
The story of the portobello mushroom is yet another reminder you should never underestimate the power of great PR campaign. Until the 1980s, the large, meaty mushroom—which is really just the common agaricus bisporus (aka crimini) mushroom, left to grow and mature—was considered an unsightly waste product to be tossed in the trash.
It wasn’t until the 1980s rolled around and when raw, dark and whole foods started to come into fashion that these earthy shrooms were tagged with the schnazzy Italian-sounding name “portobello” and marketed as a healthy meat replacement to be stuffed with cheese, veggies, and bread crumbs, or marinated and covered with cheese steak-style.
10. Chicken Wings
It’s hard to think of any food Americans eat more voraciously in the 21st century than the almighty wing, particularly come football season. While wings have been enjoyed in various regions both in America and around the world (hey, if it’s edible, people have found a way to eat it), they were largely thrown away as scraps, used for broth, or generally considered far less valuable than the leg and the breast in much of the country prior to the 1960s.
So what happened in the 1960s? Someone in Buffalo, New York deep fried and threw some hot sauce on the suckers, and people pretty much lost their minds. The regional delicacy gradually swept the nation, to the point that we now consume 1.25 billion wings on Super Bowl weekend, an amount that the National Chicken Council Reports that would circle the earth twice if laid end-to-end.
All images courtesy of iStock.